Ulster Talks: Lloyd George had never been quite so excited

Ulster Talks
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The last occasion when a British prime minister formally met leaders of Sinn Fein was in 1921. David McKittrick on the historical precedents for yesterday's handshake.

At their four one-to-one meetings in 1921, Eamonn De Valera treated the British prime minister, Lloyd George, to extensive displays of his legendary gifts for verbosity and ambiguity. His lengthy account of England's historic wrongs against Ireland left the prime minister, by one account, "white and exhausted".

Nonetheless, Lloyd George was quite taken by the republican leader, summing him up to a confidant as "a nice man, honest, astonishingly little vocabulary, wants to settle but afraid of his followers".

The PM had made special preparations for the meeting, his secretary recording in her diary: "I have never seen him so excited as he was before de Valera arrived. I could see he was working out the best way of dealing with de Valera - as I told him afterwards, he was bringing up all his guns."

Since she was also Lloyd George's lover, it may be presumed that that she was familiar with his states of excitement.

Lloyd George, in a move which could hardly be described as subtle, had the cabinet room decked out with a huge map of the world emphasising the large areas which then belonged to the British empire. De Valera, however, refused to be impressed. In their talks Lloyd George could get few straight answers.

Their discussions ended without agreement but later in the year a full republican negotiating team arrived in London, this time dominated by Michael Collins.

The two men did not get on, Collins finding Lloyd George "particularly obnoxious". The PM originally judged the republican to be "undoubtedly a considerable person", but he later dismissed him as "an uneducated, rather stupid man".

A problem arose when some British ministers did not wish to shake hands with the Sinn Fein delegation, regarding them as murderers. To deal with this Lloyd George alone shook hands with the republicans. He then introduced them to his ministers across the cabinet table, the broad expanse of which made handshakes impossible.

Lloyd George never managed to establish working relationships with republicans, but the talks exercise was in republican terms disastrous, leading to the Anglo-Irish treaty, the split within republicanism, the death of Collins and the cementing of the partition of Ireland.