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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.Published in