The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

By Morrogh, Michael | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921


Morrogh, Michael, History Review


The story is a familiar one. Two sides battling in out in Ireland, nationalists and Unionists. The British government uneasily in position as the sovereign power. Public opinion abroad generally is on the nationalist side, though largely ignorant of the small print of events. The British line, at first, is that the disturbances result from a small minority of `gunmen', unrepresentative of the majority of Irishmen.

As the situation hardens, and the killings continue, the Prime Minister decides to intervene. A truce is arranged on the understanding that a meeting will be held between the government and the two combatants. Respective leaders are summoned to Number Ten in London. Objections are raised against the participation of nationalists prominent in the IRA and explicitly linked with the killings of security men and British soldiers; there is also a demand that the IRA should surrender its arms before negotiations commence. Both conditions eventually are dropped -- a sensible policy since otherwise no meeting could have started. After many late night sessions, brinkmanship on both sides, the British Prime Minister in last-minute communications with the Unionists, and the Irish delegation in touch with their power bases back home -- finally the treaty is signed and a settlement for Ireland produced.

The date could be 10 April 1998, when Tony Blair and the Unionist and Nationalist representatives signed the Good Friday Agreement. In fact it is 6 December 1921 and the Treaty that which concluded the Anglo-Irish war. As always, Irish history seems to be moving in circles.

Origins of the Treaty

The 1921 Treaty arose, quite simply, out of the demand of the majority of Ireland for independence. Ever since the days of Daniel O'Connell, the catholic population -- the overwhelming majority confession in Ireland apart from the north-east -- had expressed its desire for some form of self-government. At first, the movement was respectable and constitutional, pressing for self-government, known as Home Rule, but not full independence. In modern parlance this was akin to Scottish devolution, complete with its attendant difficulties. (One such today is the West Lothian Question about continued Scots representation at Westminster; the first to identify such an anomaly in fact was Joe Chamberlain in his speeches against Irish Home Rule in 1886.)

It is true that there had also been more violent nationalist enthusiasts, generally known at Fenians, working for a completely independent Irish republic, but their movement was prone to splits and their attempts at risings uniform failures.

By 1914 the Irish Home Rule party was in the happy position that the British government had passed a Home Rule bill -- though it was suspended for the hostilities, and with the temporary exclusion of the north-eastern counties with protestant, Unionist, majorities. But the more extreme nationalists refused to be counted out of the picture. In Easter 1916 they proclaimed the Republic of Ireland, and although quickly suppressed, their political wing, Sinn Fein, reaped the rewards in the 1918 General Election. After gaining an overwhelming majority in Ireland (always excepting the north-east), Sinn Fein proceeded to establish its own parliament and government. Initially bemused for some months, the British authorities then attempted to extinguish this challenge, sparking a guerrilla war from 1919 to the Truce in July 1921.

The Negotiations

The issue which faced the two sides in that second half of 1921 was the status, and size, of this new Ireland. Clearly something more than the old Home Rule had to be offered to the resurgent nationalists. And what was to be done about the recalcitrant north-east, which so valued its British culture? The government, in fact, had partitioned Ireland into six counties and 26 counties by its Government of Ireland Act of 1920, giving both areas Home Rule, run by Belfast and Dublin respectively.

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