One hundred years ago today, just before 11am, a car pulled up outside 10 Downing Street and Michael Collins bounded up the two steps that lead to the British prime minister’s residence. He was not so much anxious to get to the negotiations that would conclude with the Anglo-Irish Treaty two months later as he was to evade the paparazzi, which, in a peculiar turn of events, had been lying in wait to ambush him.
Collins had been the faceless leader of a bloody insurgency against British rule in Ireland, and now that it was time to make peace, he had become a celebrity. Despite Collins’s fleetness of foot, one journalist managed to note how cheerful he appeared. On December 6th, 1921, when the Treaty was signed, he would be anything but Winston Churchill recollected of him the night before that he “looked as if he were going to shoot someone, preferably himself”. Collins, and the rest of the Irish delegation to the Treaty negotiations, had inaugurated Irish independence but at that time it would not feel worthy of celebration.
The controversy that followed President Higgins’s refusal of an invitation to mark the centenary of Partition focused on the existence of Northern Ireland. However, it raised an interesting side-issue that has not yet attracted much attention, but may do in the months to come – what about the centenary of the independent Irish state created by Collins and his comrades? Numerous events of the Irish revolution have been marked since the decade of commemorations began in 2012, but when are we to mark the event that was the culmination of these efforts? When are we to mark Irish independence?
The Irish State has an independence day, even if it is not given any official recognition. It is December 6th. This is not a date that holds significance for Irish people, nor is it noted particularly by historians, but this was the date when, a century ago this year, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, and on foot of it the independent Irish State came into being. Indeed, December 6th was also the date one year later, in 1922, when the Treaty was fully ratified, its enabling legislation having been introduced on both sides of the Irish Sea, and independent Ireland took its bow on the international stage.
In the United States, there is general celebration of Independence Day, July 4th, and, also, of Ratification Day, January 14th (which commemorates when, in 1784, there was a congressional proclamation of the Treaty of Paris that had been signed with Great Britain) – and these are two separate dates. Why, then, does nobody in Ireland remember just that one date, December 6th? Is it because nobody in Ireland wants to remember the Treaty to which the Irish State owes its existence? And why not?
Before considering that, it is worth detailing what exactly the Treaty delivered for Ireland. To begin with, the negotiations on the Treaty, which commenced, as stated above, in London on October 11th, 1921, represented the first time that any Irish side had gotten the British to the table to discuss Ireland’s future. During the preceding 100 years, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Patrick Pearse had all failed to get to that point, and yet they are all recalled more fondly than the group of five who took the lead in negotiating the Treaty – Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Éamonn Duggan and George Gavan Duffy (with Collins being the notable exception). Furthermore, that group of five left the table with an independent Irish State that would have substantive sovereignty, a free state that would only continue to be linked to the United Kingdom for the most part symbolically, with, for instance, King George V remaining as head of state.
The model for Irish independence and sovereignty that the Treaty cited explicitly was Canada, and at the Paris Peace Conference following the first World War, Canada had not only enjoyed a national status coequal to that of the United Kingdom itself, but also one separate and distinct to that of the British Empire. Like Canada, the Irish Free State (as the new nation-state was to be known, not Southern Ireland as had been implied under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that first partitioned the island) would be a dominion of the British crown but, as we argue in our new book, Birth of a State: The Anglo-Irish Treaty, far more was achieved with the Treaty that anyone could have envisaged, realistically, at the start of the Irish revolution.
For many, though, the Treaty could nonetheless not be seen as a success, and this is one reason why nobody wants to remember it. In not delivering full sovereignty for Ireland, it did not achieve British recognition for the Irish republic as proclaimed by the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. It did not matter that there was no indication whatsoever that the British would have agreed to recognise an Irish republic; the Treaty was seen as a betrayal of it, and of the men and women who had fought, and died, to defend it during and after 1916.
The Treaty also did not deliver a united Ireland. Partition, and the inevitability of a separate jurisdiction in the northeast of the island, had been in prospect for almost a decade, if not longer, with the political and militant mobilisation of Ulster unionism. Moreover, Partition had already come to pass with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which had created Northern Ireland, and the opening of the parliament in Belfast in June 1921. Despite this, because the Treaty made specific provisions for Partition, and only qualified these with a promise to look at the Border in the future, with recourse to a vaguely defined boundary commission, the Treaty would, in time, come to be seen as the instrument through which Irish nationalists themselves tacitly conceded on partition and, consequently, cemented it. As the controversy surrounding the church service in Armagh to reflect on partition has highlighted, this concession continues to rankle.
Another reason why nobody chooses to remember the Treaty is that its immediate impact is still felt keenly today. Unlike in most of contemporary Europe, where political conflict in parliament has historically been between left and right, in Ireland it has been between two sides, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who owe their origin to the split in the Dáil over the Treaty in January 1922 and to the resulting civil war. Even the party (the current Sinn Féin) that threatens to oust the two from power also owes its origins to the Treaty. There is a prevailing sense that this atypical political configuration has not served the Irish state as well as an orthodox left-right democratic divide might have, with the enduring affiliations of civil war politics tending to supersede policy-led political decision-making. Whether this is the case or not is impossible to determine categorically, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that civil war politics has been inhibiting.
Viewed in both a positive and a negative light, the Treaty is a highly significant document that deserves greater analysis for its role in shaping modern Ireland. Not only was it the most major political injunction in Irish history in nearly 800 years when it was signed in 1921, but its legacies continue to have a critical bearing on the Irish present. Official recognition of its anniversary on December 6th would, perhaps, give pause not, simply, for a celebration of the Treaty, and of the independence of the Irish State, but for a timely reassessment of it.
Dr Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh and Dr Liam Weeks are co-authors of Birth of a State: The Anglo-Irish Treaty (Irish Academic Press, 2021).