What price historical documents? Or to be more accurate, what impact if any do they have on those who view them? Yesterday Enda Kenny put online the signed document of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The names are all there – Collins, Griffiths, Lloyd George, Birkenhead. Lloyd George told Collins that if he and the others didn’t sign it, there’d be an immediate resumption of armed hostilities. Collins signed, noting that he'd signed his own death-warrant. And the rest, as they say, is the history of a divided island.
What impact does Enda think the viewing of this document, online now and later on real-life display, will have? Maybe he thinks it’ll have no impact, although I doubt that. More likely he hopes it will distract people from their present European throttling and, as citizens of the Republic of Ireland, feel some pride in a document that mapped them into existence. Unionists, I would guess – but only guess – will feel something similar, if they bother to look at it. This document was the basis for the foundation of the northern state.
De Valera said that when he waned to know what the Irish people were thinking, he went off and looked into his own heart. If I were to follow Dev’s dictum, I’d say a lot of people looking at that document must feel a sadness. It was created by the spilling of a lot of Irish blood in the years preceding it, and it was followed by the spilling of more Irish blood, this time in a vicious Civil War. Collins talked about it as the document which gave Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom – in short, getting twenty-six counties would make possible an independent thirty-two county republic. Whether he believed that or not we’ll never know, but certainly the vision he and so many others believed in has not in fact been achieved.
Will it ever? It depends on who you talk to. Speak with unionists and they will tell you – except they’re Jim Allister – that the union is safe. Speak to nationalists or republicans, and they will tell you that we are on our way to a thirty-two county republic, look at the vibrancy and self-confidence of the coming natioanlist/republican generation, look at the brimming vigour in the members of the GAA and those involved in the Irish language, as well as the transformation through power-sharing in the north. National unity is coming, but in a form and at a pace that those who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty couldn’t have imagined.
Who's right? Search me. I’ve never met anyone yet who was good at predicting our political future. But I do know the signed Treaty that Enda put online the other day gives off, ninety years later, an unmistakeable air of sadness and a sense of something incomplete.