New Great War Episode: The Anglo-Irish Treaty

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It's November 1921, and Prime Minister Lloyd George is about to issue the Irish Republicans an ultimatum: accept the British treaty offer, or it’s war.

By 1921 the Anglo-Irish War had seen pro-independence Irish guerrilla forces score some important successes against the British Army, but also suffer serious defeats. After two years of fighting, 2300 people had been killed, and the public wanted peace. British and Irish politicians would now take the lead in determining Ireland’s future. In today’s episode, we’ll take a look at the bitter negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and how they set the new Irish state on the road to civil war - and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.

In summer 1921, the British Army and police, and the Irish Republican Army guerrillas fighting them were exhausted, and public support for the war was weakening in Ireland and Britain. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was faced with two options: escalate by declaring full martial law, or negotiate. He chose diplomacy and Irish republicans agreed to a truce in July, and talks in the future.

The truce was a tense one. Units on both sides avoided directly provoking each other, but they also prepared for a resumption of hostilities. Some political gestures were made, like when the British released Irish leaders like Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, and Eamon Duggan from prison.

The truce also came at a critical time for the IRA. Despite their tactical successes in the field, strategically speaking, the British still commanded overwhelming force. IRA supplies were also running low, since they had difficulty capturing British weapons and new British tactics to prolong firefights forced the Irish fighters to use up even more ammunition.
Irish Minister of Finance and intelligence chief Michael Collins summed up the crisis in November 1921:

“We had not when these [truce] terms were offered an average of one round of ammunition for each weapon we had. The fighting area in Cork… was becoming daily more circumscribed, and they could not have carried on much longer.” (Knirck 76)

Once the truce was announced, it also brought challenges for the IRA. Recruitment exploded, increasing IRA fighters from 34,000 in July to 75,000 in December. Older fighters did not always look fondly on the new recruits, as IRA leader Tom O’Malley wrote later:

“The Irish Republican Army was in danger of becoming popular. Recruits came in large numbers. Soon men appeared in uniform who had never shown much anxiety to run special risks when courage was needed.” (Townshend 317)

The break in the fighting also meant that many IRA men became restless. Leaders tried to improve discipline and training, but officers and local people complained of bad behavior, drunkenness, and even fraternization with the hated British Auxiliary Division. IRA leader Liam Lynch even said it was four times harder to run company in peacetime than in war.

Despite the ongoing tensions, the truce on the ground held. The conflict now moved to a political battle between Lloyd George and Eamon de Valera, the President of the rebel Irish parliament.

Informal negotiations began in July and August, and Lloyd George’s invitation to de Valera made British intentions clear – Irish independence would not mean leaving the empire:

“[The British Government] are convinced that the Irish people may find as worthy and as complete an expression of their political and spiritual ideals within the Empire as any of the numerous and varied nations united in allegiance to His Majesty’s Throne…” (Mansergh 26/27)

De Valera’s early priority was gaining recognition for the Irish Republic, which Lloyd George refused. To the Prime Minister, this was not a negotiation between states, but between the government and a group of secessionist British citizens. De Valera saw it differently:

“To speak of [Ireland] seceding from a partnership she has not accepted, or from an allegiance which she has not taken to render, is fundamentally false, just as the claim to subordinate her independence to British strategy is fundamentally unjust.” (Knirck 81)

Lloyd George’s early proposal was as follows: dominion status for Ireland, the likely partition of the north-east of the island, and extensive British security and financial control. The Irish parliament rejected these terms, but de Valera began to soften his position based on the new concept of “external association.” He envisioned an independent Irish state not entirely within the British empire, but affiliated with it. For some Irish hardliners, this was a betrayal of the Republic proclaimed in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Lloyd George was frustrated by the lack of progress in the summer, so he proposed a London conference to hash out a deal – de Valera agreed, and both sides prepared to select their delegates.

The Irish team was be drawn from the recently shuffled cabinet: President de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Austen Stack, Robert Barton, and W.T. Cosgrave.

These seven had worked together during the war against Britain, but they were also divided. Griffith was considered a moderate who was willing to work with the British, whereas Stack and Brugha were hardliners who insisted on a republic. Collins was publicly seen as a hardliner, but his knowledge of the poor state of the IRA softened his stance in private.
There was also a personal rivalry between Brugha and Collins – Brugha criticized Collins’ competence, and Collins’ supporters said Brugha was jealous of their man’s mythical reputation.

These tensions only got worse in the debate about who would attend the London conference, since it seemed none of the ministers actually wanted to go. De Valera decided not to attend, despite being President and having led talks with Lloyd George so far. He claimed that as President he should stay in Ireland “untouched” by the negotiations, which would allow him to convince hardliners of the expected compromises. Contemporaries and historians have questioned his rationale. It’s been suggested that he wanted to avoid blame for a treaty that couldn’t please everyone, or that he planned to wait until talks before sweeping in to save them. At the time, Irish writer Piaras Béaslaí pointed out that de Valera clearly didn’t think his presence in Ireland was important during the actual war, since he’d spent much of it touring the United States.

The cabinet voted on whether to send Valera, and the President cast the decisive tie breaker in the negative. Instead, Griffith, Collins and Barton would go along with two lawyers and Erskine Childers, a hardline republican and English convert to the Irish cause. Some suggest Childers was chosen to keep Griffith and Collins from making too many concessions, while others suspect he functioned as de Valera’s spy.

For his part, Collins had his own theory on why he was sent:

“I have been sent to London to do a thing which those who sent me know had to be done but had not the courage to do it themselves.” (Knirck 86)

So the reluctant Irish delegation arrived in London in early October, 1921. Officially they had full authority to make decisions on their own – but in practice they had to report everything to De Valera for approval. This approach would prove controversial.

While the Irish delegates were largely inexperienced in diplomacy, the British sent political powerhouses: Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead, Sir Hamer Greenwood and Winston Churchill.

Both sides knew some points would be easier to agree on than others. The Irish expected Britain would give in on financial and defense arrangements, so they focused on the two major sticking points: the status of Ulster and the oath of allegiance to the Crown.

At first Griffith prioritized the Ulster question. Since he was sympathetic to the idea of a dual monarchy, Irish unity was more important to him than the oath. But by the end of October, he changed his stance and joined the other Irish ministers in accepting that Irish partition was probably inevitable.

The six Ulster counties were mostly Protestant, mostly supported unity with Britain, and IRA activity there had been minimal. In fact much of Ulster was already de facto separated from the rest of Ireland by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which gave the northeast its own parliament. Lloyd George refused to agree to the six counties becoming part of an Irish Free state against their will. Instead, the British proposed a Boundary Commission that would advise on a future border. Griffith and Collins agreed in the hopes that some Catholic areas in Ulster might be given to the Free state. Barton, Childers and Duffy on the other hand, were angry about abandoning Ulster.

In the end it was the question of the oath that became the major obstacle for both sides. For Britain, it was essential that any Irish Free State have some kind of symbolic oath binding it to the Crown. For dedicated Irish republicans, such symbolism was very hard to swallow.

On December 3, 1921, the Irish delegates returned to Dublin for heated discussions with the rest of the Cabinet. Brugha opposed any sort of oath on the basis it would split the country “from top to bottom.” Griffith and Collins claimed British patience had run out and renewed war would be disastrous for Ireland. For Collins, the oath was pure pragmatism: “[The oath was] a sugar-coating to enable the English public to swallow the treaty.” (SOURCE ask Mark)

After much debate, de Valera drafted a compromise version of an oath that most of the cabinet could live with:

“I… do solemnly swear true faith and Allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State, to the Treaty of Association and to recognise the King of Great Britain as head of the Associated States.” (Knirck 96)

So by early December, the Irish cabinet was leaning towards accepting the partition of the island, and De Valera had come up with a compromise oath. But when the Irishmen returned to London, controversy wasn’t far behind.

President de Valera later said that his oath was merely a spontaneous suggestion, and that it was clear the delegates would go to London, reject the current British offer and get the Irish cabinet’s approval before signing another. Collins and Griffith, however, left Dublin thinking they were to reject the current draft treaty, but had the power to sign another on their own, especially if the oath was closer to De Valera’s idea.

To add to the tension, Lloyd George felt the talks were on the verge of breaking down and issued an ultimatum December 5. The latest British offer was final, and the Irish delegates would not be given time to consult with Dublin. If they did not accept, war would resume. Churchill noted the Irish delegation’s unenthusiastic acknowledgement of the new reality:

“The Irishmen gulped down the ultimatum phlegmatically.” (Mansergh Unresolved question 189)

Last minute talks led to the British conceding a guarantee of Irish financial autonomy, but Duggan, Barton, and Duffy were still reluctant. Collins and Griffith finally got them to agree in spite of Childers’ protests, and in the early hours of December 6 the exhausted Irish delegation signed.

The same day, Collins wrote to a friend:

“I tell you this - early this morning I signed my death warrant.” (Mansergh Unresolved Question 199)

The final terms provided for an Ireland with limited self-government similar to dominions like Canada. It would have its own recognised parliament for non-imperial affairs, significant financial autonomy, and its own small military force. British troops would leave the country.

But the Irish Free State remained within the British Empire. A British Governor General represented the monarchy, and members of the Irish parliament would have to swear an oath to the King. The Royal Navy would continue to patrol Irish waters and have access to bases, while Ulster’s six counties would be given the choice to join the Free State or not. The day after the treaty was signed, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister made it clear they would not.

So, an Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed, but the British and Irish parliaments still had to ratify it – and this was easier said than done.

Reactions to the treaty in Britain were mixed. Some conservative unionist politicians rejected it, because they worried that Ulster might be forced to join the Free State in the future. But the British public were now largely in favour of partition and peace, and many viewed the diehard Ulster unionists as stubborn and unwilling to compromise while expecting more financial support from London. The British parliament ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty by a wide margin on December 16.

Irish opinion was bitterly divided. Much of the public was relieved that war had been avoided, but political battle-lines were drawn. The cabinet voted in favor by a margin of 4 to 3, but De Valera denounced the treaty in a statement to US newspapers:

“The terms of this agreement are in violent conflict with the wishes of the majority of this nation, as expressed freely in successive elections during the past three years. I feel it is my duty to inform you immediately that I cannot recommend the acceptance of this treaty either to Dáil Éireann or to the country… The greatest test of our people has come. Let us face it worthily without bitterness, and above all, without recrimination.” (Morning Press)

This statement caused a split in the parliament and in the IRA. Several IRA formations rejected the treaty, including the influential 1st Southern Division, and Brugha even suggested the other Irish treaty delegates be arrested. The Parliamentary debates promised to be volatile and long, since nearly every member wanted to speak. De Valera led the opposition, but rarely spoke about the actual articles of the treaty. Instead, he expressed his sense of betrayal that the treaty was signed without his knowledge:

“I have only one thing to say, one thing I feel hurt about, with respect to the delegation, and that is that a Treaty was signed in London, and when I heard of it first the signatures were appended to it.” (Knirck 119)

Others opponents objected the oath of allegiance, even if it was symbolic, since they said they could not keep it.

The Pro-Treatyists stressed what had been achieved - the creation of a Free State and the removal of British troops. Collins also suggested the treaty would act as a “stepping stone” to further freedoms:

“[It might not be] the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop but the freedom to achieve freedom.” (Cottrell 28)

Some supporters appealed to rationality or invoked public support for the treaty - which they claimed was overwhelming. De Valera measured public opinion differently:

“[If I] wanted to know what the Irish people wanted I only had to examine my heart.” (Cottrell 30)

Debates became personal, Brugha and Childers leading the assault against Griffith and Collins. When Collins accused Brugha of bullying, the Minister of Defence replied:

“The amount of offence that I would take at [the remark] would be measured by the respect or esteem that I had for the character of the person who made the charge. In this particular instance I take no offence whatsoever.” (Knirck 122)

Although the debates over the treaty took a long time, the actual terms were not at the heart of most discussions, and the Ulster issue had barely been touched. On January 7, 1922, the Irish parliament finally voted: 64 in favor of the treaty, and 57 against. Some historians have argued that Brugha’s attacks on Collins actually cost the anti-Treaty side votes. De Valera resigned immediately after the vote, and walked out of parliament with his supporters. Griffith became president of a provisional government, which formally ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty on January 14.

So by January 1922 the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been approved by the British and Irish parliaments. But the Dail was not the only power in Ireland, and the IRA was also wrestling with whether to accept the treaty.

Despite Defense Minister Brugha’s opposition to the treaty, most of the high-ranking IRA officers supported it. They knew that war against Britain was unsustainable and agreed with Collins that the IRA could not return to guerrilla warfare. Many local commanders though, wanted to keep fighting. Some felt that Britain might still buckle under psychological attrition, while others wanted to avenge fallen comrades. Dan Breen, who took part in the Soloheadbeg Ambush which triggered the war in 1919, was blunt:

“I would never have handled a gun or fired a shot… to obtain this treaty.” (Townshend 353)

Rebellion now seemed likely. Three days after the signing, a group of IRA officers met in Dublin and proclaimed that the military had pledged loyalty to a republic which no longer existed:

“The action of the majority in the Dáil in supporting the Treaty involving the setting up of an Irish Free State was a subversion of the Republic and relieved the Army from its allegiance to An Dáil.” (Michael Hopkinson Green Against Green)

The Provisional Irish Government announced the creation of a new National Army, which made things worse. IRA units scrambled for arms and ammunition, and as British troops withdrew in early 1922, they left some of their bases to anti-Treaty IRA groups.

So after more than two years of bloody fighting, the Anglo-Irish War came to an end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the creation of the Irish Free State with the British Empire. But tensions within the Free State threatened to boil over. In March 1922, fighting between pro- and anti-treaty groups had barely been avoided in Limerick, and in April the anti-treaty IRA set up their own Executive separate from the parliament. Former President De Valera made a foreboding prediction:

“If the Treaty was accepted, the fight for freedom would still go on, and the Irish people, instead of fighting foreign soldiers, would have to fight the Irish soldiers of an Irish Government set up by Irishmen… They would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish Government, and through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the Government in order to get Irish freedom.” (De Valera and Moynihan 98/99)

The Irish Free State was on the brink of civil war.

1921 The Great War

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