How did Anglo-Irish relations develop during the period 1923 - 1949? From achieving a Free State as part of the British Commonwealth to the declaration of the Irish Republic in 1949, Anglo-Irish relations went through many twists and turns. Given the fact that Britain controlled Ireland for many centuries it is not surprising that the relations between and independent Ireland and its former ruler were always going to be fraught with difficulties. The fallout from the Anglo- Irish Treaty in 1921 would also significantly impact on Anglo-Irish relations.
The approach of Cosgrave’s government from 1923-1932 to relations with Britain could be described as cautious while attempting to assert Ireland’s independence on the international stage. In 1923 the Free State joined the League of Nations acting in its own right rather than as part of the Commonwealth. The Irish government also sought to have the Anglo-Irish Treaty recognized as an international agreement. The British government objected on the grounds that the Treaty was an internal matter but eventually agreed to this demand.
The Irish government also sought to establish a foreign diplomatic service. Cosgrave felt that appointing an ambassador to the United States would increase the status of the Free State and would also have economic advantages for Ireland. The strategy of the government was to discuss the issue with the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. The British government eventually gave the green light for the appointment of Professor Smiddy in October 1923 as the first Irish Minister Plenipotentiary to the US government.
The Boundary Commission did cause difficulties for the Free State government. As part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty the issue of partition was to be decided by a Boundary Commission involving the Free State, the British government and the government in Northern Ireland. When the details of the Commission’s report were leaked it caused a major political crisis. Instead of transferring major parts of the North to the South, thereby making the Northern state unworkable, the Commission recommended only minor changes to the border. After crisis meetings between Dublin and London it was agreed that the border would remain unchanged. The episode was a major failing for the Free State in Anglo-Irish relations.
The Free State government did play a major role in Imperial Conferences involving all the countries in the British Commonwealth every two years. The Irish delegates succeeded in getting the British to put the dominions on an equal footing with Britain which paved the way for the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This Statue allowed all dominions control over their own affairs and allowed countries to repeal any laws previously passed by Westminster. When Fianna Fail achieved power in 1932 DeValera began to use the Statute of Westminster to dismantle the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
In comparison to Cumann na nGaedheal’s relatively restrained approach to relations with Britain, Fianna Fail adopted a far more aggressive approach. During the 1932 election campaign Fiannan Fail promised to abolish land annuities. Following the election DeValera declared that his government would not pay the land annuities to Britain. This led to Britain imposing tariffs on Irish exports and resulted in the economic war that lasted until 1938. The Economic War proved to be disastrous for the Irish economy. Coupled with the Great Depression, the Economic War led to severe hardship for the population.
DeValera was also intent on dismantling the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The first target for DeValera was the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance. The British opposed the removal of the Oath claiming it was an integral part of the Treaty but DeValera dismissed their opposition. Fianna Fail also moved to sideline the position of the British representative in Ireland, the Governor General. Government ministers boycotted any function attended by the Governor General, James MacNeill. The Irish government demanded that the King dismiss MacNeill and he was replaced by a Fianna Fail supporter.
As a result of a constitutional crisis in Britain over the King’s relationship with a divorced woman, DeValera introduced the External Relations Act in 1936. This Bill greatly reduced the role of the King in Irish affairs. The British were extremely annoyed at the measures that were introduced but given the constitutional difficulties in Britain, were unable to prevent the introduction of the Act. The External Relations Act paved the way for the introduction of a new constitution in 1938.
DeValera also had a major success with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938. Both the Irish and British governments were keen to bring the Economic War to an end. The Economic War had caused severe economic difficulties for Ireland and Britain was focused in the looming threat of war in Europe. The Agreement resulted in the Irish government paying £10million in settlement of the land annuities issue while Britain returned the three Treaty ports to Irish control. The return of the Treaty ports allowed Ireland to remain neutral during World War Two.
Despite Irish assistance in the British war effort during World War Two the British remained highly critical of Irish neutrality during the war. DeValera’s government passed on weather and intelligence reports to Britain and released British military personnel across the border while keeping German pilots captive. At the end of the war Churchill publicly denounced DeValera for offering condolences on the death of Hitler and criticised Irish neutrality. DeValera responded with his famous retort about British domination of Ireland for 800 years.
In February 1948 Fianna Fail lost the general election and were replaced by the first Inter-Party government. Taoiseach John A Costello announced Ireland’s intention of leaving the Commonwealth. In reality Ireland was a republic in all but name. In 1948 the Dail passed the Republic of Ireland Act which was implemented in 1949. This Act finally severed all connection between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain after nearly 800 years of connection between the two countries.