From Irish Political Review: January 2006

Northern Nationalists In The Dáil: Under-Represented, Mis-Represented, Un-Represented

Part Two: Collins & Partition

The Treaty was signed in London on 6th. December 1921. One day later a deputation of Northern Nationalists, representing both Sinn Féin and Joe Devlin's surviving remnant of Redmond's United Irish League (aka Home Rule Party, aka Irish Parliamentary Party, aka Anti-Partition League, aka Nationalist Party), arrived in Dublin with a request for advice.

In the first instance they met Eoin MacNeill, one of Sinn Féin's Northern refugees who had a second Dáil seat North of what was fast becoming the border.

MacNeill was considered by the powers that be in the Dáil to be an expert on the North, partly because he had been born there, mainly because he had had the good sense subsequently to make his home in the South. He was chairman of the Dáil's Ulster Committee which had supposedly been set up to develop arguments against partition for use in the Treaty negotiations. The Secretary of the Committee was Seán Milroy, another northern refugee who also had Dáil seats on either side of the Black Pig's Dyke.

During the Dáil debate of 22nd. August 1921 (in secret session) on the Ministry's reply to the British settlement proposals, Milroy had derided J.J. Walsh's concerns about partition as getting away from the real business. This plus his having been born in the North and having had the sense to get out of it, qualified him to develop the Republican Government's policy on Partition.

The Ulster Committee was set up a day or two before the treaty negotiations began in September 1921. Cahir Healy revealed, after MacNeill later achieved the Boundary Commission fiasco, that he had proposed the delegates in London be advised on partition by a small committee of northern nationalists who actually lived and worked there. This proposal was vetoed with extreme prejudice by MacNeill and especially Milroy. (Healy in a letter to the editor of the Irish Statesman, 4.12.1926, cited by Eamon Phoenix in a note to page 150 of his Northern Nationalism.)

So, in default of giving advice on how to avoid partition, northern nationalists travelled south to get some advice on what to do about the reality of partition. And MacNeill was as ever full of it, outlining the details of what he called a 'practical programme of passive resistance': non-recognition of the northern parliament, non-recognition of the courts, non-payment of taxes, and non-acceptance by Catholic schools of Protestant money (essentially non-payment of Catholic teachers, very practical that). This was a programme that was passive to the extent of being MacNeill's personal opinion. He stressed to the deputation which was seeking advice from the leaders of the Republican Government of Ireland that he was speaking for himself alone and not in any way for the Cabinet.

The following day the delegation met the leader of Sinn Féin and the Republican Government, who also refused to speak to them in other than a personal capacity. Eamon Phoenix indicates that he went on to endorse MacNeill's personal opinion as being his personal opinion also. Enda Staunton's account of the meeting (in The Nationalists Of Northern Ireland, page 47) suggests that de Valera's endorsement of MacNeill persuaded the delegates that they had nothing to fear from the Treaty. Certainly they returned North with no official advice but a couple of private opinions from MacNeill and de Valera (the views of themselves alone) that led them to carry the nationalist north in support of the Treaty.

Now, that is really an astonishing state of affairs. Sinn Féin was the party of Dáil Éireann from which the Government of the Irish Republic was drawn. Its fundamental position most unequivocally was that a 32 County Irish Republic existed and was governed from within Dáil Éireann. Eoin MacNeill was a member of that government. Eamon de Valera was the head of it. On no other political matter than partition would MacNeill, let alone de Valera, have had private opinions. They were public representatives who were members of a revolutionary government. Everything was policy. Except the North. That was a matter of private opinion.

The idea that de Valera would have felt unable to speak for his government on a matter of land arbitration at the back of Mushera is absurd. That he could only offer his private opinion on something that went to the heart of the legitimacy of his government is… well, its just one of those things.

Everyone to the south of the Black Pig's Dyke knew that Ireland was going to be partitioned. And every one of them knew they had to pretend that it just wasn't going to happen. When it did happen everyone to the south of the Black Pig's Dyke knew that it would last. And every one of them knew they had to pretend that it just couldn't and wouldn't last.

So far as Southern nationalism was concerned the one crucial point about partition was to keep Northern nationalism in the dark about it. Which is why the Ulster Committee was headed up by Northern refugees whose relief at having escaped the place was not in the least bit tempered by any fellow feeling for those they had left behind. The refugees were party to the pretence.

(Nobody hates the North so passionately as a Northern Catholic who has managed to get out of it. What is a love/hate relationship in situ, once expatriated, very often becomes pure hatred. Seán Moylan and Seán McEntee both trooped dutifully behind de Valera and voted against permitting Northern representatives to darken the doors of Dáil Éireann. The difference between them is that Moylan wouldn't have followed de Valera in excluding Kilmallock where he was born. I have no doubt that for McEntee excluding Belfast was pure joy.)

Sinn Féin was determined to avoid the fate of John Redmond whose party was destroyed by himself and Joe Devlin in 1916 on the issue of partition. Partition was an issue that Redmond, whose United Irish League was an all-Ireland party in a way that Sinn Féin never was, simply could not avoid the rows and controversies of. Sinn Féin deliberately kept its Northern membership at arm's length in order to keep its policy on Partition (which was a fixed determination not to have a policy on Partition and as far as possible not to think about or mention Partition) under wraps.

Joe Devlin had helped Redmond destroy the UIL in 1916 but Joe Devlin survived with a remnant of the Party intact in the North. He survived because Sinn Féin was determined not to replace him. In 1921 de Valera negotiated Joe Devlin's survival with him. He could easily have left Devlin with West Belfast and taken the rest of the North. He could easily have split the constituencies with him on the understanding that successful UIL candidates would take their seats in the Dáil. But he did neither. He split the constituencies with Devlin on a nod and a wink and the satisfaction of keeping the North at arm's length.

In the correspondence between de Valera and Collins in advance of those negotiations, which was reprinted in this magazine in September 2004, Collins had preferred strengthening Sinn Féin organisation and fighting every winnable seat. Which was the last thing that de Valera wanted. A strong Sinn Féin organisation in the North would have carried with it the strong possibility of shipwreck on the reefs of Partition, which is certainly the first thing a strong Northern Sinn Féin organisation would have brought to the reluctant attention of the Sinn Féin leadership and which couldn't have been fobbed off with glib assurances as the weak Northern Sinn Féin organisation, part of an unnecessarily divided Northern nationalism, so successfully was.

As against my praise of Collins in September 2004 I now have to revert to 1066 and all that. Collins was wromantic but wrong. De Valera was, albeit repulsive, nonetheless right.

And Collins, in the wake of his and Eoin O'Duffy's Border War of 1922, came to a position that was if anything even more repulsive and no more right than de Valera's.

(Bearing in mind always, as we all do, that right and wrong are mere figures of speech in the context of bourgeois politics and are employed here only to give a feel for the milieu. The real point is the narrative which if unengaged is just unengaging. And wromantic and repulsive are entirely objective categories of thought which no materialist need ever apologise for.)

The Border War ended, with the bulk of the survivors of the Northern IRA transferred into the Free State Army, at a meeting of its leaders in the officers' mess of Portobello Barracks chaired by Collins at which Collins declared that once he had sorted out his dissidents he would tell Lloyd George where to put the Treaty. That was on the second of August 1922.

In his Michael Collins, Tim Pat Coogan quotes Thomas Kelly, Divisional Engineer of the 2nd Northern Division, on this:

"The only statement of importance now was the final summation and decision of Michael Collins. His final words remain clear and distinct in my mind to this day. He said with this civil war on my hands, I cannot give you men the help I wish to give and mean to give. I now propose to call off hostilities in the North and use the political arm against Craig so long as it is of use. If that fails the Treaty can go to hell and we will all start again" (page 383).

After Collins' death Seamus Woods wrote to Mulcahy:

"The late C-in-C outlined the policy we were to adopt—one of non-recognition of the Northern Government and positive resistance to its functioning. At the same time, from the military point of view we were to avoid as far as possible coming into direct conflict with the armed forces of the Northern Government, and any action on our part would be purely protective" (quoted ibid. page 383).

But, and the industrious Mr. Coogan does not mention any of this at all, on July 24th 1922 Collins had sent a very special agent, Great War veteran, Captain Edmund Loftus McNaghten, described by Eamon Phoenix as a leading Ulster Protestant Nationalist, from his home in England into the North.

Collins' verbal briefing of his special agent (on the 24th) was supplemented with an obviously written for the record memorandum (on the 27th):

"You will understand from my conversation what our feeling in the matter is—that we wish very heartily for a united Ireland—that there is a general desire among thinking people to deal in fair terms with our north-eastern fellow countrymen. You will recollect what I said in relation to the question of getting the maximum value from the anti-partition feeling which undoubtedly exists among certain elements in the north east which are, for the moment, not in agreement with us politically. The real need is to do something to consolidate this feeling, to bring into closer association the parties who have a common disinclination towards division of the country so as to avoid what will be to them and to us a real catastrophe" (quoted in Staunton, op cit, page 74).

While in the North McNaghten met with Devlin and his remnants, the Unionist Party's Catholic hangers on and Unionist Party bigwigs like Andrews, Dawson Bates and Craig himself. He was simply gathering local colour to add a tint of plausibility to an on the spot report of what Collins had told him he wanted to hear. And what Collins wanted to hear was the sheerest nonsense. So that's what he got from his special agent.

On August 7th., McNaghten reported that he had discovered . . .

"… amongst the prominent businessmen on both sides… a practically unanimous detestation of anything in the nature of the permanent partition of Ireland" (quoted in Phoenix, op. cit. page 248).

Collins and O'Duffy's Border War had been a disaster leading to the annihilation of the Northern IRA. It hadn't moved the Unionists one iota. Not an inch in fact. So now Collins had decided to learn that the Unionists had not needed to be moved even that inch, they all being closet nationalists anyway. All the Provisional Government had to do was stand back and give the Unionists space to access and embrace the bright anti-partitionist angels of their better natures.

Enda Staunton gives a more detailed account of McNaghten's mission and report that might make all this a little clearer.

"The upshot of his report was firstly that a 'practically unanimous detestation of partition' existed among the prominent businessmen of both sides. Little by little this discontent among the Protestant section could be utilised by the Dublin government. Festina Lente ('hasten slowly') was the recommended motto. Secondly, a unanimous desire for peace existed as well as a genuine willingness to recognise the ongoing injustices endured by the minority… Thirdly, there was an 'earnest desire' that Catholics should take their seats in the northern parliament where they would be guaranteed a warm welcome. Among the Catholic business and professional class the support for attendance was 'almost universal'. The only condition which they attached was the support of the government for the redress of their grievances.

"Fourthly, it was represented to Collins' emissary both by Catholics and Protestants that 'in order to pave the way for a United Ireland' a small representative conference of Craig, Devlin, Collins and 'one or two others interested' should meet and formulate an agreement on common matters to be approved by both parliaments. After a time the mutual association would lead to greater confidence, they felt.

"… McNaghten left believing that the nucleus of a provincial parliament 'existed in the growing pride felt in the Belfast legislature and the nucleus of an all-Ireland one in the Council of Ireland'. His final recommendation called on the southern government to utilise the feeling among political and business figures of the unionist community which tended towards Irish unity. In the case of the latter group he relied on 'stern but simple facts of economics to push them in the required direction'.

"'A third string to our bow,' he claimed, was 'our own people domiciled within the jurisdiction of the Belfast government - theirs will be an insistent voice crying in the wilderness… when the Boundary Commission had concluded its deliberations'. He went on, 'There may be a reconstruction of the policy of Catholic abstention from the Belfast parliament… with the House of Commons as a pulpit they could preach the gospel of unity and preach it more powerfully than from any other forum… Huckleberry Finn… asserts that 'some fleas is good for dogs'; some form of opposition even if it occasionally causes irritation will be good for the Belfast parliament and logically such opposition should come from the Catholics and Nationalists.' With this current of protest augmenting the other two, it would, he concluded, 'become a raging torrent which no government will be able to withstand'." (Staunton, op. cit, p. 75-77)

McNaghten reported on August 7th 1922.

On August 1st. a Cabinet sub-committee had been established to reconsider the Provisional Government's policy on the Belfast Government and the "North-East question" in general. On August 11th., another Northern expatriate (but a Protestant this time), Ernest Blythe, then acting Minister for Home Affairs, presented its interim report as a memo to the Cabinet.

The wonderful world of whimsy, which Collins had Captain McNaghten weave for him, was all there for the company to marvel at. The intellectual (intellectual here used in its subsidiary sense of fantasy wish-fulfilling) underpinnings of all this:—The Provisional Government was to cut adrift the local authorities in the North which had been persuaded to pledge allegiance to Dáil Eireann. Nationalist MPs were to be told to take their seats in the Belfast Parliament. And the IRA, such of the IRA as might have survived Collins' Summer offensive, was to disband.

On August 19th., Blythe's memo was adopted (my notes from Phoenix have it "more or less") as Provisional Government policy.

Coogan, not having mentioned the shuttle diplomacy which Collins employed the good captain to undertake on his behalf, exonerates Mick from any awareness of, let alone complicity in, the new policy:—

"The joint report, presented on 19 August, was in effect a condemnation and complete overturning of Collins' policy. The central recommendations were:

'As soon as possible all military operations on the part of our supporters in or against the North-East should be brought to an end… The line to be taken now and the one logical and defensible line is a full acceptance of the Treaty. This undoubtedly means recognition of the Northern Government and implies that we shall influence all those within the Six Counties who look to us for guidance, to acknowledge its authority and refrain from any attempt to prevent it working.'

"The policy document set out at some length both the reasons for the volte face and the steps to be taken to achieve it:

'The results of the General Election and the still more important results of the offensive against Irregulars put the Government for the first time in a position to decide freely upon its policy in regard to the North-East.

'…Nothing that we can do by way of boycott will bring the Orange party to reason… Their market is not in our territory. Our boycott would threaten the Northern ship-building industry no more than a summer shower would threaten Cave Hill… the same may be said of the linen industry… pressure must be absolutely normal and constitutional. The use and threat of arms must be ruled out of the dispute…

'The events of the past few months have done much towards fixing the Border where we cannot consent to its being fixed. It is full time to mend our hand… Payment of teachers in the Six Counties should immediately stop… We should stop all relations with local bodies in the Six Counties. Catholic members of the Northern Parliament who have no personal objection to the Oath of Allegiance should be urged to take their seats and carry on a unity programme… precautions should be taken to prevent border incidents from our side. Any offenders caught by us should definitely be handed over to the Northern authorities…

'Catholics in the North… should be urged to disarm "on receiving satisfactory assurances from the British". Prisoners in the North should be requested to give bail and recognise the courts. The outrage propaganda should be dropped in the twenty-six counties.

'Heretofore our Northern policy has been really, though not ostensibly, directed by Irregulars. In scrapping their North-Eastern policy we shall be taking the wise course of attacking them all along the line… The belligerent policy has been shown to be useless for protecting the Catholics or stopping the pogroms. There is of course the risk that the peaceful policy will not succeed. But it has a chance where the other has no chance. The unity of Ireland is of sufficient importance for us to take a chance in the hope of gaining it. The first move lies with us.'

"The Cabinet decided that 'a peace policy should be adopted in regard to future dealings with North East Ulster' and negotiations were authorised on outstanding educational matters, 'subject to… obtaining the approval of the Commander-in-Chief'. Collins was not present and may never have read the document. Notification of the 'peace policy' decision was sent to him on the 21st and he was killed the next day. The day after he was buried it was decided to circulate the memorandum 'to all Ministers'. It was adopted as Government policy both by the Provisional Government and, with minor alterations, by all administrations in Southern Ireland since" (Coogan, op. cit. pp. 384-5).

That last sentence there is nonsense. Saorstat Eireann cannot be said to have recognised Northern Ireland until the collapse of the Boundary Commission. Northern Catholic MPs were not instructed to take their seats in the Belfast Parliament. In fact in November 1922 a two day conference of northern nationalists was called by Cosgave's Government. It met in the Mansion House, was chaired by Seán Milroy, and endorsed the old abstentionist line. Even the relatively minor point that prisoners should be requested to recognise the courts and take bail was not followed through.

Now if the memorandum policy of August 1922 was really a (very courageous) condemnation and overturning of Collins led by (the not notoriously courageous) Big Ernie Blythe, we would have to expect that Collins' death would have removed the one obstacle to its successful implementation (and strongly suspect that Big Ernie had a pudgy hand in the ambush at which Mick perished). But Collins' death was the end of the substantial initiatives contained in the memorandum.

So, the policy of the memorandum was Collins' policy. Following his death his colleagues lacked the nerve to follow through with the radical elements of it. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

In December 1922 Eoin MacNeill allowed his, let's call it civilised distaste, for the friends he left behind him to break through, writing of border nationalists as "the fear-the-worst crowd (whose) one idea is 'we are going to be betrayed' by everybody" (quoted in Phoenix, op.cit). But then they were betrayed by everybody. Within three years the cock crowed thrice for MacNeill himself.

On 20th.October 1924 one of the fear-the-worsters, Cahir Healy MP, not long off the Argenta [internment ship, ed.], wrote in the Irish News a diatribe against Free Staters and anti-Treatyites both, describing Northern Nationalists as "sick to death of Dublin intermeddlers, none of whom cared a straw what happened to the six county nationalists. They simply play them off as a pawn in the southern game… " (quoted in Staunton, op. cit. page 88, in his notes he gives the date as October 21st.).

Writing as William Allen, the Leveller Edward Sexby published a pamphlet calling for the assassination of Oliver Cromwell. He called it Killing No Murder. In their dealings with the North both Southern sects were working from a text that might easily have been titled Abandonment No Betrayal. Each of them and all of them.

Certainly Collins and de Valera both.

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