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The Anglo-Irish Treaty was a treaty between the British government and the Irish Republic which brought the Anglo-Irish War to an end and established the Irish Free State. It was signed in London by representatives of the British government and envoys plenipotentiary (i.e., negotiators empowered to sign a treaty without reference back to their superiors) of the Irish Republic on December 6, 1921.
Content of the Treaty
Among its main clauses were that:
- British Crown forces would withdraw from Ireland for the first time in eight hundred years;
- Ireland to become a co-equal Dominion of the British Empire, with a status similar to Canada and South Africa;
- The new Irish state, called the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann (pronounced sare-staut air-inn), was to have the King as part of its internal system of governance and to be represented by a Representative of the Crown;
- Members of the new Free State's parliament would be required to take an Oath of Allegiance 'to the Free State'. A secondary part of the Oath was to be of fidelity to 'King George V, his heirs and successors' as part of the Treaty settlement;
- Northern Ireland (which had been created earlier by the Government of Ireland Act) was to have the option of withdrawing from the Irish Free State within one month of the Treaty coming into effect;
- If Northern Ireland chose to withdraw, a Boundary Commission was to come into being to draw the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland;
- Britain for its own security would continue to control a limited number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy.
- Ireland would assume responsibility for its part of the Imperial debt.
- The Treaty would become superior status in Irish law: in the event of a conflict between it and the new 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State, it would take precedence.
Negotiators of the Treaty
The negotiators included
- David Lloyd George, MP (British Prime Minister)
- Lord Birkenhead (UK)
- Winston Churchill (UK)
- Austen Chamberlain (UK)
- Sir Gordon Hewart (UK
- Arthur Griffith (Chairman of the Irish delegation)
- Michael Collins, TD (Irish Republic's Minister for Finance and head of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
- Robert Barton (IRL)
- E.J. Duggan (IRL)
- Charles Gavan Duffy (IRL)
(Robert Erskine Childers, the author of the Riddle of the Sands and former Clerk of the British House of Commons served as one of the secretaries of the Irish delegation).
Detail and background
The contents of the Treaty divided the Irish Republic's leadership, with the President of the Republic, Eamon de Valera, leading the anti-Treaty minority. The main dispute was centred on the Dominion status (as represented by the Oath of Allegiance) rather than be an independent Republic. Partition, though certainly a factor, was not the most important; all sides accepted that the Unionists would not and could not be coerced into a United Ireland. The pro-Treaty side asserted that the Boundary Commission would so reduce Northern Ireland's territory as to make it too small to survive, leading to 'inevitable' Irish unity. (In fact, that did not happen.)
The Second Dáil formally ratified the Treaty in December 1921. (The House of Commons of Southern Ireland, which was made up largely of the same membership as the Dáil, but which was in British constitutional theory the parliament legally empowered to ratify the Treaty, ratified it in January 1922.) De Valera resigned as President and was replaced by Arthur Griffith. Michael Collins formed a Provisional Government of Ireland theoretically answerable to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, as the Treaty laid down. In December 1922 a new Irish constitution was enacted by the Third Dáil, sitting as a Constituent Assembly.
Opponents of the Treaty, primarily Eamon de Valera, mounted a military campaign of opposition which produced the Irish Civil War (1922–23). In 1922, its two main Irish signatories, President Griffith and Michael Collins both died. Griffith died partially from exhaustion. Collins, at the signing of the Treaty, said that in signing it, he may have signed his 'actual death warrant'. He was correct. He was assassinated by anti-Treaty republicans in Béal na mBláth in August 1922, barely a week after Griffith's death. Both men were replaced in their posts by William T. Cosgrave.
The Treaty's provisions relating to the Crown, governor-generalship and its superiority in law were all repealed from the 1922 Constitution by Eamon de Valera, who became President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (prime minister) in 1932, following the enactment in the United Kingdom of the Statute of Westminster which allowed dominions to repeal British-enacted laws dealing with the dominions at will. Collins argued that the Treaty would give 'the freedom to achieve freedom'. De Valera himself acknowledged the accuracy of this claim both in his actions in the 1930s but also in words he used to describe his opponents and what they did during the 1920s. 'They were magnificent', he told his son in 1932, just after he had entered government and read the files left by Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal Executive Council.
Most people in Ireland today, including members of de Valera's own party, Fianna Fáil agree that it was a mistake to oppose the Treaty and that it was the best deal on offer for the Irish. Britain in 1922 was never going to grant Ireland an independent republic, not least because it could not afford to, without facing similar demands from its Dominions. What Ireland got, Dominion status on a par with that enjoyed by Canada, New Zealand and Australia, was a relative advance on the Home Rule Act 1914 negotiated and won albeit through democratic parliamentary proceedure by the Irish Parliamentary Party leaders John Redmond and John Dillon, and certainly a considerable advance on the Home Rule once offered to Charles Stewart Parnell.
Furthermore (though it was not generally realised at the time), the IRA was weeks from collapse, with little ammunition or weaponry left. When Collins first heard that the British had called a Truce in mid-1921, following King George V's appeal for reconciliation at the opening of the Parliament of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, he commented "we thought they were mad". For the British, though they never realised it, were weeks, perhaps even days away from defeating an exhausted IRA.
De Valera was once asked in a private conversation what had been his biggest mistake. His answer was blunt: "not accepting the Treaty." Current Taoiseach (prime minister and leader of Fianna Fáil) Bertie Ahern has conceded that the date that marks the real achievement of independence is 1922, when the Irish Free State created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty came into being.
- Lord Longford, Peace By Ordeal (long out of print)
- Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins (ISBN 0091741068)
- Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera (ISBN 009175030X)
Other treaties between Britain and Ireland:
- Treaty of Limerick (1691)
- Sunningdale Agreement (1973)
- Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)
- Belfast Agreement (1998)
- Anglo-Irish Treaty — full text of the treaty from the National Archive of Ireland
- Contemporaneous record of the debate on the Treaty in Dáil Éireann.
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