The anglo-irish treaty 1921




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THE ANGLO-IRISH TREATY 1921

Truce
All military activities ceased on 11th July 1921- both sides agreed to the truce for the following reasons:

  • Public opinion in Britain was more and more uneasy at the brutality of the war and at Britain’s refusal to grant self-determination.

  • Anti-war agitation began to develop and Lloyd George realised that he would either have to offers terms to the Republican leaders or escalate the conflict by sending in more troops.

  • Sinn Fein had an overwhelming democratic mandate in the first election to be held after the Government of Ireland Act – having 124 out of 128 seats.

De Valera was also under pressure:



  • The IRA was running out of ammunition and was hard pressed after the burning of the Customs House in May 1921.

  • Many Irish people were tired of the violence and there was a danger that they would not support the IRA if it turned down the chance of talks.

Under the truce de Valera and Sinn Féin had won the right to negotiate with the British government but by agreeing to talk they were committed to the idea of compromise. Ominously for the future, some members of the IRA did not agree with the truce, continuing some activities such as drilling etc.


To what extent did both sides realise their aims? What were the main issues under discussion? What were the results of the treaty?
Preliminary negotiations, July-October 1921
In July de Valera and Lloyd George met four times in London, during which time they failed to secure agreement. The British were prepared to go further than before in offering Dominion status – although this was to be limited in certain ways:


  • There was to be perpetual free trade between Britain and Ireland.

  • Ireland was to grant Britain use of its air and naval facilities.

  • There was to be a limitation on the size of the Irish army and the British could continue voluntary recruitment for its forces in Ireland.

De Valera was worried about the unity of Sinn Féin and did not want to be seen to be compromising on the demand for a republic. He concentrated on the partition issue and criticised the British government for its decision to partition Ireland. Lloyd George found talking to de Valera “like trying to pick up mercury with a fork”.


Letters were exchanged between August and September but the central problem remained: how to reconcile de Valera’s concept of full independence with Lloyd George’s insistence that Ireland should remain within the empire. De Valera, at this stage came up with the ingenious and constitutionally brilliant – if difficult – concept of ‘external association’; under this suggestion Ireland could enjoy the freedom of an independent state but, whilst not being part of the empire, would be ‘externally associated’ with Britain by a sort of special alliance. Britain would not accept this and talks foundered.

The Irish delegation

Eventually Lloyd George invited De Valera to send a delegation to London to hammer out a compromise. In agreeing to go, it can be argued that Sinn Fein had accepted that some form of compromise was going to be the outcome as no pre-conditions were laid down. De Valera had indicated that he did not want to attend and used his casting vote (with Brugha, Stack and Barton). Collins, Griffith and Cosgrave wanted him to go arguing that he had the advantage of knowledge of the ‘Welsh wizard’ (Lloyd George) and that it was like “playing a vital match with their ablest player in reserve” – besides only De Valera really understood the ‘external association’ idea.


De Valera argued that as ‘President of the Republic’ he was head of state and his symbolic status should not be compromised. He could help to contain any likely opposition from hard-line republicans such as Stack and Brugha if he remained at home. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he knew that some compromise was going to be the outcome and did not want to be tainted by association with that compromise. Also, he was engaged in a power struggle with Michael Collins and, by sitting on the sidelines, he was obtaining a decisive advantage over him. Also it should be pointed out – in fairness - that Collins needed to agree to the compromise in order to carry the IRA with him. Perhaps he felt that by staying at home he would be able to act as the final court of appeal and guard against hasty decisions.
The team consisted of a reluctant Collins, Griffith (who led the delegation) and Barton from the cabinet. Eamon Duggan and George Gavan Duffy were chosen because of their legal knowledge and Erskine Childers was the Secretary – he was a fanatically republican Englishman. They were given the status of plenipotentiary but the verbal instructions were to refer home before signing; this ambiguity was to cause havoc.

The British delegation

Consisted of wily and experienced politicians, any of whom could have been a Prime Minister. They were Lloyd George, Churchill, Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain.


Relative strengths and weaknesses


  • There was some ambiguity surrounding the status of the team as ‘plenipotentiaries’; the written position was that they had full powers to come to agreement with the British – but the verbal instructions suggested that they should refer home before any decisions were made.

  • The Irish delegation was able but divided. Collins was able but considered himself to be a soldier and, for him, the republic was not the ‘sacred cow’ that it was for people like Brugha who personally disliked Collins anyway and plotted against him in his absence. Collins wanted ‘freedom to achieve freedom’ – practical concessions that could be extended later.

  • The British team was superbly talented and united in its determination to make Sinn Féin accept Crown and Empire. The delegation was led by Lloyd George, a brilliant politician and a very forceful personality. The other politicians were Austen Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill.

  • The British public favoured the idea of a negotiated settlement that meant that Ireland was still in the British Empire and Britain’s defensive requirements would still be met. The British public would support a resumption of war if Sinn Féin insisted on staying outside the Empire.

  • The British were vulnerable on the question of Ulster; the British public would not support a return to war to support the existing border and the Ulster unionists would not compromise anyway. The coercion of Ulster was not an option because the Conservatives would not agree.



The main issues

The agreed formula was based on “ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations” (the shrewd Michael Collins realised that the surrender of the republic had already happened).




  • What was to be the constitutional status of a new Irish state?

  • What was to be the position of northeast Ulster?

  • What provisions were to be made for British defence and security?

  • The oath of allegiance to the British crown.

  • Minor issues included trade and financial matters.

Within these issues the questions revolved around such matters as the possibilities of an independent republic, a unitary state or partition, an oath of allegiance, dominion status, external association, a boundary commission, whether or not this represented a final settlement or “freedom to achieve freedom” etc. There was also the question of what was possible as well as the role of the negotiators themselves.


What did the British team aim at?


  • Their priority was the defence of British territory; they feared that an independent Ireland could be used by an enemy to attack Britain in the future.

  • They wanted to protect the British Empire and avoid giving a boost to independence movements in places like India. In the context of the time the unity of the Empire would only be clear if there was an oath of allegiance to the King. In the last analysis the Lloyd George’s government would have been prepared to return to war rather than allow Ireland to leave the British Empire.

  • Lloyd George could not give too many concessions because he depended on the support of the Conservatives for his coalition and they were close to the unionists.

  • They wanted to protect the Ulster unionists but were willing to put pressure on them if necessary.

  • The British were prepared to accept a wide autonomy for the Irish as long as the King was accepted as nominal head of state.



What did the Irish team aim at?

Their position was less clear.



  • They aimed at Irish unity and an independent republic loosely bound to the Empire and accepting the crown as head of the Empire only but it was not clear how they should compromise on these issues. De Valera proposed the idea of external association, but this has already been rejected by the British.

  • The general strategy of the Irish was, if the need arose, to break off negotiations on the question of Ulster. The British knew that only a breakdown on the imperial question would benefit them and gain the support of the British people. As Lloyd George remarked, “men will die for the Throne and Empire. I do not know who will die for Tyrone and Fermanagh”.

  • Even, as Laffan says, “the most extreme of all Dáil deputies, Mary MacSwiney, never believed that the negotiations would end in British recognition of an Irish Republic”. The Irish delegation did not have a clear strategy of how to compromise on their aspirations. They did not have an alternative to external association if, as seemed likely, the British rejected it and they were vague about what to do with Northern nationalists, especially as partition was now a reality.


The negotiations


  • Dragged on for two months. It was exhausting work, especially for the Irish delegation who were not used to such wrangling. They had to cope with the Sinn Féin cabinet at home and the disturbing reports of renewed IRA activity and a breakdown in the truce.

  • For the Irish the question of unity was vital; for the British it was Crown and Commonwealth. The Irish team had been instructed to accept ‘Free State’ for ‘Republic’ and ‘to recognise the King as head of the Commonwealth’ instead of allegiance to the throne.

  • The British defence requirements were met without a fuss; Britain secured the naval bases of Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly. This can be regarded as surprising because it means a major territorial concession and it is doubtful if Irish independence or neutrality could be reconciled with the presence of British bases. Only Childers seemed to have realised that this compromise Ireland’s national sovereignty.

  • For Britain the key point was the oath and Irish allegiance to the crown and dominion status and they were prepared to give Ireland a full measure of autonomy in fiscal and trade matters in order to secure that. In the final analysis Lloyd George said that he was prepared to fight in order to secure this.

  • For the British the constitutionally brilliant position of external association was incomprehensible and unacceptable. The oath was modified to try to meet Irish sensitivities but, for ardent republicans, the symbolism remained.

  • The British had proposed a Boundary Commission to determine the proper line between Ulster and the rest of Ireland in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants. It was assumed that this would involve the transfer of large sections of the partitioned area and this would leave Northern Ireland as too small a political or economic unit.

  • Lloyd George handled the partition question adroitly and skilfully. He had to satisfy his Conservatives and the fact remained that Craig and the Ulster unionists were already established in the North. He offered the possibility of a Boundary Commission as a solution. It is an example of Lloyd George's ingenuity and it was sold to the Irish as a way of pruning the territory in the North so that the new jurisdiction would not be viable - the price that had to be paid was that the delegation would not break the talks on Ulster. Griffith was confronted with an earlier promise he had made not to force a settlement on the North.

  • A deadline was set for the end of negotiations – 6th December 1921. The delegation was divided with Barton, Duffy and Childers opposing any compromise. A visit to Dublin in November made it obvious that De Valera, Brugha and Stack were opposed to any concession.

  • The decisive session approached and a new formula for the oath was worked out and the question of Irish unity remained. The oath of allegiance was to the 'Constitution of the Irish free State' and then only to the King as 'head of the Commonwealth of nations, of which the Irish Free State formed a part'.

  • The question of Irish unity remained and Griffith found himself entrapped into agreeing that Ulster could stay out of a united Ireland if she agreed to a Boundary Commission. Lloyd George then threatened war if the Irish delegates did not agree. His threat worked and the treaty was signed on 6th December 1921.

  • The unseen participant in all of this was James Craig, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, who had important contacts in the Conservative Party and was determined not to compromise.

  • Collins fell into a mood of depression, famously writing in a letter to Kitty Kiernan: “I tell you this, early this morning I signed my own death warrant…These signatures are the first real step for Ireland. If only people will remember that – the first real step”.

  • The delegates were criticised for not using the phone – but this was difficult as De Valera was in Limerick. Would it have made a difference anyway, with three of the seven cabinet ministers in London?



What had they gained?





  1. Ireland was to be given dominion status – the same constitutional status as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada; the representative of the crown was to be the Governor-General.

  2. All members of the Free State Dáil were to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.

  3. British defence requirements were accommodated with the “Treaty Ports” of Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly.

  4. A Boundary Commission was to be established to properly determine the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State.

  5. A Council of Ireland was to be elected if the Northern Ireland parliament chose to come into the Free State.


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