Judging by the emails and messages I’m still receiving, my article at the start of the month criticising the supposedly “constitutional” foundations of the Irish Free State in 1922 has annoyed more than a few Fine Gael supporters. Not to mention several passionate admirers of Michael Collins. What seems to have irked a number of pro-treaty sympathisers was my description of the breakaway members of the Republican Movement in January-July 1922 as “oath-breakers”. This, of course, was a term coined by contemporary opponents of the Provisional Government regime which took transitional power under the leadership of Collins, Arthur Griffith, Richard Mulcahy and others during this period. And with good reason. A significant number of those who supported the compromise peace with the United Kingdom following the War of Independence had previously taken several oaths of loyalty to the Irish Republic, the revolutionary nation-state proclaimed in 1916 and ratified in four plebiscite-elections from 1918 to 1921.
On January 7th 1919, before the meeting of the First Dáil on the 21st , all deputies free to attend the underground legislature, including later prominent “Treatyites”, signed the “Republican Pledge”:
“I hereby pledge myself to work for the establishment of an independent Irish republic; that I will accept nothing less than complete separation from England in settlement of Ireland’s claims; and that I will abstain from attending the English Parliament.”
The was subsequently expanded into the “Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Republic”, agreed by Dáil Éireann on the 20th of August of 1919. All members of An Dáil, Collins, Griffith and Mulcahy included, swore this pledge for the last time in the Mansion House on the 16th of August 1921:
“I, …, do solemnly swear that I do not and shall not yield a voluntary support to any pretended Government, authority or power within Ireland hostile and inimical thereto, and I do further swear that to the best of my knowledge and ability I will support and defend the Irish Republic and the Government of the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me, God.”
Several months later Michael Collins, after weeks of consultations with his closest advisers, devised the following expression of fealty to the British Crown to be acknowledged by all members of the Parliament of the Irish Free State, a legislative body then due to come into existence in December of 1922 (though it would style itself as the Fourth Dáil):
“I, …, do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
Obviously, these two sets of words contain quite different ideas, though Lord Birkenhead, one of the UK negotiators in London dealing with the Provisionals in Dublin, expressed his admiration at the deviousness of the latter’s phrasing. However, it remained a repudiation of the 1916-23 All-Ireland republic, whatever the supposed claim by Collins in the first half of 1922 that:
“I have signed an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic and that oath I will keep, Treaty or no Treaty.”
If the leader of the Provisionals was unaware of the real implications of the Irish-British Treaty of December 1921, his political and military successors were not so blind. They had no qualms about abandoning the Republic and embracing the petty philosophy of Free Staterism; and all that was to stem from that counter-revolutionary tradition to the present day.