Real History Matters: The Anglo-Irish Treaty 100 Years On

 

Anglo Irish Treaty was signed 06.December.1921 | Irish News Archives

A century ago today, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed between representatives of Great Britain and Ireland. The significance of this treaty is lost today on many Americans, many Brits, and sadly many Irish people. But it is without question probably the most significant document in Irish history. The Anglo-Irish Treaty ended the devastatingly brutal guerilla war of independence between the U.K. armed forces and the original Irish Republican Army and established the first de facto, independent modern Irish state. Yet its terms would lead to an even more divisive civil war in Ireland that destroyed the nationalist movement at its moment of triumph and ruined the lives of a generation in bitterness.

The treaty marked the fulfillment of several months of negotiations between Irish representatives and their U.K. counterparts since a truce had taken place on July 11, 1921, between both sides. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, having seen a negotiated settlement as the best possible way to end the war, invited Irish leaders to Downing Street with the hope of coming to some form of agreement. The leader of the Irish national movement and Sinn Féin President Éamon de Valera agreed to talks with the British. However, from July to September, little progress was made between the two leaders.

Getting impatient and himself leading a coalition of exceptionally anti-Irish nationalist members, George sought a final conference of negotiations from October 1921 to come to a final settlement to the Irish question, as it was known in Westminster. De Valera agreed. Several members of both countries with full powers to sign a settlement would be designated with the responsibility of crafting a final agreement. Almost certainly because he knew a compromise short of full Irish independence was in the offering, de Valera chose to stay at home. As such, the Irish lost their key negotiating partner in what was to follow.

The Irish team was dominated and led by Arthur Griffith, a moderate nationalist, and Michael Collins (the de facto leader of the IRA), neither of whom had any real political negotiating experience. The British team was led by George and had the cream of the British imperial ministers, including one Winston Churchill. Worse, with home advantage, the Irish were up against it from the go. De Valera gave them mixed instructions in how they could negotiate, including insisting on him signing off on any final document; they had Irish hardliners to deal with; and, more importantly, they had to contend with the fact that as of winter 1921, there were still tens of thousands of U.K. soldiers in Ireland ready to go back to war. All of this mixed with the fact they were dealing with A-listers in political terms meant that a compromised peace/treaty was inevitable.

The Irish looked for a republic with an undivided island controlled from Dublin. The British, fearing the end of the British empire and a sectarian civil war in the north of Ireland should they grant that, refused both. Essentially, the negotiations came down to the level of independence or autonomy Ireland could get that was acceptable to the British. George had to placate anti-Irish nationalists in his coalition government and retain the empire. Whilst Collins knew that the IRA could not win another war against the British and felt that if they could get what Canada and Australia had at the time (dominion status — de facto independence but with imperial links to the U.K. monarchy preserved), whilst distasteful and not a republic, it could be the steppingstone needed for a future fully independent Irish state. More importantly, it would end 700 years of British dominion in the south of Ireland. George had craftily early in negotiations promised a boundary commission to the Irish with the promise that they could end Northern Ireland, thus taking the issue out of the Irish negotiating team’s deck.

On Dec. 6, after going through three months of bitter negotiations, George demanded the Irish team compromise and sign what we now know as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, or he would end negotiations and restart the war. The Irish team debated amongst themselves and agreed that the terms they had gotten (dominion status), whilst not the ideal, were a steppingstone to something more. Collins and Griffith both signed and convinced the others too. At 2 p.m. that night, the document was signed.

One of the U.K. negotiators turned to Collins afterward and said, “I’ve signed my political death warrant.” Collins turned to him and said, “I’ve signed my actual death warrant.” It was prophetic. Collins was to die within a year, a victim of his former soldiers in arms.

Whilst the majority of the Irish people welcomed the treaty as the best that could be achieved, de Valera and many IRA activists and militant republicans were enraged at the failure of the negotiators to get a republic. They saw a sellout. They looked with contempt at the name of the new state — the Irish Free State — with its imperial links and imperial oaths (never mind that Collins had rewritten it to dilute such a thing). When the Dáil (Irish parliament) ratified the treaty in 1922 by seven votes, their anger turned to violence. Sinn Féin, the old IRA, and Irish society, even families, convulsed in what became a brutal and tragic civil war that divided the country for the next few generations between those who were pro-treaty, anti-treaty, and moderates, or those in the middle. Thousands were to die, many injured and many left with permanent scars.

Ironically and justly, Collins was vindicated by history. Within a generation, the Irish leaders who came after him peacefully and through nonviolence negotiated the full independence of the 26 counties. De Valera became Irish prime minister in 1932 and used the independence given by the treaty and the powers his predecessors had won from U.K. post-1922 to effectively create an independent nation. In 1949, Collins’ successors declared a republic. It was indeed a steppingstone.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Thanks I did not know this history. 

    • #1
  2. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    “Within a generation the Irish leaders who came after him peacefully and through non violence negotiated the full independence of the 26 counties.”

    Unfortunately not of the six remaining. 

    • #2
  3. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    I have been thinking about visiting Ireland next August, as I expect there will be ceremonies to commemorate the centenary of the death of Michael Collins.  My plans are tentative, but I would enjoy meeting you in person.  There might be other Ricochetti who would like to come too.  Do you have any thoughts about a possible meetup?  I don’t want to impose any burden on you, but it might be fun.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Paddy S: George had craftily early in negotiations promised a boundary commission to the Irish with promise that it could end Northern Ireland, thus taking the issue out of the Irish negotiating teams deck. 

    I don’t understand this part. Was there ever a boundary commission? 

    I think I’ve mentioned before that the last time we were in Ireland I visited the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty. After touring the house I mentioned to the young man on duty that it was hard to keep all that history straight, but I was trying. He said it was like every other revolution or war for independence. After independence, there is a big civil war to decide what it really meant. I thought to myself:  United States. Russia. I guess that’s right.  Maybe it’s a commonplace in the discussion of Irish history, but it was a new way for me to think about it. 

    The same would happen here in the U.S. if we won independence from the tyrant administrative state, either by separation or otherwise. 

    • #4
  5. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    I have been thinking about visiting Ireland next August, as I expect there will be ceremonies to commemorate the centenary of the death of Michael Collins. My plans are tentative, but I would enjoy meeting you in person. There might be other Ricochetti who would like to come too. Do you have any thoughts about a possible meetup? I don’t want to impose any burden on you, but it might be fun.

    Yes I’d love an Irish meet up. I’m in the west of Ireland but it’s only a few hours away.

    • #5
  6. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):
    Yes I’d love an Irish meet up. I’m in the west of Ireland but it’s only a few hours away.

    I am glad you are interested.  I hope to visit, but don’t absolutely count on my coming at this point.  There are a few things I will have to make sure about first.

    • #6
  7. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I think I’ve mentioned before that the last time we were in Ireland I visited the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty. After touring the house I mentioned to the young man on duty that it was hard to keep all that history straight, but I was trying. He said it was like every other revolution or war for independence. After independence, there is a big civil war to decide what it really meant. I thought to myself:  United States. Russia. I guess that’s right.

    The United States is the one great exception to that rule.  We narrowly avoided having a civil war after independence.  Of course the tensions built into our system eventually resulted in civil war.   But that was almost a century later.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I think I’ve mentioned before that the last time we were in Ireland I visited the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty. After touring the house I mentioned to the young man on duty that it was hard to keep all that history straight, but I was trying. He said it was like every other revolution or war for independence. After independence, there is a big civil war to decide what it really meant. I thought to myself: United States. Russia. I guess that’s right.

    The United States is the one great exception to that rule. We narrowly avoided having a civil war after independence. Of course the tensions built into our system eventually resulted in civil war. But that was almost a century later.

    Even though it took four score and seven years, I don’t see it as an exception. The issues that led to the civil war were  those that had been left unresolved at the founding.  

    • #8
  9. Paddy S Member
    Paddy S
    @PaddySiochain

    For those asking George convinced the Irish delegates that a boundary commission could stop a divided Ireland by destroying/ forcing so much of Northern Ireland into the south that it would collapse. Northern Ireland had actually been created in an Act of Parlimanent the year before.

    It was for this why in Treaty debates in Dail nobody really mentioned partition. Almost all the Treaty debates took up with were related to the nature of the freedom gotten by the Irish team.

    In 1924 a boundary commission was established which recommended in 1925 minimal changes to the border including some parts of Ireland into the North. The Irish government blocked report which was legally binding from being published. So the border remains same since 1921.

    • #9
  10. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I think I’ve mentioned before that the last time we were in Ireland I visited the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty. After touring the house I mentioned to the young man on duty that it was hard to keep all that history straight, but I was trying. He said it was like every other revolution or war for independence. After independence, there is a big civil war to decide what it really meant. I thought to myself: United States. Russia. I guess that’s right.

    The United States is the one great exception to that rule. We narrowly avoided having a civil war after independence. Of course the tensions built into our system eventually resulted in civil war. But that was almost a century later.

    The Revolutionary War was a civil war as well as a War against Britain. The losers in the North went to Canada or Britain. Those in the South went to the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean. There were exceptions who stayed,, but their property was usually expropriated. 

    • #10
  11. Paddy S Member
    Paddy S
    @PaddySiochain

    There are two brilliant stepping stone films into this subject area. One the film Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson which is a biography (not entirely accurate but quite good) of the Big Fellow as he is known here. Alan Rickman also plays De Valera. (Although Rickman thought the film was too harsh on De Valera  – particularly implying he had a role in Collins death; not true).

    The other is a tv film from 1991 which deals directly with the terms of The Treaty, titled The Treaty. This time Michael Collins was played by another great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUfr0FgZz_8By

    By the way for any Mark Steyn fans in the comments. Mark Steyn’s great grand relatives were involved in the negotiating team for Ireland. True story.

    • #11
  12. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    My understanding was that Churchill and George were happy to get rid of Ireland so long as it could never be outside the British sphere (and provide bases for enemies as the Germans sought to do in WWI). I think they envisioned more of a Canada/Australia scenario of limited initial independence (diplomatic, military, and economic controls still in British hands) to be expanded in time pursuant to the needs of the empire and tenor and behavior of the Irish.

    The Ulster Protestants went ballistic at that prospect and also happened to comprise a key swing vote (with some English allies) in any ruling coalition in Parliament.  They originally insisted on keeping all nine Ulster counties in the UK but realized there were a lot of Catholics in Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal who might ultimately provide a voting majority (or insurrection) to join the ROI so they willingly severed them from the deal to create an Orange supermajority in the remaining six counties.

    A weary Collins did not think he could get a 32-county deal given the political realities and settled for the split.  On the one hand, there was both domestic and international pressure on the UK to find a solution and end the violence.  The British found Ireland to be an embarrassment with frequent criticism emanating from the US Congress: Americans died on European soil “so that small nations may be free” so why did America’s principal ally not honor that promise in Ireland?  On the other hand, with the war over and the British increasingly bringing full resources to bear against the IRA, it was quite possible that the IRA might ultimately be squashed.

    The British position for the following century was that Ireland was never an integral part of the UK (and would be happy to get the heck out) but that they would not abandon a voting majority of those who wished to remain British subjects.

    The bigotry in Ulster festered as is its nature. When Bernadette Devlin et al attempted to reproduce the nonviolent US rights movement, vile idiot cops opened fire on unarmed marchers on Bloody Sunday which event sparked the rebirth of the IRA in a more Marxist/terrorist mold.  The UK suspended the Stormont local government (hateful clowns all) in favor of direct rule and was again stuck with an Irish question for decades.

    Economic growth and globalization appear to have taken the edge off old wounds–borders don’t matter much in the EU and even Brexit will likely not change that.

    • #12
  13. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Zafar (View Comment):

    “Within a generation the Irish leaders who came after him peacefully and through non violence negotiated the full independence of the 26 counties.”

    Unfortunately not of the six remaining.

    Fortunately the six remained. 

    • #13
  14. Connie the Cat Member
    Connie the Cat
    @ConnietheCat

    Paddy S (View Comment):

    There are two brilliant stepping stone films into this subject area. One the film Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson which is a biography (not entirely accurate but quite good) of the Big Fellow as he is known here. Alan Rickman also plays De Valera. (Although Rickman thought the film was too harsh on De Valera – particularly implying he had a role in Collins death; not true).

    The other is a tv film from 1991 which deals directly with the terms of The Treaty, titled The Treaty. This time Michael Collins was played by another great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUfr0FgZz_8By

    By the way for any Mark Steyn fans in the comments. Mark Steyn’s great grand relatives were involved in the negotiating team for Ireland. True story.

    I like both productions but my vote is for Brendan Gleason.

    • #14
  15. Connie the Cat Member
    Connie the Cat
    @ConnietheCat

    This is an endlessly fascinating subject.  I recently obtained a copy of “Peace by Ordeal” by Frank Pakenham and have a copy of “Atlas of the Irish Revolution” on my desk.

    • #15
  16. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Connie the Cat (View Comment):

     and have a copy of “Atlas of the Irish Revolution” on my desk.

    Oooh, expensive!

     

    • #16
  17. Connie the Cat Member
    Connie the Cat
    @ConnietheCat

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Connie the Cat (View Comment):

    and have a copy of “Atlas of the Irish Revolution” on my desk.

    Oooh, expensive!

     

    In one of those occasional Amazon quirks it was only $48!

    • #17
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