Two fresh takes on the Treaty: compelling analysis of a triumph and a tragedy

100 years ago next Monday, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Two books tell the story


The Anglo-Irish Treaty is a relatively under-studied area given its centrality to Irish history. Though the errant provisions of the Treaty were dismantled decades ago in the South and Civil War politics is over, we are still living with the consequences of it 100 years later.

The two political entities on this island owe themselves in full (the Republic of Ireland) and in part (Northern Ireland) to the provisions of the Treaty.

The Treaty has been frequently overlooked in favour of the Civil War afterwards. Up to this point Frank Pakenham’s 1935 account Peace by Ordeal was one of the few accounts exclusively devoted to the Treaty. Pakenham had access to many of the remaining signatories and documents which had been in the public domain before.

Two new books published to mark the centenary of the Treaty are timely additions to our knowledge of this critical document. Gretchen Friemann’s The Treaty is a narrative account of the period from the pre-Truce negotiations in early 1921 to the death of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth in August 1922.

Academics Mícheál O’Fathartaigh and Liam Weeks’ Birth of a State is a follow-up to their 2018 book, The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Irish State. They edited the earlier book, but the new book is their own take.

Friemann’s book is not revelatory in the sense of having new information or new insights into the negotiations, but it is a superb synthesis of what has already been told. With an eye for telling detail and memorable character descriptions of the protagonists, especially Erskine Childers, the secretary to the Irish delegation who appears to have been loathed and distrusted by both sides, this is top-class popular history. She draws on many sources not available to Pakenham at the time he wrote his book, most notably British cabinet secretary Tom Jones’s Whitehall Diaries published in the 1970s, along with accounts in the Irish and British archives.

Friemann is an Australian journalist and, as an outsider with no side, she is attracted to the high political drama of the negotiations. She is particularly strong on the British aspect of the negotiations, outlining how Lloyd George, then known as the prime minister without a party, was beholden to a Conservative party which had within its ranks a substantial number of senior figures who wanted no parlay with a “murder gang” as they were wont to call Sinn Féin.

As Pakenham pointed out, any of the “big four” in the British delegation, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain and FE Smith (Lord Birkenhead), could have been British prime minister. Yet, as Friemann demonstrates, all suffered politically in the aftermath of the Treaty.

The tensions within the Irish delegation and the noteworthy (and inexcusable in my view) absence of de Valera from the negotiations are minutely chronicled here. By drawing on so many sources, Friemann has produced the most comprehensive account yet of the five-member Irish delegation team of Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamonn Duggan and Charles Gavan Duffy. They were inexperienced, exhausted, confused and tetchy. Their constant need to report back to Dublin in the absence of even a telephone left them vulnerable to Lloyd George’s ultimatum in getting them to sign the Treaty in the early hours of December 6th, 1921.

Birth of a State is a scholarly but highly accessible study of the Treaty. “Although the Irish state has not been unloved, there is no doubt that the Treaty has been unloved. Indeed, it has been consistently unloved,” the authors observe.

The time is right to commemorate, if not celebrate, the Treaty, they believe. It was a letdown in copper-fastening Partition and giving rise to the Civil War. On the other hand, it should be remembered as establishing an Irish State at a time when Britain was one of the great powers in the world.

Birth of the State will be of interest to scholars as it contains an excellent reprise of the negotiations along with a clause-by-clause analysis of the document.

They also provide a valuable international perspective to the Treaty in the context of the other five dominions within the Empire: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Newfoundland.

Despite their geographical isolation Australia and New Zealand wanted less autonomy not more from the Empire. Canada, though ostensibly loyal, was frequently cited as an example by the Irish of what could be achieved through dominion status. South Africa, albeit only the white minority, was a country which like Ireland had fought the empire and had set a template for greater independence, while Newfoundland was strongly influenced by its substantial population of Irish descent.

O’Fathartaigh and Weeks’ book is important in identifying the provision for a Boundary Commission as the key weakness in the Treaty from an Irish point of view.

Article 12 of the Treaty allowed the Northern Ireland parliament to opt out of an all-Ireland parliament, but only on the basis that a Boundary Commission would be established to redraw the boundaries in “accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants”.

The authors argue convincingly that Collins and Griffith would never have signed the Treaty had they known how it would operate. They allowed themselves to believe Lloyd George’s blandishments that the Boundary Commission would render Northern Ireland unviable by placing Fermanagh and Tyrone, Derry City and South Armagh in the Irish Free State.

O’Fathartaigh and Weeks also argue convincingly that far too much time was spent on the Irish side during the negotiations and the debates afterwards on the issue of the oath of allegiance and not enough on teasing out the implications of the Border commission. As they point out, there were plenty of precedents in the postwar world and plebiscites were recommended by the Treaty of Versailles.

They conclude: “Numerous boundary commissions had been established under the Treaty of Versailles – with far more detailed instructions, including the conduct of plebiscites – and this information should have been available to the delegation. Why they did not pursue this is unclear, but that the opponents of the Treaty in the Dáil did not push them on this in the following debates was a gross error”.

When the terms of how the Boundary Commission were published in 1924, they were so amorphous that they led eventually to the disaster of its leaked report in 1925 which dashed hopes of a substantial ceding of nationalist-majority areas. Had the Boundary Commission acted in a way that the Irish delegation had expected it to act, the history of modern Ireland would have been different and the Troubles may well have been avoided.

Read separately or together, The Treaty and Birth of a State are a compelling analysis of the agreement which was in equal parts a triumph and a tragedy for the Irish nation.
The Treaty by Gretchen Friemann is published by Merrion Press at €17.95. Birth of a State is published by Irish Academic Press at €20. Faber is to publish Great Hatred: the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy, next June.

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