The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

The Treaty:
Reflections and Reactions

Like any other compromise, the Treaty had defects and virtues. On the one hand, it failed to unify Ireland, left it liable to involvement in British wars, and imposed an odious symbolism on Republicans. More important, it gave most of Ireland complete independence in domestic affairs and considerable freedom in external affairs. After decades of struggle, nationalist Ireland had won the right to decide its own destiny.

The Treaty offered symbolic as well as substantial gains. Its official title, Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, constituted recognition of Irish sovereignty (see appendix II). While it is true that the British did not regard the Treaty as a pact between sovereign states, they never revealed their reservations to the Irish, who insisted that the Treaty was a full-fledged international agreement. In the end, the British government had no choice but to accept the Irish interpretation, although it refused to admit that Britain had in any way recognized the Republic in 1921. 1

In attempting to appease Irish sentiment, the British had so modified the traditional oath of allegiance that it was almost devoid of meaning. Republicans attacked that oath on the grounds that it imposed a primary and binding obligation of loyalty to Crown and Empire, while ultra‐ Unionists angrily alleged that it entailed no obligation at all. 2 The only point to emerge clearly from the acrimonious debate over the oath is that symbols wield much more influence over many minds than reality. Further evidence of the new Dominion's uniqueness can be found in the provision that Anglo-Irish relations were to be governed in accordance with the law, practice, and constitutional usage governing British relations with Canada. This provision constituted the first official British recognition of the supremacy of popular authority in the Dominions.

Both the oath and the explicit statement of constitutional status show that the Treaty was much more radical in implication than either its Irish critics or British supporters were willing to admit. Supporters in Ireland and enemies in Britain came much closer to assessing the Treaty's true significance when they proclaimed that it gave Ireland the power to gain complete independence. Instead of disarming Irish national aspirations, the achievement of Dominion status strengthened them and opened the way to the Republic.

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