Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

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Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

The Articles of Agreement for a treaty between Great Britain and Ireland were signed in London by representatives of the British and Dáil Éireann governments in the most melodramatic of circumstances in the early hours of 6 December 1921. The terms specified stated that a Free State should be established for the twenty-six counties of the south and west of Ireland with a large measure of independence along Canadian and Australian dominion-status lines. An imperial contribution was to be made to the British Exchequer and the socalled treaty ports were to remain under British jurisdiction in order to safeguard defense interests. An oath to the British Crown, watered down to make some allowance for republican sensibilities, had to be sworn by Irish TDs (members of the Dáil Éireann), and a governor-general was to be appointed. Clause XII made provision for a Boundary Commission to be established if Northern Ireland opted out of membership of the new state. The boundary was to be readjusted "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographical conditions."

The treaty was quickly accepted by all in the British parliament, except for a small Tory diehard contingent, as the means by which Anglo-Irish relations could be stabilized and the Irish Question taken out of British politics. In Northern Ireland, however, the document provoked massive violence and disturbance over the next six months, while in the South political and military divisions over the treaty resulted in the Civil War from June 1922; these divisions continued to plague Irish politics and society for much of the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

The treaty's signing ended five months of complex negotiations. Following the truce of 11 July 1921, which halted military hostilities in the Anglo-Irish War, Eamon de Valera led a small group of Dáil ministers to London. After personal meetings with the Irish leader, British prime minister Lloyd George offered a limited dominion-status settlement, which was rejected first by de Valera and then by the Dáil. There ensued a prolonged and convoluted correspondence over the following two months, which sought a form of words on the identity of the Dáil government that would allow full negotiations to begin. Eventually, it was agreed that a conference should discuss "how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations." The conference began on 11 October.

Much controversy, at the time and since, centered on the choice of Irish delegates. De Valera decided not to go to London, and Arthur Griffith was chosen to lead the delegation in the hope that his moderate reputation would win firm concessions from the British. The rest of the team was picked as representing distinct interests: Michael Collins, that of the army and the IRB; Robert Barton and George Gavan Duffy, together with Erskine Childers as the secretary, to provide a republican safeguard. Eamon Duggan, along with Duffy, offered legal expertise. The delegates had the status of plenipotentiaries but were honor-bound to refer any settlement to the Dáil cabinet in Dublin before signing any agreement. This ambiguity was exploited by Lloyd George at the end of the negotiations. The delegation failed to preserve unity within its ranks during the conference and had increasingly strained relations with the Dáil cabinet. The British delegation, by contrast, comprised experienced negotiators, and Lloyd George's choice of prominent Conservatives for the team, notably Lord Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain, helped to reconcile the Tory Party to previously unpalatable concessions.

Despite preliminary sparring on defense issues, it soon became clear that the make-or-break points were the British insistence that the new state should remain part of the commonwealth and swear allegiance to the Crown, and the Irish determination to make no concessions on either sovereignty or the North. De Valera's strategy for compromise rested on his sophisticated notion of "external association," in which any recognition of British authority would apply solely to foreign and not to domestic affairs. There was never any prospect that the British would agree to this. Lloyd George resorted to private meetings with Griffith, and sometimes Collins, to find some means by which Irish concessions on constitutional status could be related to assurances on "essential unity." When the Northern Irish prime minister James Craig refused to bow to Lloyd George's pressure to accept any form of control from Dublin, Lloyd George proposed to Griffith the establishment of the ill-defined Boundary Commission as a means to prevent the North from blocking a settlement. Griffith's vague acceptance of this overture was made without reference to the rest of the Irish delegation.

As in so many such negotiations, the crucial developments occurred at the very end. On the weekend before the treaty's signing, a meeting of the Dáil cabinet revealed deep divisions over the British terms. Making last minute concessions on fiscal autonomy, Lloyd George insisted that all members of the Irish delegation sign the final document there and then on the evening of 5 December or face the consequence of "immediate and terrible war"; this threat was probably the most cynical of tactical maneuvers. After a stormy private meeting all of the Irish delegates—Barton and Duffy with extreme reluctance—signed. The Dáil cabinet, by a majority of one, accepted the treaty, but de Valera publicly rejected the terms. Three weeks of vitriolic debate ensued in the Dáil, at the end of which a motion in support of the treaty was passed by a mere seven votes. Although public bodies and the press spoke up overwhelmingly in favor of the document, around 70 percent of the IRA and a majority of active Sinn Féiners rejected it. In the following months British insistence on adherence to the application of the terms rendered futile desperate efforts for compromise within Sinn Féin and the IRA.

It was scarcely surprising that the failure to preserve either the ideals of a republic or those of Irish unity provoked opposition from committed republicans. No document could have been better calculated to reinforce the divisions within the Sinn Féin movement between pragmatists and idealists. Much of the support came from those desiring peace and normality rather than from any enthusiasm for the terms. The circumstances of the treaty's signing, moreover, exacerbated the split and infused it with personal animosities.

For all the histrionic circumstances at the time of the treaty's signing, the details of the settlement were predictable and, with the exception of Clause XII, represented the best possible compromise available at that time. A dominion-status settlement had been frequently mooted during the last year of the Anglo-Irish War and supported by powerful interests in Southern Ireland and in Britain. As Michael Collins predicted in the Dáil treaty debates, the terms did have considerable potential for movement toward a republic, but distrust of British intentions and adherence to republican nostrums were widespread. The Civil War in the South and the abject failure of the Southern leadership to focus attention on the needs of the North was to prevent the Boundary Commission from undermining the settlement. The Irish Question, somewhat fortuitously, was largely removed from British consciousness for nearly half a century. Developments in Northern Ireland since 1969 have thrown a new perspective on the document's evasions and shortcomings over Irish unity. Although Lloyd George achieved the Coalition government's short-term survival, Michael Collins was correct to say that he had signed his own death warrant.

SEE ALSO Boundary Commission; Civil War; Collins, Michael; Commonwealth; Cumann na mBan; de Valera, Eamon; Griffith, Arthur; Markievicz, Countess Constance; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Unionism from 1885 to 1922; Primary Documents: The Anglo-Irish Treaty (6 December 1921); "Time Will Tell" (19 December 1921); Speech in Favor of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 (7 January 1922); Speech at the Opening of the Free State Parliament (11 September 1922); Constitution of the Irish Free State (5 December 1922)


Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War. 1988.

Pakenham, Frank. Peace by Ordeal. 1935.

Michael A. Hopkinson

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Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

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