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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The Treaty Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of Arthur Griffith and Friends

Arthur Griffith, centre, on his way to London to sign the Treaty ©

In 1920 Westminster passed the Government of Ireland Act and created two governments – one in Belfast with jurisdiction over the six north-eastern counties and the other in Dublin with authority over the remainder. Both were given very limited devolved powers. This was acceptable to Ulster unionists, who implemented the Act, but not to Irish nationalists, who broadly supported the IRA campaign during the Anglo-Irish war (1919-1921). This conflict ended with a truce, operative from 11th July; negotiations then followed between the Sinn Féin leaders and the British government, the crucial phase beginning on 11th October 1921.

The Sinn Féin delegation was led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. Its ideal settlement would have been the creation of a sovereign, united Irish Republic. Griffith especially appreciated that the British representatives, led by Prime Minister Lloyd George, would not accept such terms, but he aimed to maximise the degree of Irish independence and gain a united Ireland.

Throughout the negotiations, Lloyd George was indeed insistent that Ireland must remain within the British Empire and accept the Crown as head of state. To secure Sinn Féin agreement, he approached the Ulster Unionist leader, James Craig, and urged him to accept Dublin rule. When Craig refused, he advised him that the borders of Northern Ireland would be re-drawn by a Boundary Commission according to the preferences of the population living there. This seemed likely to transfer a significant proportion of the six-county state (the nationalist areas) to Southern Irish jurisdiction. The Irish delegation broadly accepted this proposal as a solution to the partition issue.

Heated argument then ensued over whether the Sinn Féin delegation would agree to Ireland’s membership of the British Empire and to the British Crown remaining as head of state. Eventually on 6th December the Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed and signed by the Irish delegates without consulting their colleagues in Dublin. Under the Treaty, Southern Ireland – henceforth the ‘Irish Free State’ – became a self- governing dominion. In contrast to the 1920 legislation, it was now given complete independence in its domestic affairs: powers to levy all taxes; regulate foreign trade; raise an army; and considerable freedom of foreign policy. From a nationalist perspective, its main defect was that Ireland did not become a republic; it remained within the Empire with the Crown still head of state. In addition, Britain retained its naval bases there so compromising Irish neutrality in a future war. Also partition remained, though it was anticipated that the findings of the future Boundary Commission would lead to unity.

Image of released Republican prisoners beside car

The release of Republican prisoners from the Curragh internment camp, 1922 ©

The Treaty caused deep divisions amongst nationalists in Ireland. It was the subject of furious debates in the Dáil - the assembly set up by the Sinn Féin party after its election victory in December 1918. Those who favoured acceptance argued that the powers it granted made it worthy of support; that it would lead to Irish unity; that it had the support of most Irish people and that the only alternative to it was renewed war with Britain. Collins stated that it provided Ireland not with ‘the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it’. The Treaty’s opponents criticised it most for failing to do ‘the fundamental thing’, i.e., grant Ireland a republic; the English Crown would remain monarch of Ireland, with government there still conducted in its name. Whilst accepting that it had majority Irish support, Eamon de Valera noted ominously: ‘the majority has no right to do wrong’. Others expressed concern that Britain would retain naval bases in Ireland. It was also claimed that Griffith’s delegation had exceeded its powers in signing the agreement without referring back to Dublin, and that with greater courage and daring more generous terms could have been extracted from Britain.

It was evident from the debate that, though under the Treaty Ireland was constitutionally a member of the Empire, it never was psychologically. Arguably the settlement was a lost opportunity to lay the foundations for improved Anglo-Irish relations. It did, however, as Collins had argued, provide the Free State with sufficient power to determine its own destiny. At Easter 1949, Ireland became a fully independent republic. But in December 1921, the Sinn Féin delegation had little option other than to sign the terms on offer. The only alternative was a renewal of the Anglo-Irish war. Membership of the Empire and the position of the Crown were issues on which Lloyd George could not compromise – nor could republican purists. If the Treaty was implemented, civil war in Ireland was inevitable.

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Image of Professor Tom Garvin Tom Garvin, Professor of Politics, University College, Dublin
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Image of Dr. Margaret Ward Dr. Margaret Ward, Historian
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Image of Dr. Peter Hart Dr. Peter Hart, Chair in Irish Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
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Image of Dr. Eamon Phoenix Dr. Eamon Phoenix, Political Historian, Stranmillis University College, Belfast
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