The Anglo-Irish Treaty was a treaty between the British Empire and the Provisional Irish Government which created the Irish Free State and brought an end to the Anglo-Irish War. Some of its more controversial aspects were that Ireland should remain a member of the British Commonwealth, its elected representatives should swear an oath of allegiance to the British Monarch and the sustained partition of Northern Ireland. It led directly to the Irish Civil War as many of the Irish Republican Army considered it a betrayal of the cause they fought for.
The cessation of hostilities and prelimenary negotiations
The Anglo-Irish War ended with the truce of 11 July 1921. Éamon de Valera, with the backing of the Dáil traveled to London to negotiate for a politically autonomous 32 county republic, although he conceded that External Association (some loose ties) with the British Commonwealth would be inevitable. The British government refused to grant this. However, Lloyd George did offer a great deal more autonomy to Ireland than what was offered in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 this deal allowed the same degree of autonomy as Australia, New Zealand and Canada and was known within the Empire as Dominion Status. The cabinet of Dáil Eireann formally rejected these proposals. Although Lloyd George threatened a renewal of war if agreement could not be reached, both he and De Valera were constantly in communication to try and bring about an agreement. The Irish and British sides were constantly in negotiation from August to September 1921 in order to further negotiations and reach an agreement. Lloyd George invited an Irish delegation to attend a conference in London on 11 October 1921 in order to reach a final agreement.
Reaction in the Provisional Cabinet
When the cabinet met to choose the delegation, De Valera shocked the cabinet when he told them he would neither be leading the delegation nor be an accessory of it. He claimed that as President of the Irish republic, he was best able to calm the concerns of extreme Irish republicans if he were to stay in Ireland. As Vice President of the Irish republic, Arthur Griffith was chose to lead the delegation. Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack refused to join the delegation. Robert Barton, George Gavan Duffy and Eamonn Duggan accompanied Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith to the conference. As members of cabinet, Collins, Griffith and Barton were recognized as Chief negotiators while Gavan Duffy and Duggan were teamed legal advisors. Finally, Erskine Childers was deemed secretary of the Irish delegation. The negotiators instructions stated, "It is understood that the Cabinet in Dublin be kept informed of the progress of the negotiations." In early October 1921, the Irish delegation made preparations to head for London for the early rounds of the negotiations with the British government.
Political realities and differing ambitions
The members of the British delegation were much more experienced than their Irish counterparts. The Prime Minister Lloyd George, who was head of a shaky coalition government between Liberals and conservatives led them. It was commonly believed the conservatives only tolerated him as Prime Minister because he was much loved by the public for being the ‘war hero’ of the First World War; His leadership qualities deemed essential to British victory in the conflict. The conservatives had an overwhelming number of MPs compared to the Liberals, whose traditional voting base had been taken by the recently formed Labour Party. The secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill was also involved as was Lord Birkenhead and Austin Chamberlain. It is important to note that every member of the British delegation were conservatives apart from the Liberal Lloyd George. The Conservatives were traditionally pro-Union and anti-Home Rule. Their influence limited Lloyd George’s ability to offer significant concessions to the Irish delegation, as he was more willing to compromise. Although the House of Commons voted in favour of negotiations with Sinn Fein, George had to be careful not to offer too many concessions to the Republicans. From the offset it became clear that the gap between the two parties aims was huge. For Britain, the unity of the Empire was paramount while Sinn Fein wanted an independent republic. Lloyd George would not allow any agreement to be reached unless Sinn Fein agreed to an oath of allegiance to the British crown. In the context of the time, this was the only condition the British government could ensure that the unity of the Empire was clear.
In contrast to the clear demands of the British delegation, the Irish delegation had not yet worked out how they would be willing to compromise on their aims to a full independent republic. De Valera had proposed an idea called external association, which would have involved close co-operation with the British Empire but still would have allowed Ireland to be an independent sovereign republic.
Development of the Peace talks and the Ulster question
On 26 October the conference took a changed format with several sub-conferences formed between smaller groups of delegates. In one such meeting Griffith assured Lloyd George that if the ‘essential unity’ of Ireland were met, he would recommend a free partnership between the British Commonwealth with recognition by Ireland as the King of Britain as head of the associated States. This was no surprise to most as Griffith had long been a Dual Monarchist, and perhaps supported peace more strongly than any other Irish delegate. George agreed to try and persuade the Northern Ireland premier, Sir James Craig to allow Northern Ireland to come under the overall control of a Dublin government. For Griffith and Collins the idea of a boundary commission had both advantages and disadvantages. They believed that such a commission would move predominately nationalist areas such as Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry City and south Armagh out of Northern Ireland. They also hoped that the threat of a commission would encourage Craig to recognize an all Ireland parliament. However, in two crucial respects the boundary commission weakened the negotiations of Sinn Fein. It recognized the permanence of partition and indicated that if talks broke down, it would not be over the issue of Ulster.
With the issue of Ulster sidelined, Lloyd George and the British delegates concentrated on putting pressure on the Irish negotiators to accepting Dominion status. Refusing to accept external association, the British did however grant some minor concessions regarding the oath of allegiance and the role of the King. On 3 December the delegates returned to Dublin to put the British proposals before the Cabinet, where deep divisions soon emerged. De Valera, Stack and Brugha rejected dominion status outright. The delegates were ordered to return to London and not sign anything unless ran through the Cabinet first.
Conclusion of the negotiations
On 4 December talks restarted between the two sides. The delegates once again tried to make external association the focus of the talks but the talks broke down when the British refused to entertain debate on it. George encouraged the talks to resume and so they did after some persuasion. Griffith was never a doctrinate republican and so was prepared to accept anything that gave Ireland a substantial degree of independence. Collins was well aware of how ill equipped the Irish Republican Army were to re-start a war with Britain and so was determined that an agreement be reached.
On 5 December the British negotiators made a sudden concession to the Sinn Fein negotiators - they allowed the Irish Free State to have fiscal autonomy which would allow them to place protective tariffs on imports if they wished. Having made his final concession, Lloyd George then ordered them then and there that if they did not sign the new proposals there would be "Immediate and Terrible War" in Ireland.
The Delegates signed the Treaty and it was ratified in the Dail. The ensuing years and strife between pro-treaty forces and anti-treaty forces split the island of Ireland apart, leading to the Irish Civil War.
- Knirck, Jason K.; Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates Over the Anglo-irish Treaty of 1921 (2006)