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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

XII – Middle-class Capitulation

The common purpose uniting a revolutionary middle class with urban and rural working classes in a struggle for national liberation, resting as it did on the fragile base of “appeals which asked no basic questions” of a social character, was completely disrupted by the tensions set in motion by the signing of the Treaty and Griffith’s ready acceptance of the compromises embodied in it.

Only a few among the plenipotentiaries who negotiated the terms of the Treaty with British representatives in London were aware of the full gravity of their decision to yield to English pressure. Childers and Barton fully expected to be arrested on their return to Dublin. Michael Collins confided to a friend that he had signed his own death warrant.

Supremely skilled conspirator that he was, he contrived to interrupt the negotiations for long enough to allow him to consult with IRB leaders in Ireland77 before returning to London to put his signature to the Treaty document. This was almost certainly a pre-emptive move to secure the IRB’s agreement on what he knew to be a dangerously divisive compromise.78

The Treaty, and the de facto alliance with Britain that it imposed on the provisional government which was to take over from the Dail government after a turbulent and profoundly bitter debate, tore Sinn Fein and the independence movement asunder and precipitated a civil war.

And yet the differences that separated the leaders of the opposing factions, with a few, rare exceptions, were in reality considerably less than those that divided the rank and file of the Treaty and the anti-Treaty camps. The debate between pro-Treaty Arthur Griffith and anti-Treaty Eamon de Valera rested on rather formal distinctions. Both agreed on the question of the fiscal autonomy of the new state, which was a matter of decisive importance in the contest to win the support of the bourgeoisie. But in other respects, their two positions were, in the words of George Gilmore, a mere “wrangle over symbols of subjection – Treaty versus Document Number 2”, as de Valera’s compromise policy document came to be referred to.

To the masses of the working people, however, the debate hinged on whether or not the Treaty compromised the struggle for the republic and its promise of social change, and many were deeply convinced that the Treaty was, in fact, a betrayal. During the Treaty debate in the Dail, Constance Markiewicz accused English imperialism of trying to work “by a change of names. It is capitalist interests in England and Ireland that are pushing this Treaty to block the march of the working people in England and Ireland”.79

But when the Dail voted, it decided by a very narrow margin in favour of the Treaty. There is no doubt that Collins’ meetings with the IRB were decisive in reaching this result. The decision evoked undisguised pleasure in the British parliament, but sowed only deep perplexity and confusion in the ranks of the IRA.

Next Section: XIII – The Push to Civil War
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  1. The IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) was the Fenian-inspired secret conspiratorial organisation to which most of the Irish middle-class revolutionaries belonged.
  2. O’Donnell, Peadar. Not Yet Emmett.
  3. Markievicz, Constance (1922) Debate on the Treaty. P.185. Dublin, Stationery Office.

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