The Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921: Centenary Reflections

by Walter Lawlor.


The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London on 6 December 1921, by representatives of the British government and by representatives of the Irish Republic.  After its signing the Irish Free State came into being in January 1922.  Later this year we’ll hear a lot more about this, as the centenary is marked in December.  Most Irish people, in today’s Republic, mark January 1922 as the founding date of the state.  Others look to other foundation dates; such as the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 or the sitting of the First Dáil on 21st January 1919.  On the latter date a Declaration of Independence was made, and a Democratic Programme of economic and social principles adopted.  The Free State became a ‘de facto’ Republic, in 1949, with the passing of The Republic of Ireland of Ireland Act 1948.  Directly after the Treaty was signed, 57 TDs voted against the Treaty with 64 in favour.  We all know how the Free State wasn’t accepted by TDs, IRA volunteers and by individual citizens, with division in every section of society.  There are many instances where brother fought brother and families were divided.  And, of course, throughout the years from 1949, when the Republic was legalised internationally, until today, a declining minority never recognised the Irish Republic due to it being a 26 county rather than 32 county Republic.

Anti-Treaty Poster 1922







Two political parties grew out of the Treaty which had co-existed in Sinn Fein in the revolutionary years 1916-1921; namely pro-treaty Cumann na nGaedheal (which would become Fine Gael in 1933) and Fianna Fail, which was formed in 1926 from anti Sinn Fein elements.  The two parties have dominated Irish political life up to the present.  However, they never entered government together until after the 2020 General Election.  The Irish Labour party founded in Clonmel in 1912, by James Connolly, James Larkin and William O’Brien, took a back seat in national affairs in its first decade of existence, sacrificing the goals of Labour in ‘the national interest’.  The Anglo-Irish Treaty divided the Labour Party.  Some members sided with the Irregulars in the Irish Civil War that quickly followed. O’Brien and Johnson encouraged its members to support the Treaty. In the 1922 general election the party won 17 seats, a strong representation.  Another factor to be considered during the revolutionary period, which is often neglected, is the Protestant experience during this time.  While some were of nationalist persuasion, others were unionist in outlook, and after the Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned the island, they felt more and more isolated as the south strove to gain the strongest possible form of independence and leave the union.  During the War of Independence there had been numerous burnings of big houses throughout the country, particularly in Munster.  More Protestants, per head of population, tended to be shot as spies also.  These are very delicate areas in our recent history that are currently being researched.  In 1911, 10% of the population of the 26 counties that form the Republic today were Protestant, by 1926 that figure fell by 30% to 7%.  A great number of Protestants left the South of Ireland after the Free State was setup.  For many who went, they did not feel at home in the UK either.  They were Irish but felt they would not belong in a new Ireland.  Thankfully the Republic we live in today is free of sectarianism.  Though there were instances in the 20th century, for example The Fethard on Sea boycott in the 1950s and when Mayo would not sanction the appointment of a Protestant County Librarian, Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, in 1930.  The 1937 constitution ‘recognised the special position of the Catholic Church’, the 1922 Constitution was fairer on such matters.  A democracy should be judged on how it treats its minorities.

The Irish Treaty Delegation
Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’, and Winston Churchill members of British Delegation

When talking to family, friends, work colleagues, about the War of Independence these days many questions are raised.  At first people are coy about their feelings I find, and it’s understandable, because you reveal who your parents voted for and your thinking on a lot of matters, possible background in the Tan War etc.  It’s just 3 generations ago, and descendants of those involved in the various happenings are most definitely around.  Laois is a small county and Ireland a small country.  I have relatives on both sides of the Treaty divide, and there are many, civil, arguments.  My uncle on my mam’s side argues that we got Dominion Status out of the Treaty after a bitter war which was followed by another far more bitter one.  He feels we would have got Dominion Status like Australia and Canada before us, without any bloodshed.  I generally counter that Ireland was so near to Britain and far more important to her security, in an era pre radar (1940), that there’s no way Britain would have given us any real freedoms without a fight.  All our previous efforts for Home Rule were thwarted by a UK Conservative Party, who generally did the biding of the Unionists in the North.  We had been shamefully treated, like when we were promised Home Rule after WWI, while at the same time the North was promised they’d remain in the Empire.  After 1916, again the carrot of Home Rule was dangled, in the form of the Irish Convention, which really was some window dressing to appease American sentiment, as Britain was so intent on their joining the war.  I’d argue Home Rule wasn’t even being given, so what would make him think Dominion Status, with much more extensive autonomy, would be given without a fight?

Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence, First Dáil, Anti Treaty

Lloyd George famously pressurised the Irish delegation into signing the Treaty or it ‘would be war, and war within 3 days’ when they requested to present the Treaty before the Dáil a last time.  Surely a bluff many say, I think so, even though the UK had thousands of troops in Ireland.  Were the British bluffing when they said they’d remove anti treaty IRA from the Four Courts in June 1922.  I don’t know; it would have been a risk for Collins and Griffith to not act against the irregulars.  Some feel it would be a step too far, for the British, to move troops from the North to fight anti-Treaty forces in Dublin and risk alienating international opinion..  It might have served to unite both Irish sides again against a common enemy.  Of course, the older you get the more your opinions soften.  When I was 20, I would have strongly taken the stance that you swore an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic, and this Treaty involved swearing fealty to a British monarch.  Your oath to the Irish Republic could not be compromised.  When someone would say ‘but look its only words’ I would have replied that what are nations comprised of only oaths, words, flags.  In the words of Liam Lynch ‘We have declared for an Irish Republic. We will live by no other law.’  I think, idealism would be replaced by pragmatism by now though.  I’d be more of the opinion let’s take what we can get from this Treaty, then we will adapt it every which way to suit our ends!  Much as the De Valera government of the 1930s did by chipping away at the more unsavoury aspects of the Treaty like the Oath, annuity payments, recovery of the Treaty Ports.  A point often brought up is the Irish delegates status of plenipotentiaries i.e. the ability to act independently.  Yet DeValera added a caveat that all important decisions were to be run by cabinet before being made and, before any Treaty was signed, the complete text was to be submitted to Dublin and a reply awaited.  It was confusing to say the least and seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it.  Yet many will argue that the delegation disobeyed Dáil orders, and with some justification.  When the Treaty was debated, evoking the memory of the dead, played a huge role.  With many arguing what their dead relatives would have thought of the Treaty, was it for this they died?  This ‘emotional’ element was very powerful, when you had the Pearses’ mother, Mrs. Tom Clarke, Muriel McSwiney telling the members of the Dáil in no uncertain terms that their respective sons, husband and brother would have voted against the Treaty.  It was hard to counteract this by debating the nuts and bolts, the more mundane aspects of the Treaty.  The 6 female members of the Dail in 1922 voted and argued vehemently against the Treaty.

Éamon DeValera

The partition of Ireland proved to be the long-lasting problem, not an oath to the House of Windsor.  We must realise that Ireland had only been partitioned a year at the Treaty Talks.  No one saw this as being permanent.  But the warning signs were there since at least 1886 as Ulster rioted and said no to Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill.  Partition was engrained, by the physical force tradition, is a strong argument of those who oppose violence, in the formation of the nation, from 1916 on.  It is argued that the conflict from 1919-23, the 1950s IRA border campaign and the troubles, rather than hastening a United Ireland, only lent to postponing it indefinitely.  It will always be up for debate whether violence was necessary to remove the British from 1916-21, I believe it was in that instance.  However, two tragedies, where the gun took centre stage followed the War of Independence, namely the Irish Civil War 1922-23 and ‘The Troubles’, 1969-98.  The later certainly just polarised two traditions, who can only move forward through mutual respect.


A really big question has been asked since 1921 and will always be asked, why didn’t DeValera go to the October-December talks?  Now I get very annoyed at Neil Jordan portrayals of Dev hiding behind a haystack in West Cork plotting Collins assassination in August 1922.  OK, there’s cinematic licence, but that’s just populist rubbish in my opinion.  Yet you can’t avoid the feeling that when De Valera was over in London talking to Lloyd George in July 1921, he knew exactly what was on offer from the British and what they would not countenance.  He was politically savvy and didn’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings to the Irish Nation.  It was time to avoid this at all costs in October.  David Lloyd George said that negotiating with Eamon de Valera was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork!  De Valera replied, upon hearing the comment ‘why doesn’t he use a spoon’!  No doubt Dev’s experience in the US, being a surviving commander of 1916, his title as President of The Republic etc all fed into his ego.  I feel he wanted to remain a presidential figure and top dog.  In his own, less subtle way, I feel Collins did too and desired power, despite his almost hero worship as a man who could do no wrong in the last few decades.  This has been helped by his premature death and mythical status.  But Collins also liked to be in charge, from his IRB days in London to his organisation of prisoners in Frongoch camp.  He usually acted off his own bat, much to the annoyance of Minister for Defence, the explosive – in every sense of the word – Cathal Brugha.  He carved out portfolios for himself in intelligence, gun running, collecting the first Dail loan, IRA operations, his squad etc.  It’s not hard to imagine how De Valera felt about him behind the scenes.  In my opinion, I don’t believe De Valera foresaw the Civil War. Maybe I’m underestimating his cunning, but not negotiating the Treaty was, first and foremost, a good political move at the time.  Like any political jousting today where image is key, this seemed astute politics.  He felt he could control the more extreme Republicans, like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack in Dublin, while also controlling the delegation in London through his instructions.  However, a lot of De Valera’s activity and speeches in the lead up to the Civil War helped ignite it, he acted in an extremely reckless manner, like a man who felt betrayed in many ways.  His speech on 16th March 1922, stating that to achieve freedom the volunteers would have to ‘wade through Irish blood’ was one of the most notable examples of this.  Was this a man, who having lost political power, felt slighted and was somewhat out of control, or was he much more sinister.  The notion that the Treaty showdown between Collins and De Valera was the sole cause of the Civil War, often portrayed in the media today, is not wholly correct.  There would have been a Civil War regardless as the IRA split into factions with opposing commanders at local level around the country.  Certainly, if De Valera had used his voice for peace and backed Griffith and Collins, the disaster would have been greatly mitigated and prevented to some extent.  Why then did Collins go? Could and should he have refused to go without De Valera also being on the negotiating team?   When all is weighed up, I suspect he went out of a sense of national duty and patriotism.  He was only 30 years of age when he sailed with the delegation to the UK – a very young man in political terms and naïve on that score perhaps.

Michael Collins

Background to the Treaty

Under the Act of Union, 1800, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom.  She had a parliament in the 1700s, dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy of the time.  At this stage both Catholics and Presbyterians were restricted by Penal Laws.  However, while many of these remained on the Statute Books they were seldom implemented, and lessening in severity towards the end of the century.  The first physical force attempt to break the Union was Robert Emmett’s failed Rising in July 1803.  Catholic Emancipation came, almost 3 decades later, with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829.  Daniel O’Connell being instrumental in its enactment.  O’Connell’s next mission was Repeal of the Union.  While there was much support for Emancipation in the UK, Repeal received no such support.  O’Connell, entering his 60s, held massive ‘Monster Meetings’ around the country, such as Kilkenny in 1840 when 180,000 people attended.  Over a million people are reported to have attended a meeting at Tara in 1843.  However, the government put a stop to a planned meeting in Clontarf later that year.  After this O’Connell’s star was waning, and physical force groups like the Young Irelanders were filling the void a failed uprising in 1848.


Another attempt to remove the union by force was the IRB (Fenian) Rising of 1865.  Again, it failed, due to British infiltration, poor communication, snowy weather on the night of the Rising in March and lack of manpower and arms.  William E. Gladstone brought forward two limited Home Rule Acts in 1886 and 1893.  The first Bill was defeated in the House of Commons when part of Gladstone’s Liberal Party voted against it with the Conservative Party.  His second Bill failed in the House of Lords who had a veto on legislation.  Unionist opposition in the North of Ireland grew during these years, many historians point out that more should have been done to allay their fears at this point, as opposition only escalated with each passing decade.  Perhaps special autonomy for Northern Ireland in a Home Rule Ireland, representation in the UK commons and so on.  Ulster’s fears were financial, it being an industrially developed province with more in common with the UK than southern Ireland and religious.  The phrase ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ summed this up.

William Ewart Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of English politics, proponent of Home Rule.

During 1909, a constitutional crisis began when the House of Lords rejected David Lloyd George’s Finance Bill.  Two general elections occurred in January and December 1910, both of which left the Liberals and Conservatives equally matched, with John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party having the balance of power in the House of Commons.  The Irish Party, which had campaigned for home rule for Ireland since the 1870s, pledged to assist the Liberals in return for the introduction of a home rule bill.  The Parliament Act 1911 then replaced the unlimited veto of the Lords with one lasting only 2 years, ensuring that a bill passed by the Commons could not be blocked for more than two years.  The Bill was passed by the Commons by a majority of 10 votes in 1912 but the House of Lords rejected it by 326 votes to 69 in January 1913.  In 1913, it was reintroduced and again passed by the Commons, but was again rejected by the Lords by 302 votes to 64.  In 1914 after the third reading, the Bill was passed by the Commons on 25 May 1914 by a majority of 77.  Having been defeated a third time in the Lords, the Government used the provisions of the (new) Parliament Act to override the Lords and send it for Royal Assent.  Opposition in Ulster was very strong, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed.  Irish Nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers.  Just as it looked like Civil War was imminent in Ireland over the Bill, the First World War begun in 1914.  Home Rule was suspended, with Lloyd George telling Redmond Home Rule would come to Ireland, and the Irish Volunteers showed their loyalty by fighting in WWI.  The same man told the Ulster and Unionist leaders, James Craig and Edward Carson, that there would be no Home Rule.  The Ulster men fought with distinction in WWI.  Either Irish Nationalists or Unionists would be disappointed.  More fudging took place regarding Home Rule and what counties could opt out from 1916-18.  Lloyd George told Unionist politicians that Ulster counties could opt out permanently of an Irish Home Rule parliament.  He told Redmond and John Dillion of the Irish Parliamentary Party that any opt out would be temporary.  I hope we’re all getting a good picture of Lloyd George’s political chicanery when it came to Ireland!  The 4th Home Rule Bill, or more commonly called, The Government of Ireland Act, came to pass in 1920.  The Act was intended to establish separate Home Rule institutions within two new subdivisions of Ireland: the six north-eastern counties were to form “Northern Ireland”, while the larger part of the country was to form “Southern Ireland”.  Both areas of Ireland were to continue as a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and provision was made for their future reunification under common Home Rule institutions.  The War of Independence continued in southern Ireland, no longer happy with this measure of Independence.  Sinn Fein had taken over from the Irish Parliamentary Party as the main force in Nationalist politics post the 1918 General Election.  With much work behind the scenes on both sides the War of Independence came to an end when a truce was brought about in July 1921.  The British invited the Irish delegation to London in October ‘with a view to ascertaining how the association of Ireland with the community of Nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish National aspirations.’  Michael Collins was acutely aware that now the IRA was out in the open, his face was known to the British and constantly photographed. Thus, it would be very difficult to restart the war and he could no longer cycle around Dublin with the same level of anonymity.  Eamon De Valera sent his team to London in October, after his exploratory talks in July with Lloyd George.  The Irish plenipotentiaries were led by Arthur Griffith, and with him were Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan and George Gavan Duffy. This relatively young and totally inexperienced group faced such formidable British political talent as Lloyd George (the prime minister), Austen Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill.  The Irish team was sent to London untrained and badly supplied.  They had no clear instructions or guidance, did not know what their fundamentals were, and had no agreed counterproposals prepared.  Nor were they a united team. Nowhere is this more evident than in the letter Eamon de Valera wrote to his friend in America, Joe McGarrity, three weeks after the London conference ended.  De Valera’s letter showed the balancing act he was trying to achieve in the delegation’s composition.  Duggan and Duffy, who were lawyers, were mere “legal padding”.  Barton and Erskine Childers (who was not a delegate), as staunch republicans, were meant to counterbalance Griffith and Collins.  Collins acerbically commented on Childers at this time ‘never trust a convert, too much to prove’.  The cabinet members in Dublin were to keep a tight hold on the delegates in London until, in the final struggle, de Valera’s “external association” was to be the compromise which would resolve all difficulties.  External association was a hypothetical relationship between Ireland and the Commonwealth of Nations proposed by Eamon De Valera during the Treaty negotiations and again at times during 1922, whereby Ireland would be a sovereign state associated with, but not a member of, the Commonwealth; the British monarch would be head of the association, but not head of state of Ireland.  De Valera proposed external association as a compromise between isolationist Irish republicanism on the one hand and Dominion status on the other.  However, the British would have no truck with it during the Treaty Talks or when Dev again proposed it as a solution after the signing of the Treaty.  It was classic Dev.  He was trying to bring everyone along with an idea that was more like a mathematical formula!  De Valera was a maths teacher and a very good one.  Funnily enough his great-great-granddaughter, a grand-daughter of Eamon O’Cuiv, received full marks in her Leaving Cert and maximum points in Honours Maths a few years back, a strong family gene!

Many anti treaty cartoons used Robert Emmett’s speech from the dock in 1803, with his ghost saying the time had not yet come to write his epitaph in 1922.


Conclusion: The Negotiation of The Treaty

The Treaty Signatories

As the Irish Delegation arrived in Downing in October 1921 all British delegates eyes were on Mick Collins.  The Scarlet Pimpernel, whom it appeared to them was about to break up the British Empire almost, single handed.  Collins eyed them with equal suspicion.  On his instructions, Emmet Dalton purchased during the talks, a Martinsyde Type A Mark II biplane which was put on 24-hour standby at Croydon Airport to allow Michael Collins to escape back to Ireland if the talks failed.  As a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB, the latter kept them organisation informed of progress in London in regular despatches.  Almost the entire IRB organisation would follow him and support the Treaty.  Trade and tariffs were discussed the first day a relatively easy start before the sailing got rougher.  On a debate on British intelligence and IRA intelligence Collins accused the British delegation of following him night and day, even to Maiden Lane Church as he went to Mass each day.  He memorably requested the British to send a Catholic agent to follow him as ‘he wouldn’t like to be responsible for conversion as well as subversion’!  Collins also made the almost obligatory visit to Sir John and Lady Lavery’s home for a portrait sitting with the former.  Lady Lavery was a staunch supporter of Irish Independence.  Many rumours circulate to this day about the nature of her relationship with Collins, but they remain just that.  The strain on the Irish delegates was tremendous throughout and at one time or another practically all of the delegates considered returning home.  Griffith and Collins grew closer as allies, and were coming to the viewpoint that a 26 county dominion status type state, with no British soldiers, would be an acceptable agreement and starting point, ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’ as Collins later stated in a 1922 speech on the Treaty in the Dáil.  Another favourite Collins quote at this time came when Lloyd George, speaking with Collins informally asked him how he managed to evade capture riding around Dublin on a bicycle.  Collins commented that you might find a needle in a haystack, but you’d be hard pressed to identify a single strand of hay.

If there was to be a breakdown in the talks the Irish wanted to break on Ulster, it would be far better from their point of view to present a picture to the world of the British partitioning the country.  The British wanted any break to be on allegiance to the crown.  It was hoped to present the talks as failing due to the intransigence of the Irish in recognising the King as head of state.  Lloyd George, with a stroke of political cunning, managed to get Arthur Griffith to sign a document accepting the partition of Ulster while chatting with him alone in November.  Griffith signed that he would not break on Ulster provided a Boundary Commission was setup to define the northern border.  It was hoped a plebiscite would take place and Catholic areas of Tyrone, Fermanagh, south Armagh and Derry would vote to join the Free State, leaving the rest of Northern Ireland too small to be a viable political entity.  Griffith agreed enthusiastically while Lloyd George was very vague on detail.  The latter also spoke of tax incentives to entice the North to join a united Ireland.  Lloyd George informed James Craig, giving him a different spin that the Boundary Commission would amount to nothing.  The Boundary Commission became part of the Treaty signed in December 1921.  When it was setup in the 1920s it proposed part of East Donegal in the Free State should join Northern Ireland.  It was quickly decided to leave the boundary as agreed during the Treaty.  At the last cabinet meeting before the signing of the Treaty, Griffith and Barton requested that De Valera return with them to London. He declined. Towards the end of the negotiations, as the Irish relationship with the British Empire was discussed, Gavan Duffy remonstrated with the British delegates that the Irish delegates problem was being part of the Empire.  In a choregraphed move the British in unison threatened to break the talks there and then.  However, work behind the scenes brought all parties back to the table.  Griffith’s signed affidavit on partition was produced.  After much consideration, and considerable anguish, the Irish delegates signed the Treaty on 6th December 1921.  After signing, Lord Birkenhead of the British Delegation remarked that he had signed his political death warrant.  Michael Collins retorted that he had signed his actual death warrant. And thus, the Treaty which defined Anglo-Irish relations for the past 100 years came into being.  I conclude below by outlining the main provisions of the Treaty.


The Treaty Main Provisions

  • Crown forces would withdraw from most of Ireland.
  • Ireland was to become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, a status shared by Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa.
  • As with the other dominions, the King would be the Head of State of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) and would be represented by a Governor General (See Representative of the Crown).
  • Members of the new free state’s parliament would be required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State. A secondary part of the oath was to “be faithful to His Majesty King George V, His heirs and successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship”.
  • Northern Ireland (which had been created earlier by the Government of Ireland Act) would have the option of withdrawing from the Irish Free State within one month of the Treaty coming into effect.
  • If Northern Ireland chose to withdraw, a Boundary Commission would be constituted to draw the boundary between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
  • Britain, for its own security, would continue to control a limited number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy. In October 1920, British Prime Minister Lloyd George expressed his thoughts on Irish control of the military: “Irish temper is an uncertainty and dangerous forces like armies and navies are better under the control of the Imperial Parliament.”
  • The Irish Free State would assume responsibility for a proportionate part of the United Kingdom’s debt, as it stood on the date of signature.
  • The treaty would have superior status in Irish law, i.e., in the event of a conflict between it and the new 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State, the treaty would take precedence.

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