Speaking Volumes: Peace by Ordeal

June 14, 1996

Tony Hepburn on Lord Longford's Peace by Ordeal .

Between October and December 1921 the leader of the IRA, Michael Collins, and a small group of companions set out almost daily from a Knightsbridge flat for meetings with that diplomatic Houdini Lloyd George. The outcome was the Anglo-Irish Treaty, perhaps the only occasion in British history when a government has negotiated a treaty with a group of its own subjects. A settlement was achieved because Lloyd George had devised a ruse - a judicial boundary commission - which postponed any reconsideration of the newly created province of Northern Ireland. The treaty ended three years of warfare between the IRA and British troops and brought dominion status to southern Ireland. It also brought a bloody civil war between those Sinn Feiners like Collins who were prepared to compromise and those who would accept nothing but a republic. The treaty survived the civil war but Collins, as he predicted, had signed his death warrant.

Lord Longford is better known as an Anglo-Irish patrician, a Catholic activist, a quixotic prison reformer and a Labour cabinet minister, than as an historian. But 60 years ago, writing as Frank Pakenham, he uncovered the story of these negotiations in a remarkable book. I first encountered Peace by Ordeal at Cambridge. I was enthralled by its account of how Lloyd George constructed his web, from the early entrapment of one of the inexperienced Irish team in his boundary commission scheme to his final threat of "immediate and terrible war" if the entire Irish delegation would not sign immediately.

Though unreferenced and based mainly on the recollections of unidentified participants, the book remains the authority on its subject. Only Longford's intense admiration for anti-treaty leader Eamon de Valera, characteristically against the grain of British opinion, has not worn well. He shows how the Sinn Fein delegates, hoping to "stage the break" on Ulster, were instead led by Lloyd George's diplomatic virtuosity into conceding the symbols of sovereignty which they had then to impose on their own colleagues by force. The Welsh wizard emerges as the villain of the piece - "an inspired negotiator, out of place in peacemaking" - whose policies led to civil war in the south, partition and injustice in the north. In the south the passage of time has cast Lloyd George's handiwork in a better light, but in the north it slowly but surely uncovered the flaws in his approach, as the province crumbled into chronic and continuing conflict.

I once seconded Longford in a debate on the value of Irish history. Having advanced what I hoped were persuasive arguments in favour of historical revisionism, I was ending with a call for more imaginative politics from the practitioners who sat opposite us when he intervened, again characteristically, to say that was the first time he had agreed with me all evening. Longford was 16 when the Treaty was signed, and barely 30 when he published his magnum opus. It would be one of history's nicer touches if his ninetieth birthday year were to see an imaginative step by today's politicians towards a resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict which Lloyd George's sleight of hand avoided.

Tony Hepburn is professor of modern Irish history and director of the graduate research school, University of Sunderland.

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