Dev and the plenipotentiaries (Extra debate)

Published in Letters Extra, Uncategorized

Sir—In his letter, Mr Lane indicates that I wrote in the November/December 2021 issue of History Ireland:

‘Later de Valera told the Dáil “now I would like everybody clearly to understand that the plenipotentiaries went over to negotiate a Treaty, that they could differ from the Cabinet if they wanted to, and that in anything of consequence they could take their decision against the decision of the Cabinet”.’ 

Mr Lane continues, ‘The sentence was quoted in T. Ryle Dwyer’s De Valera, the man and the myths (Poolbeg Press, 1992), but it is a truncated sentence from de Valera, who had concluded “but of course they would know the consequences”. This omission changes the implied meaning completely, as it clearly indicates that de Valera meant that the plenipotentiaries could take decisions against decisions of the Cabinet but that they should not do so because of the consequences’. In addition to the sentence in Mr Dwyer’s book, Michael Hopkinson (Green against green, p. 25) indicates that ‘At the start of the Dáil Treaty debates, de Valera admitted that the plenipotentiaries had not exceeded their powers by signing the Treaty without consulting Dublin first’.

I do not know Mr Dwyer’s intent, nor that of Mr Hopkinson, but I do not think the omitted words ‘changes the implied meaning completely’ of the sentence. It would never be my intent to ‘truncate a quotation’ in order to change its meaning, nor to assert an unwarranted position. I would suggest that the five men who were appointed plenipotentiaries clearly knew the consequences of any negotiation in which they could be involved, and those consequences that would result from their negotiations, even if they differed from de Valera’s conflicting notices to them or his wishes, and that they were prepared to accept those ‘consequences’. No one would have undertaken the task without realising the gravity of all of their actions, and their results, as delegates. I further suggest that the real question is that of the plenipotentiary status of the delegates, as opposed to the instructions later given by de Valera.

To present the case fully, I believe a review of the sequence of the appointment is necessary. On 7 October 1921, Letters were issued to the delegates.


In virtue of the authority vested in me by Dáil hÉireann, I hereby appoint

          Arthur Griffith, TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Chairm.

          Michael Collins, TD, Minister for Finance

          Robert C. Barton, TD, Minister for Economic Affairs

          Edmund J. Duggan, TD

          George Gavan-Duffy, TD

As Envoys Plenipotentiary from the Elected Government of the REPUBLIC OF IRELAND to negotiate and conclude on behalf of Ireland with the representatives of his Britannic Majesty, GEORGE V, a Treaty or Treaties of Settlement, Association, and Accommodation between Ireland and the community of nations known as the British Commonwealth.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF I hereunto subscribe my name as President.

               [signed] Eamon de Valera

Done in the City of Dublin this 7th day of October in the year of our Lord 1921 in five identical originals.’

Those Letters were issued to the delegates, though there was never a formal presentation of the Letters to the British.

While de Valera was not prepared to lead the delegation in London, this did not stop his attempt to direct events from Dublin. Accordingly, he drew up the following document of instructions that he circulated to the plenipotentiaries:

‘(1) The Plenipotentiaries have full powers as defined in their credentials.

(2) It is understood before decisions are finally reached on a main question, that a dispatch notifying the intention to make these decisions will be sent to members of the Cabinet in Dublin, and that a reply will be awaited by the Plenipotentiaries before final decision is made.

(3) It is also understood that the complete text of the draft treaty about to be signed will be similarly submitted to Dublin and a reply awaited.

(4) In case of a break the text of final proposals from our side will be similarly submitted.

(5) It is understood that the Cabinet in Dublin will be kept regularly informed of the progress of the negotiations.’ 

Those ‘instructions’ were never made public. Consequently, the British delegation always dealt with the Irish negotiators as ‘plenipotentiaries’.  

De Valera clearly intended that these instructions, particularly clauses 2 and 3, would enable him to veto any draft document that he considered unacceptable. It is also accepted that these ‘instructions’ were formulated to placate Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, who were much more doctrinaire and ideological than the Irish people, who were desperately anxious for a settlement. However, Griffith and Collins, for their part, were unhappy with the limitations, and they chose to ignore these further instructions, which had not been approved by the Cabinet, considering them only as guiding principles, not mandatory.

There are contrasting views on these ‘instructions’. A rigid interpretation is not reconcilable with the plenipotentiary credentials, defined as one who is invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of the government. Since the Dáil had already conferred full plenipotentiary powers, the instructions from de Valera or the cabinet, an inferior body, were not legally binding in any instance in which they limited the powers of the delegation. As Desmond Fitzgerald notes, however, Brugha and Stack viewed the ‘instructions’ as requiring the delegation in London to keep the cabinet in Dublin duly informed at every step and not to sign the final draft without submitting it to the cabinet and awaiting a reply (‘Mr Packenham on the Anglo-Irish Treaty’, Studies, Vol. XXIV (1935)).

There was always an implicit contradiction overhanging the negotiations. Were the delegates plenipotentiaries or acting on instructions to report back to the cabinet? The plenipotentiary status conferred by the Dáil was superior to instructions from the cabinet. In fact, the delegates in London were not pleased with what they deemed to be interference from de Valera. In October Griffith sent a letter to de Valera saying that they were plenipotentiaries and that they were not to be instructed on all the minutiae of the negotiations.

There is no doubt that there were disagreements between the delegates, the cabinet and de Valera throughout the negotiations. The Irish delegation was so divided that after the last cabinet meeting in Dublin on 3 December it returned to London in two groups by two different routes. Clearly it was not a delegation in which the cabinet could have confidence that it would conclude a Treaty on grounds solely discussed in cabinet. The intention to negotiate further is implicit in the circumstances and was explicit in the cabinet minutes. 

Following the signing of the Agreement, there was another cabinet meeting in Dublin. Those in attendance at that meeting of 8 December were Barton, Brugha, Collins, Cosgrave, de Valera, Griffith, Stack, Childers and Gavan-Duffy. Collins, and especially Griffith, returned from London thinking that there could be dissatisfaction over the Agreement but that de Valera would believe that the delegation had acted as he would have wanted. In his biography of Griffith, Padraig Colum wrote: ‘Griffith expected objections to [the Treaty], but he was reckoning on the President’s support’. Desmond Fitzgerald had to tell him, in the words he had heard himself from Austin Stack, ‘He’s dead against it now, anyway’ (Arthur Griffith, p. 309). The delegates were quickly disillusioned. De Valera was furious and felt that the delegates had folded under pressure. Moreover, he felt personally betrayed. At the end of an extremely angry six-hour meeting, Brugha, de Valera and Stack voted against the Treaty. Barton (angry, opposed in principle but honour-bound to stick to his signature), Collins, Cosgrave and Griffith voted for it. De Valera denounced the delegates for their breach of faith in failing to consult him before signing, but Robert Rees in his book Ireland (p. 289) notes that Barton countered by insisting that the real problem had been caused by de Valera’s refusal to attend the conference. 

On 14 December 1921 the Dáil assembled but there was no ‘debate’ on the Treaty, just a discussion of the actions of the plenipotentiaries in signing the Treaty without ‘permission’ from the cabinet. As noted in Hopkinson, at the start of the debates, de Valera admitted that the plenipotentiaries had NOT exceeded their powers by signing the Treaty without consulting Dublin first. Immediately upon mention of the ‘Treaty’, Collins pointed out that no ‘Treaty’ was signed but rather ‘Articles of Agreement’, and that the signing implied referral to their respective legislatures, not acceptance. Both the Dáil and the British House of Commons had to ratify the Articles before they would take effect. He pointed out that the Irish plenipotentiaries had done nothing irrevocable: the Treaty still had to be ratified by the Dáil. (The British wasted no time in ratification, as the Articles were approved quickly by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and received the assent of the king on 31 March 1922.)  

During the debates, de Valera stressed that ‘the plenipotentiaries went over to negotiate a Treaty, that they could differ from the cabinet if they wanted to, and that in anything of consequence they could take their decision against the decision of the cabinet’. I suggest that all knew the gravity of their actions and were willing to accept the ‘consequences’—for the delegates, even if the ‘consequences’ were a disagreement with the cabinet or de Valera. I further suggest that the issue of ‘plenipotentiaries’ versus ‘instructions’ is a never-ending argument and is incapable of absolute resolution.  

There was no attempt in the column to skew the arguments, nor to ‘perpetuate a myth’ by reducing and paraphrasing de Valera’s words to the Dáil: ‘the plenipotentiaries went over to negotiate a Treaty, that they could differ from the Cabinet if they wanted to, and that in anything of consequence they could take their decision against the decision of the Cabinet’.—Yours etc.,


And Lane replies…

Sir,—Mr Connell says in effect that the delegates, appointed to negotiate a treaty with Britain, had authority independent of that of the government, and superior to it, because of their‘plenipotentiary status conferred by the Dáil’.The delegates never asserted this superior status in their meetings with the Dáil government, of which most of them were members. They asserted that independent authority only after they had acted against government instructions and had split the government and the Dáil by doing so.

If the Dáil had conferred on them the dictionary status, quoted by Mr Connell, of‘full power of independent action on behalf of the government’ it would in effect have established a second government. The conditions under which plenipotentiaries were appointed by governments in the past had to do with long distances and consequent delay in communications. But the Irish ‘plenipotentiaries’ frequently attended meetings of the government that appointed them with the consent of the Dáil.
       The obstacle that caused the Irish representatives to be called ‘plenipotentiaries’ was the refusal of Britain to recognise the Irish government or to acknowledge its representatives as its representatives. The credentials given to the delegates as ‘Envoys Plenipotentiary from the Elected Government of the Republic of Ireland’were not presented to the British government. They would not have been accepted if they had been. Games can be played with the word plenipotentiary. Lloyd George played them very well, his intention being to break the Irish government, but he never recognised them as actual plenipotentiaries in the sense of being envoys from the Irish government. 

De Valera accepted nomination as President in the Second Dáil on the condition that he should have wide-ranging authority. If, as Mr Connell suggests, it was clear that the delegates could not be relied on to act according to their instructions, he would presumably have done something about it. Their unreliability, however, only became clear when, under Lloyd George’s handling of them during the night of 5/6 December 1921 (which puts one in mind of Hitler’s handling of Austrian Chancellor Schusenegg in 1938), they broke and did his bidding.—Yours etc, 


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