The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Advance and Retreat:
November 1921

British efforts to bring about Irish unity decisively influenced the negotiations with Sinn Fein, but not at all in the way Griffith had anticipated. At his first meeting with Lloyd George on November 5, Craig seemed receptive to the idea of an all-Ireland parliament with suitable safeguards for the northeast, but two days later he flatly rejected it. His opposition to unity had obviously been reinforced by Carson and Bonar Law, both of whom Lloyd George failed to convert. Carson opposed any concessions to the Sinn Feiners. Law would concede Dominion status to Southern Ireland, but he would not sacrifice Ulster for peace with Sinn Fein. 1 In a letter written November 12, Law expressed his views fully. If the government tried to coerce Ulster he would fight. If he failed to get a majority of Tory MPs on his side, he would withdraw from politics; but he believed that once the issue was clearly stated, he would have an almost unanimous party behind him. Law contended that coercion of Ulster would violate Conservative pledges, split the party, betray an area that was as much a part of Britain as Scotland, and precipitate civil war. He felt as strongly about Ulster as he had before the war, and nothing would change his position. 2

Anxious about a breakdown of negotiations over Ulster, Chamberlain consulted his party's chairman and its chief whip. He asked whether the country would support coercion of Southern Ireland if the peace conference failed because of Ulster's insistence on exclusion from an Irish parliament. Their replies confirmed his own assessment: the country wanted peace and would not support intransigence by Ulster if Sinn Fein accepted Britain's essential terms and offered suitable minority safeguards. However, support for Ulster among Conservatives would cause a party split if the government tried to impose Irish unity. 3 Craig's intractable attitude thus placed Conservative ministers in an apparently impossible position. They could not coerce Ulster because of past pledges and because this would split their party. On the other hand, public opinion would not support coercion of Sinn Fein simply because it refused to accept partition. Under these conditions, resignation seemed the only way out. 4

The same thought had occurred to Lloyd George. Stymied and depressed by Craig's "no surrender" attitude, the prime minister sounded

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