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From the NS archive: The “fact” of partition

2 July 1921: How to end the guerrilla war in Ireland.

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By mid 1921 it was clear that an end to the hostilities between the British state and Irish republicans was tangible. As the writer of this editorial put it: “The policy of martial law and ‘reprisals’ is played out. It cannot be maintained.” The prime minister, David Lloyd George, invited the republican leader Éamon de Valera to London for a conference to decide how to bring the fighting to an end and map out a future for the island of Ireland. At the time this piece was written, De Valera had yet to respond. He was, said the writer, in a difficult position, not least because he was not a “leader of outstanding intellectual distinction or moral authority”. Furthermore, he needed to weigh up conflicting messages coming from London – some adamant, others conciliatory. Above all, were peace to be achieved, the republicans needed to accept the fact that “‘partition’ is no longer a policy, but a fact”. The South could have self-determination but a united Ireland was a different matter. In December that year the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State, was signed.

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As we write, nothing is certain as to what will come of the proposal for a conference with the Sinn Féin leaders. On the face of it Mr de Valera has made a foolish blunder in not having accepted immediately and unconditionally the Prime Minister’s unconditional invitation; and the manner of his evasion was a worse blunder still. He has not, however, closed the door to acceptance, and one may still reasonably hope that it will not be closed, and that within a week or so we shall see the “President of the Irish Republic” in London. It is a peculiarity of the Sinn Féin movement – one of the best organised and most determined national movements that the world has ever seen – that it has thrown up no leader of outstanding intellectual distinction or moral authority. It is a purely popular movement, which appears to lead itself; which, indeed, certainly does lead itself, for great popular movements cannot be led anonymously, and if Sinn Féin had a leader we should all know his name. Mr de Valera is the figurehead of the “Republic” and the acknowledged spokesman of Dáil Éireann, but, manifestly, he possesses nothing that can be called authority among his followers. And very much the same may be said of Mr Arthur Griffiths. As for Mr Michael Collins, he may or may not be the supreme director of the activities of the Irish Republican Army, but even his is not a name to conjure with in a political sense.

Ireland to-day has no Parnell, no one who can direct as well as ride the storm of national passion. That fact has to be remembered when we are inclined to condemn Mr de Valera for any failure of statesmanship. His position is very like that of some Labour leaders in this country. He is not a plenipotentiary, and he cannot exercise that freedom of judgement and decision which is only enjoyed by statesmen of independent character and great personal influence. Mr de Valera is a Litvinoff, not a Lenin; an Austen Chamberlain, not a Lloyd George; and he has not even a Lenin or a Lloyd George from whom to seek instructions. He has to feel his way step by step, with the cramping knowledge that, if he were to disappear tomorrow, he would scarcely be more missed by his followers than would any “Brigadier” in the Irish Republican Army. For a man in that position many allowances must be made.

But even if Mr de Valera had possessed the authority and the political ability of a Parnell, the decision which he had to make this week would have been no easy one. How can he be sure that Mr Lloyd George’s invitation is a bona fide attempt to bring about peace between England and Ireland, and not a mere dodge intended to weaken by false hopes the morale of the Republican forces? On the plain record of Mr Lloyd George’s government any man who trusted its professions, or even its explicit promises – without having the power to enforce performance – would be a fool. Moreover, what are its professions? On the very day last week on which the King delivered his admirably conciliatory speech in Belfast, the Lord Chancellor delivered a speech in the House of Lords which was diametrically opposed to it, not only in tone but in substance. To which voice is Mr de Valera to listen? Both purported to be the voice of the British government. Mr Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons that the government “accepted full responsibility” for the King’s speech, and presumably it was drafted in Downing Street. But the Lord Chancellor declared that he was expressing the “deliberate judgment” of his colleagues, and his speech was much more specific than that of the King. Its main points were that more force was about to be employed in Ireland, that the government stood by the provisions of the 1920 Home Rule Act, and that it would not consider any proposal to grant Ireland even fiscal autonomy. In other words, Lord Birkenhead deliberately excluded the only bases upon which negotiations between Sinn Féin and England and Ulster could possibly take place. If his speech is to stand, it is obvious that Sinn Féin has nothing to gain and very much to lose by allowing its representatives to come to London at all.

From the Sinn Féin point of view, the position of Ireland is very closely analogous to that of Great Britain vis-â-vis Germany in 1917 and 1918. We were in the throes then of a very desperate struggle and we dared not open negotiations. We treated Germany’s “peace talk” as a mere move in the game of war – which it probably was at that time – and we were afraid of weakening our own fighting spirit by entertaining the hopes which any appearance of negotiation was calculated to arouse. It is precisely the position of the IRA today, except that it is up against a much more difficult and desperate proposition than we were in 1917. The morale of Sinn Féin is at this moment keyed up to an extraordinary tension, and its leaders dare not allow that tension to be relaxed. That is the way of war. It is suicidal to talk of peace until you are sure that there is a real possibility of peace; and the Sinn Féin leaders – justifiably – are not sure of anything of the kind. Indeed, if the Lord Chancellor’s speech is to be taken literally, and as an accurate expression of the attitude of the British government, then they may well be sure that there is no possibility of peace at all.

Nevertheless, we fervently hope that Mr de Valera eventually decides to accept the invitation and come to London to talk. There may from his point of view be a risk, but it is a risk which he ought to take. The Lord Chancellor’s speeches, however fully they may have been “authorised” by the cabinet, need not be taken to represent the unalterable resolves of anybody. The present government has no unalterable resolves, and most of its members have given plenty of proof of their willingness to be thrown over at any moment; indeed, more than that, to throw themselves over. Lord Birkenhead will eat his words without the smallest prospect of indigestion. If only the Irish attended the present parliament, they would know that. Moreover, there is no reason to doubt that, Ulster Parliament having been established, the Prime Minister really does desire an Irish settlement before the next general election; it is almost a necessity, and we may safely assume that there is scarcely any price he would not pay to secure it.

Southern Ireland cannot have a republic, but short of that it can have – pace the Lord Chancellor – almost anything it likes. And Mr de Valera will put himself unnecessarily and hopelessly in the wrong, if he fails to come and ask for what he wants. Ireland can have Dominion Home Rule – which is “independence”. Probably it can get it from this government, but, if not, it will most certainly get it from the next. The policy of martial law and “reprisals” is played out. It cannot be maintained. There may be a temporary intensification of the campaign, but it will only be the flash that precedes extinction. It might have succeeded; there was a prospect at one moment that it would succeed; but everyone knows now that it has failed, and that on grounds of might as well as right Southern Ireland has established its title to self-determination.

The only real problem that remains is that of the relations between the North and the South; and that is an Irish problem, not an English problem. So far the Sinn Féiners, like the Nationalists, have refused to recognise this. Their ideal is a united Ireland under a single parliament, and they appear still to think that it is our duty to realise it for them. It is a very proper ideal, but unless they can realise it for themselves it will never be realised at all. It may be that in a historical sense we (the English) are responsible for the division; but, even if that be so, it is quite certain that we neither can, nor shall, ever attempt to use force to obliterate it. Of that question we can only wash our hands. “Partition” is no longer a policy, but a fact; and the continued refusal of Sinn Féin to recognise it as a fact is the most serious of the remaining obstacles to a settlement – assuming the government’s desire for a settlement. We can give Ireland independence, but we cannot give her unity. Mr de Valera’s claim – implicit in his answer to Mr Lloyd George’s invitation – to represent the whole of Ireland, minority as well as majority, is manifestly and ludicrously inadmissible. When he has achieved an understanding with Ulster he may be able to speak for Ireland; meanwhile, he can speak only for Leinster, Connaught and Munster, and any pretensions which go beyond that will help him neither in practice nor in the eyes of the world. Ireland is now not one nation, but two; and so it will remain until the South has learned that it must come to terms with the North without outside help.

Mr de Valera must have known that it was nearly impossible, at this moment, for Sir James Craig to accept his invitation to a “preliminary conference” in Dublin; and the fact, therefore, that he should have issued such an invitation makes it very difficult to take a sanguine view of the prospects of any negotiations which may take place just now either in Dublin or in London. Nevertheless, any negotiations are better than none, since, even if they are wholly unsuccessful, they cannot fail to elucidate the position and hasten the moment when both sides will be willing to face the facts in a reasonable spirit. At all events, if Mr de Valera should finally refuse to come to London – whatever the risks involved – he will have put himself, and Sinn Féin, in a very impossible position. 

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)