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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Profiles

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Arthur Griffith
1872-1922


At the end of the Treaty negotiations, one of the British delegates commented: "A braver man than Arthur Griffith, I never met". Born without influence, and given little formal education, he became one of the founding fathers of the Irish Free State.

Image of Arthur Griffith

Arthur Griffith ©

Griffith was born in Dublin and was a printer by trade. He developed a passionate interest in Irish history and culture and became active in the Gaelic League. A gifted and influential journalist, he was made editor of several radical newspapers. He had been an admirer of Parnell but after 1891 he developed a growing contempt for the Irish Parliamentary Party and sought to map out an alternative strategy for Ireland. He rejected the use of force. Influenced by the experience of dissidents in Hungary, he argued in 1904 that Irish MPs should withdraw from Westminster and set up an assembly at home. It was his belief that the Irish electorate would support this policy and in time the British government would be compelled to support it too. Ireland would thus become a self-governing state and equal partner with Britain under the Crown. Drawing on the German economist Friedrich List, Griffith also suggested that Ireland could develop a balanced national economy, mainly through imposing high tariffs on British industrial imports. These two elements were central to the programme of the Sinn Féin party which he helped set up in 1905. It attracted little popular support but had disproportionate influence largely because of Griffith`s propaganda skills.

Griffith joined the Irish Volunteer Force in 1913 and was involved in the Howth gun-running. But though he took no part in the Easter Rising, he was arrested in its aftermath. This was because the authorities (and the Irish public) assumed that it had been inspired by Sinn Féin. Subsequently the popularity of the party soared. It expanded rapidly and its policy was modified to maximize its appeal. After his release Griffith characteristically stood aside to allow de Valera to become its President in October 1917 with himself as Vice-President. He was elected MP for East Cavan in mid-1918.

For most of the Anglo-Irish war (1919-21), Griffith was acting President of the Dail, while the incumbent, de Valera, toured the United States. Always uneasy with the IRA`s physical force campaign, he welcomed the truce in 1921 and was appointed head of the Sinn Féin delegation assigned to the subsequent Anglo-Irish negotiations. The courage and skill he showed then greatly impressed the British representatives. With regard to the Treaty, he himself was fully committed to and satisfied with it and genuinely convinced that its terms were the best that Ireland could realistically have hoped to achieve. He bitterly resented the opposition to it from republican purists – especially de Valera, whom he succeeded as Dail President in January 1922. He quickly came to regard civil war as unavoidable and was impatient to crush the opposition but was initially restrained by Collins (the Chairman of the Irish provisional government from January 1922). Progressively weakened by the strains of office, Griffith died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 12th August 1922. By then the civil conflict had lasted six weeks and already victory for the pro-Treaty forces was assured.


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