It is hard to understand how any young Irishman of sensibility could remain unmoved in [January] 1922 at the sight of a British regiment of soldiers marching out under the great arch of Dublin Castle as our own bedraggled lads marched in, heads high, to take over that fortress of imperial rule-
Immediately after the truce, Eamon DeValera went to London. He rejected the terms offered to him and returned to Dublin. The Irish wanted a republic, the British were prepared to give no more than Dominion status to an Ireland within the Empire. During the next two months a series of letters passed between DeValera and Lloyd George, which attempted to find common ground between the two sides. Neither side wanted a return to war. During this stage DeValera came up with his external association proposal, which confusing as it was, seemed to hint to Lloyd George that the Irish were preparing to compromise on full independence.
Lloyd George invited DeValera to send a delegation to a conference in London on October 11th 1921. DeValera, when selecting his team, refused to go himself. The most hard line cabinet republicans, such as Cathal Brugha, also refused to attend. Michael Collins reluctantly agreed to head the team, which was weakened from the offset due to internal frictions and the decision by DeValera, the President of the nominal Irish Republic, not to lead it. Ambiguity surrounded the negotiators' actual powers. DeValera conferred upon them the title of delegates plenipotentiary, which was their written position, and implied that they had complete power to come to any agreements with the British. However, the delegates were instructed before they left that they should refer back home before any decisions were made. On October 11th 1921, a small group of Irishmen began the task of negotiating for Irish freedom from the British Empire. Across the table from them sat men of the stature and calibre of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Austin Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead.
Three main issues emerged in the discussions: the status of Ireland and the nature of its link with Britain, the question of whether Ireland was to be reunited or remain partitioned, and the requirements of British security and defence. The issue of defence was disposed of relatively quickly, with Britain retaining certain Irish ports. Thereafter discussion turned to the first two strands. At this point, the Irish delegation were determined to only break off negotiations, if they had to, on the Ulster issue, whereas the British side would favour a breakdown over the imperial issue. The talks ebbed and flowed for two months. James Craig, the Northern Irish Prime Minister, refused to countenace any sort of Irish unity, and was backed by much of the British Conservative Party, some of whom were members of Lloyd George's cabinet. Lloyd George eventually persuaded the Irish delegation to accept a border, but added that a Boundary Commission would be set up to delineate the actual specifics. Lloyd George wrung from Griffith a written acceptance of the Boundary Commission, which he produced later on much to Griffith's embarassment. Griffith was forced to honour his pledge and support the idea of the commission, thus meaning that the Irish delegation couldn't break over the issue of Northern Ireland. Lloyd George strongly hinted that over time partition would become economically and politically unworkable for Northern Ireland, and reunification would occur. Whether or not they believed this, the Irishmen knew that the Ulster Unionists absolute refusal to countenace rejoining Ireland meant that an immediate end to partition was impossible. The delegation eventually accepted the Boundary Commission and the focus turned to the one remaining issue: Ireland's relationship with the British Empire.
The British side repeatedly rejected any form of DeValera's external association formula, and Lloyd George began to talk separately to Collins and Arthur Griffith about a compromise. Nothing short of Dominion status was acceptable to the British, both men realised this, and Lloyd George attempted to reach a resolution with them. On November 30th Lloyd George forwarded to the Irish delegation what he described as the final terms for a treaty, which the delegation brought back with them to Dublin. Griffith, and to a lesser extent, Collins, argued that the British would concede no more, while some of the other delegates argued that major concessions could still be achieved. DeValera implied that with amendments on the constitutional issue, a settlement might still be possible. What exactly he meant by this wasn't clear. Either the Irish accepted an oath of allegiance to the British crown or not, and all the adjectives in the world wouldn't be able to hide it. There was no discussion on what the delegates were to do if Lloyd George demanded that they accept or reject the Treaty before consulting with their Dublin colleagues, or what to do if the British threatened an immediate resumption in hostilities if the Treaty wasn't signed.
Upon their return to London, the delegates were forced, by DeValera, to argue for external association again. Aware that it would fail, they did so half-heartedly (Collins even refused to turn up for the meeting) and it was rejected again by the British side. On December 5th the talks reached their final day. Griffith was prepared to sign, but began to raise the Northern question again- he wanted some sort of agreement to be won from Craig on Irish unity. However, Lloyd George out-manoeuvred him by producing his written approval on the Boundary Commission, and Griffith accepted to sign without further moves on the Northern question. Winston Churchill describes the reaction of Collins upon realising how Lloyd George had outfoxed Griffith-
Michael Collins rose, looking as though he were going to shoot someone, preferably himself. In all my life I never saw so much passion and suffering in restraint.2
Collins also agreed to sign. The rest of the delegation also signed, some willingly, some reluctantly. The final offer gave Ireland Dominion status. The country was to be known as the Irish Free State and the King would be represented by the Governor General. All members of the Dail were required to take an oath of allegiance to the British crown. Why had Collins agreed to the terms of the Treaty? He knew that the IRA could not defeat the British militarily. They had essentially achieved their negative goal of preventing the British winning the war. But Collins realised the lack of IRA men, the chronic lack of arms and ammunition and the vast military machine that the British possessed all would come back to haunt the IRA if they returned to war. If he didn't take what was on offer on the table in December 1921, would the Irish get a better chance? His practical nature ruled that the time was right to sign.