David Lloyd George’s failure to show Ireland the same political good faith shown by more recent British prime ministers like John Major and Tony Blair contributed to the start of the Civil War, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said.
Speaking at a commemoration in Ahiohill in west Cork marking the centenary of the execution of republican leader Dick Barrett by the provisional government, Mr Ahern said the Civil War split should never have happened, but that the role of Mr Lloyd George in forcing it should not be underestimated.
Mr Ahern said trying to learn lessons from the complex events that led up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the Civil War was not easy, but it seemed to him that Mr Lloyd George, unlike Mr Major and Mr Blair, was not willing to listen to the voice of Irish nationalism or accept the need for parity of esteem.
“I do sincerely believe that our Civil War split should never have happened, and I also believe that Lloyd George played a dishonourable role in bringing it about. He was the prime minister who forced Collins and Griffiths to sign the treaty in 1921 under the threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’,” he said.
The former Fianna Fáil leader said Collins made “a commendable effort” to heal the chasm between the pro and anti-treaty factions in the spring of 1922 by bringing forward what was in effect a draft republican constitution for the Irish Free State under the auspices of the treaty.
But this initiative, which may well have prevented hostilities, was dealt a fatal blow by Mr Lloyd George, who said it provided for “a republic in disguise” and, from that point on, as a result of his intervention, conflict in Ireland over the treaty was going to be hard to avoid.
Mr Ahern said the 1922 Collins-De Valera pact was a last-ditch attempt to avoid conflict with its proposal to put forward a national coalition of candidates representing both sides of the treaty debate, which would have ensured that anti-Treatyites got cabinet seats after the election.
But Mr Lloyd George again intervened, he said, insisting that the Collins-De Valera pact violated the treaty by accommodating republicans and under this intense pressure “Collins repudiated the pact shortly before the election, leaving republicans feeling further betrayed and alienated”.
Mr Ahern pointed out that the spark that inflamed the Civil War was the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in London by two of Collins’s London IRA men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, but Mr Lloyd George and his government blamed republicans occupying the Four Courts.
“Lloyd George’s secretary of state for colonial affairs, Winston Churchill, warned Collins that if the provisional government did not end the Four Courts occupation, British forces still in Ireland would be prepared to act and this led Collins to take the tragic decision to attack the Four Courts on June 28th, 1922.”
He said that apart from Mr Lloyd George’s malevolent hand in the roots of the Civil War, the decision by the provisional government to prohibit an army convention of the IRA in January 1922 also contributed to a dangerous fissure among those who had fought against the British.
Poor communications and the failure to prepare the provincial IRA members for many unpalatable compromises that would involve the Free State’s inclusion in the British Empire under the apex of the crown also sowed the seeds of conflict among diverging armed IRA groups, he went on.
Mr Ahern said many historians believe Mr Collins’s argument that the treaty provided the freedom to achieve freedom was largely vindicated, perhaps ironically, by Mr De Valera when on entering government in 1932 he began dismantling the treaty and introduced Bunreacht na hÉireann.
“While some revisionists take a jaundiced view that those who opposed the treaty were unreconstructed militants or poor democrats, I think it should be acknowledged there were deep felt, sincere and very valid reasons to oppose a treaty that made Irish sovereignty subservient to British authority,” he said.
“The great tragedy of the treaty split was that these deeply held political differences could not be contained within the political arena and that armed conflict ensued,” added Mr Ahern, who described the near 11-month Civil War as “the greatest tragedy of 20th century Ireland”.
If there was one lesson to learn from the Civil War, Mr Ahern said, it was that “armed conflict should never again be allowed to raise its head in Ireland and the only way to resolve political differences is through the power of persuasion, the force of democratic argument and the rule of law”.
Mr Ahern said that while Mr Barrett opposed the treaty, he regretted the Civil War and hoped the hostilities could be quickly ended. However, he was executed on December 8th, 1922 without a trial as an official state-sanctioned reprisal for the shooting dead of his close friend, pro-treaty TD Seán Hales.
“Barrett had absolutely nothing to do with Hales’s assassination and, with a strong respect for representative government, he had, in fact, strongly disavowed the republican policy of targeting Dáil deputies,” said Mr Ahern, whose parents were both involved in the fight for freedom in west Cork.
He said that perhaps the most profound comment on the extrajudicial killing of Mr Barrett and his anti-treaty comrades Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Rory O’Connor came in a letter sent to the Cork Examiner by the Hales family just a week after the executions.
“We are of the opinion that reprisals on either side will only increase the bitterness and delay the reconciliation that all patriotic Irishmen long and pray for,” they wrote.
Mr Ahern told a crowd of about 400 who gathered at the Barrett family plot in Ahiohill, where Mr Barrett was reinterred in November 1924: “This was a theme that Dick Barrett himself had touched upon in his final letter from his prison cell an hour before facing the firing squad. Writing to his ‘fellow prisoners’, Barrett urged ‘do not bear ill will or dream of reprisals’. Unfortunately for too long that call went unheeded.
“Reprisals, atrocities, and departures from the rule of law on both sides, during the Civil War, poisoned an important part of national life for generations and is something we do not want to re-live.”