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Justice Will Sellers: The miracle of the Anglo-Irish Treaty

One vision of utopia includes the conversion of weapons of war into farming implements.

The Bible anticipates a time when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and spears will become pruning hooks. But sometimes in our modern world, it happens that bitter enemies with blood on their respective hands wake up and realize that compromise is better than conflict.

Overcoming hate is less about love and more about recognizing the reality of the devastating consequences of protracted conflict. When the source of conflict is forgotten and someone finally realizes that an eye for an eye policy creates only darkness, wise leaders assess the future and move to resolve their differences.

Compromise is hard and takes its hardest toll on the statesmen. Those visionaries who see the possibilities of a world transformed by practical necessity must settle for a partial victory in the hope that the future will allow for incremental achievement. Understanding that half a loaf is better than no loaf requires a maturity that recognizes a brighter future is obtained daily as each small victory builds on another. In short, beginning a process for peace that maintains an open dialog is always a step in the right direction.

In Ireland, Michael Collins, adjutant general of the Irish Republican Army, agreed to a compromise with his arch enemy, the British. A leader in guerilla tactics of ambush and assassination, Collins was a wanted man. The number of deaths for which he was responsible remains unknown.

As the butcher’s bill on both sides was getting costly, Collins could see no future in the continued tit-for-tat. He recognized the futility of tactics that yielded only death and destruction with no possibility of a stable economy, much less an independent republic. This same reality was recognized by the British, who realized they could continue to dominate the Irish with overwhelming force, but the attritional deaths caused by the Irish Republican Army forced them to reassess their objectives. If all they were doing in Ireland was occupying a territory as an unwelcome presence, there was no future. The policy of reprisals was not a strategy for success.

Both sides realized they had nothing to gain from continued war, and each saw a bleak future of continued counter attacks and retaliation awaiting them. The British then took the first step and invited Collins and other Irish revolutionaries, under safe passage, to London to negotiate. Issuing and accepting such an invitation required bravery on both sides.

Each had to deal with less than enthusiastic political support for the endeavor, and given the centuries of animosity, trust, or lack thereof, created an atmosphere of foreboding. The parameters for a treaty to settle their differences were completely undefined.

The British were, in part, motivated by King George V, who encouraged “all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment, and good will.” This was an indirect mandate to Prime Minister Lloyd George to negotiate.

Compromise proved difficult for both sides, but the alternative of continued hostilities remained an unacceptable option. When the discussions were at their low point, Michael Collins rose to the occasion.

For all his republican notions and devotion to a united Ireland, Collins realized that a treaty was the first step in a process. Acknowledging that by agreeing to accept a compromise he was signing his own death warrant; he, nevertheless, accepted the terms. Collins consented to creating a new Irish Free State, which retained the King and required an oath of loyalty.

This state would initially have a dual government, Irish and British, and allow the northern Irish counties the right to opt out and remain under British rule. Collins called the treaty “the freedom to achieve freedom.” The status as a free state was not an independent republic, but gave Ireland dominion status, much like Canada. While this fell short of a united Ireland it was certainly more than half a loaf.

One hundred years ago this month, the treaty was debated among the Irish Rebel parliament, the Southern Ireland House of Commons and then both houses of Parliament in London. It passed, but the vote in the Dail, the accepted name of the Irish Rebel Parliament, was quite close. Once the treaty was ratified and its terms implemented, former IRA leaders rose in opposition.

Using the weapons that had been acquired to fight the British, pro and anti-treaty forces engaged in a civil war. Like most internecine conflicts, it was especially brutal. All the animosity directed against the British was now turned on each other. Even though the anti-treaty forces lost, the terrorist turned statesman, Michael Collins, was senselessly killed in an ambush.

Collins proved to be correct that the Anglo-Irish Treaty ratified 100 years ago was the first step in a larger process. Over time the Irish Free State became an independent republic. Relations with the British would gradually improve as issues related to Northern Ireland were incrementally confronted and are still being managed towards a resolution.

Mature leaders like Collins, who fight mercilessly for their freedom, become statesmen when they realize their goals are best achieved by compromise and negotiation. Critical to the intensity of the hard-fought negotiations is the ability to imagine a future that views compromise as part of a process to achieve an ultimate goal.

In Collins’ case, he understood that having an independent Ireland in the near term was not possible; but, with further work in building relationships and seeking common ground, his long-term goal would be achieved. The enemies of long-term thinking, who reject compromise and would rather settle for nothing as opposed to something, achieve fleeting fame, but in the end, history discounts their resistance as basic.

The legacy of Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish Treaty demonstrates how leaders mature and grow to understand that incremental compromise, in the short run, provides a structure to build ultimate long-term objectives. This lesson is worth remembering.

Will Sellers was appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Supreme Court of Alabama in 2017. He is best reached at jws@willsellers.com

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