A tough call

Aras 66

The picture above shows the 1966 Easter Rising 50th anniversary celebrations at Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin. In the picture, you will a series of old men move slowly across the gardens. In the front row is the President, Eamon de Valera, surrounded by men hanging on his every word. Everyone except for the fellow who looks like he is coming up for air from it all. That man is my grandfather, Peter Joseph Ward, who represented Donegal South from 1918 until 1924 and today, the 6th of January 2016, marks the 46th anniversary of his death.

As we brace ourselves for a full onslaught of navel-gazing centenary reviews starting with the Easter Rising, there is already a certain sense of ennui creeping in to the country’s consciousness. Those that aren’t quite fed up seem to enjoy taking lumps out of each other in endless irascible messages under Rising articles written in The Irish Times. With so many armchair generals, I thought it might be worth reproducing what exactly my grandfather had to say at a key moment in Irish history back in 1922 – he details his thought process and why his change of heart; it makes for compelling and reasoned reading, far from the online diatribes of today.

I never met my grandfather – he was buried exactly a year to the day I was born, but I have always had enormous pride in the fact that here was a young, determined and conscientious man who was in ‘the thick of it’ – as a commander of the South Donegal Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, as a member (and 1921/22 chairman) of Donegal County Council and as a Teachta Dála for Donegal, he was at the forefront of the campaign for independence in the north west of Ireland.

Dail 1919 Meeting of the First Dáil, January 1919

I suspect my grandfather would sooner have been swinging a club in Narin than being at those 1966 festivities. David Trimble famously dismissed the Fianna Fáil-led 1966 Easter Rising 50th anniversary events as ‘an orgy of self congratulation’. Indeed, the government had instructed the state-sponsored Abbey Theatre that no O’Casey play was to be performed as part of the festivities and they duly obliged. O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars had lambasted the Rising leading to a riot when it was first performed in 1926. P.J. had no time for towing the line and the first picture above tells a thousand words. Having been elected for Sinn Féin, he changed to Cumann na nGaedheal after the Treaty. The official story goes that he stepped down in 1924 in protest at the Army mutinies at the Curragh after the Civil War, but my understanding is that local elements had continually threatened him after his voting for the Treaty in 1922 and what with having a young wife and family to provide for, it was time to take a back seat.

P.J. rarely talked about those days and only reluctantly when pushed to by curious strangers. There are some cracking family yarns that take on a supernatural dimension on how the Black and Tans never quite got the better of catching the most wanted man in the north west. Apparently the first words on record in the Revolutionary First Dail were from the Speaker to P.J., admonishing him when he stated ‘Deputy Ward, would you please put your rifle back in its allotted slot!‘ Other possibly apocryphal stories tell of his dynamic guerilla marketing during election campaigns with a fellow in a sandwich board walking around towns – the front saying simply ‘For Ward‘ with the reverse sign saying ‘Back Ward‘. Genius.

Events from those days cast a long shadow to this day. As recently as 2011, I met the elderly daughter of a Donegal deputy who voted against the Treaty. On realising who I was, her hand of friendship was withdrawn as she hissed ‘traitor!’ at me and turned on her heel. P.J. watched his seat slip away from him, his wife desert him and his three children at the court steps of Letterkenny in the 1930s and he lived long enough to see the country descend into the chaos of the Troubles. P.J. never became bitter and was legendary in his generosity of spirit from setting up golf or bridge clubs to helping those less well off without ever asking for money back. As he made his way around the county, he had dilsk in one pocket and liquorice in the other for the children of the many friends he knew and visited.

u DA 2015 final

It is to P.J. that my Donegal App is dedicated. His elan instilled in me some civic pride and the need to do something tangible for where you are from. It is more than singing a song or attending a match; it is action that makes the difference. I will never come close to matching his accomplishments or his heroism, but I’d like to think in the modern age, I’ve managed to showcase a stunningly beautiful area that enjoys an independence that most of Ulster did not after partition. Yes in truth, P.J’s decision did help bring about partition, but his reasoning for voting pro Treaty was carefully laid out and is detailed below in full. Besides, Britain knew that not only was Donegal too mountainy and too Papist, it was too well organised by people like my grandfather to ever be properly incorporated into the newly-formed Northern Ireland. On what is his 46th anniversary since passing, I salute the efforts of all those brave men and women.

Stepping up to speak just before the vote on the 7th of January 1922, P.J. was the last backbencher to make a substantial speech on his position before a divided cabinet had one last fractious charge at each other. It was a pivotal speech at a critical time. Bearing in mind how close the Treaty vote was, it no doubt made for thought-provoking and influential listening. Rest well P.J., you truly did the State some service.

MR. P.J. WARD: “All through this long debate I have listened to the arguments on every side and, as one who has risen for the first time to speak in this assembly, I wish to state the reasons why I am going to vote for the approval of the Treaty; not because I hope to convert even any one Deputy here, but for the purpose of explaining to my constituents the reason for my action. I am in the position of one of the Deputies who spoke before lunch—Deputy O’Rourke; and I make no apology whatever to any man for changing my opinions.

I came here to this assembly opposed to this Treaty, as I believed then that the Dáil, by a big majority, would be opposed to it. It was not what we were fighting for; it was not the end the ultimate end—of what I had in view when I joined Sinn Féin; but, as I have said, I have listened here without interrupting any man, and I have formed my opinion from what I have heard, and from what I know are the facts of the situation. I have not been impressed by anybody on either side; nor has my opinion been formed for me; I have formed it myself.

I was opposed to the Treaty because it was not the thing for which we were fighting. I have heard a lot here about the Republic as if it were not actually existing; about what we fought for; and I have heard from various members that this Treaty gave us what we fought for. I don’t agree with that. The election of 1918 may have been for self-determination; but when I stood for the election I had to fight a bitter one; I stood for the complete independence of this country—total separation from England—and the placards are still on the walls down in Tír Chonaill. It was not for self-determination I fought the election, it was for independence; and it will come to pass yet that the Irish people, if given a free choice, will vote for independence.

The fight was begun then, or in 1916, if you will; it has gone on since; we have had only one thing before us and that is the independence of this country—complete and total separation. The Republic was set up here in 1919; but we had not independence although the Republic was set up; we were fighting for it; and that fight is going on yet, and will go on in the future.

This Treaty was signed; but how it was signed, or by what means it was signed, is a matter with which I have nothing to do. It is here before us; and we have not to judge of this Treaty by how or why or the manner in which the signature was obtained; we have to deal with facts, with the facts of the situation as they are at the present moment. I believed when I came to this Dáil, and I believe it now, that if this Treaty had been rejected practically unanimously by the Dáil we could have obtained unity in this country and have the people behind us, and we could have won our case. I was opposed to the Treaty up to Christmas; I went down to my constituency, and I may say here that I know my constituents perhaps as well as any other man in the Dáil; I have [321] travelled throughout the length and breadth of my constituency; and I have been in practically every Sinn Féin Club during the two months before this Treaty was signed—we have twenty-four of them. At Christmas every Sinn Féin Club debated this Treaty amongst themselves; I went to the Comhairle Ceanntair and I endeavoured there—because I wanted to save them from themselves—to prevent them passing a resolution against acceptance; and the Sinn Féin Clubs, by seventeen to three, asked that this Treaty be ratified under protest; and they stated that they could see no alternative.

That was the voice of my constituency; it was the voice of the best elements in that constituency. I will not speak of what the army thinks—I know that the army is prepared to fight as before—for it is the civil population that decides this question now; and of the civil population that is the voice, and the answer they gave to me.

I told them there at that Comhairle Ceanntair meeting that I did not hold that I was necessarily bound to vote for the ratification, because I held that the mandate they gave me was to secure the independence of Ireland, and that if I thought it better and wiser to vote against this Treaty I would do so; but what I did pledge myself to was this: that I would vote at this meeting of the Dáil for what I thought was the best way to obtain that independence of Ireland for which we were fighting.

Those people down the country, so far as I can understand, can see no alternative but to take this Treaty as a step—that is their voice. I have not met one man who was in favour of the Treaty but was in favour of it only as a step to the independence to which we were making. I have met some that were against it, as I have told you, but the majority were in favour of it as a step towards that independence because they could see no other way out of it.

As I said, I could have seen the other way out when I came to this Dáil, if this Dáil had made up its mind to stand for it; but now, when it has come to the final day for decision I have to make up my mind as to the wisest course and the best way to obtain the independence of my country.

We have heard here members talk of an alternative to rejection; some have told me privately that they based their decision on the belief that Lloyd George would not go to war with the Irish nation; I do not know what grounds they have for that view; I can only form my own opinion on English politics and one point in that matter is this: I do not know that any change has come to England since after that final note came before the Dáil for its approval— when the answer was being sent back to England that we would not accept her terms we were told that rejection of them would mean immediate war. I am not aware that any change has taken place since in Lloyd George’s mind so that the rejection of this offer might not mean war, too; I do know that it has been said here that at that Session the members of the Dáil, when they let the plenipotentiares go to England, compromised.

I only asked one question on that occasion; I asked the President what he meant by association with the British Commonwealth of nations in his letter to Lloyd George, and I did not receive any direct reply. Even if this Treaty were rejected, and the President’s document accepted by Lloyd George, I hold there will not be a lasting peace with England until we are absolutely separated from England and the British Empire. Now, the probable consequences of rejection have a different light in every Deputy’s mind here, I suppose; but in my mind the consequences, if the Treaty be rejected, are that now Lloyd George is in the position of knowing that this country is absolutely disunited, and that he is in the happy position of knowing that if he makes war now—if he only threatens war on this country—that the people of this country do not want to fight.

I know that may not be as it appears to you; but I have talked with the people, and I know their minds, and I know the view point they have; they are war-worn; they have come through a strenuous fight and they want peace. Now they see the prospect of peace, and they have not the smallest scruple about it; they are willing to take that prospect; and they, at the same time, are willing to take it as a stepping stone. I have no scruples about it either; I am willing to take it as a stepping stone, and I do not care how Lloyd George views what Deputies say here; so far as I am concerned, I will only vote for this Treaty as a stepping stone to put this country into such a position at some future time—[322] when the opportunity does come—that it will claim the total separation that it is entitled to as a separate nation.

Some members have said that this Treaty should be put to the people of this country whichever way it goes, and some even have said that, so far as their constituents are concerned, their constituents would support them in its rejection. I do not know about their constituents; so far as my own constituency is concerned, I have men there who are opposed to the Treaty, and I am glad these men are there; perhaps if I were in their place I would be opposed to this Treaty; but I am here with the responsibility of either accepting this Treaty or rejecting it, with the consequences to the country.

What these consequences are is in the future; you may see them in one light, I may see them in the other; but I will not take the responsibility of rejecting this Treaty with the probable consequences to the country, because one thing that may happen if this Treaty is rejected is this, and I regard it as the worst: we have got certain things here from Lloyd George and from the British Government in this Treaty which, if utilised to the full force, will benefit this country; but if this Treaty is rejected that gives Lloyd George an opportunity of backing down from these terms.

There are things in it that are not palatable to us and not palatable to Lloyd George and his associates, and they would be only too anxious and too glad to get rid of all this; and then, when he has an opportunity of backing out from the Treaty he has signed, he can put worse terms before the people of this country; and what I say is this, that the people of this country, in the state in which they are in at present, would take worse terms. You may like that or you may not. It is because the people of this country are disunited, because they have expressed their views on this Treaty, that I am voting for the Treaty. I do not want the Treaty myself; I do not like it; but I know very well that you will not be able to wring anything more out of Lloyd George with the state the people are in now in the country; you will wring no more, and you will have to take less.

The other consequences are that you will go on in this state for years to come before you get as far as you are at present. Now, I have said nothing personal on one side or the other; I regard it as disastrous that there should have been such a split in the Dáil; if there had been unanimity the situation could have been saved. However, that is my own opinion. I make this explanation for the purpose of explaining to my constituents why I vote in this way, because some of them know I was opposed to it, and strongly opposed to it, when the Treaty came out first; I do consider that this Treaty, if it ever comes into operation, will give a chance to the people at some future time to obtain full independence.

I won’t detain you very much longer. I am a lawyer, but I do not think I have employed any argument on this, or legal quibbles, or constitutional law; and I think if the lawyers who did speak first were to speak now they would not use these arguments either, for this matter is too big for chess-playing. We have to swallow a bitter pill in this; one Deputy has said that to-day, and nobody likes to swallow pills; but if we honestly think that it is for the best interests of our country I think we are doing then what our conscience directs; and in taking this step I consider I am doing what is best for my country.

I will vote for the Treaty under protest— not under protest in a sense, because I have a free will—but I will vote for it only as a stepping stone, and when the time comes I will be just as ready to take a part in the fight for independence as I have been in the past. After all, we here are split, as far as I can see, on which is the better way; that is the only thing that divides us.

I told my Comhairle Ceanntair that I would vote for what I thought was the best way to gain absolute independence in the end; I consider that if I voted for rejection I would be putting back the fight for independence for years and years to come; whereas if I vote and swallow the pill and take the Treaty I consider that I will bring that absolute independence nearer by years; how many years I do not know. I do know, however, that the people of this country have not changed their national aspirations, and I consider that their national aspirations will be brought nearer by acceptance of the Treaty”.

Killybegs Killybegs cemetery, Co. Donegal where P.J. Ward is buried

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