Leo Varadkar: The 1921 Treaty shaped Irish politics for a century
We have been dealing with the consequences of partition ever since
The then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, with British prime minister Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor Hotel in Cheshire in October 2019, ahead of private talks in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock. Photograph: PA Wire
The men and women on each side of the treaty debate were patriots. Some fought in 1916 or the War of Independence, others fought for Irish sovereignty and independence through political action. All believed that Ireland should be a republic and fully independent.
Michael Collins, one of the signatories of the treaty, described it not as the freedom we desired but a “stepping stone” to Irish freedom. He signed the treaty alongside Arthur Griffith and others in the knowledge that the alternative was a “brief and terrible war”. As the director of intelligence for the IRA, he knew that they could not win this war. All that could be achieved militarily had been. The British government had accepted the results of the 1918 election, including the mandate for independence, and was willing to negotiate.
In the years after the treaty, Collins’s successors proved it was indeed a stepping stone. They established the Irish Free State and its institutions which still exist today such as our courts, government departments and our Defence Forces. They disbanded the RIC in favour of the unarmed An Garda Síochána, took Ireland into the League of Nations, securing international recognition for the new State, and established our own currency. In subsequent agreements, Ireland’s share of imperial debt was written off and working with other dominions such as Australia and Canada, we were able to clarify through the statute of Westminster of 1931 that the British parliament had no authority to make laws applying to Ireland or the other dominions.
Eamon de Valera, having accepted the Free State and having become its leader in 1932, used the treaty to take more steps. A new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, created a republic in all but name, removing the oath and any reference to Britain and the monarchy, and in 1938 secured the return of the treaty ports. A further step was taken in 1948 when Fine Gael returned to office at the head of a coalition and formally declared Ireland to be a republic, removing Ireland from the Commonwealth as was required of republics at the time. While a republic has been declared many times in Irish history, this was the first time it was internationally recognised.
Some argue that if the treaty had not been signed in London and had been referred back to De Valera in Dublin, further concessions could have been secured. As someone who was involved in negotiations on Brexit and the formation of two coalitions, I know that sometimes issues are held in reserve for the principals to agree at the final moment. However, it is impossible to know if a final meeting between De Valera and Lloyd George could have secured better terms or whether De Valera heading the Irish delegation would have resulted in a better deal. It is certainly understandable that De Valera was angry that the treaty had been signed without his agreement, but what is indisputable is that the negotiators had plenipotentiary powers and had the authority to do so.
It is a common misconception that the treaty led to the partition of Ireland. It did not. Northern Ireland had already been established and its new government was already in control of that territory. Indeed, it was at the opening of Northern Ireland’s parliament in June 1921 that the king called for “forbearance and conciliation”, opening up space for a truce in the War of Independence, negotiations and the treaty six months later.
It’s remarkable how little partition featured in the heated debates on whether or not to accept the treaty. Issues such as the oath to the crown were much more contentious. This was because many believed partition would only be temporary, some thought the Boundary Commission would make it unviable and even Northern Ireland prime minister Craig talked about Northern Ireland lasting for a generation.
It has endured much longer. It is little known today that the treaty actually provided for the Free State to be a 32-county entity with an opt out for the six counties of Northern Ireland. The treaty, in fact, reunited Ireland for a day until the Northern Ireland parliament voted to opt out.
Another feature of the treaty was the Council of Ireland, made up of 40 members from the Oireachtas and 20 from the Northern Ireland parliament. It was to be an embryonic all-island parliament to which powers could be transferred, allowing some matters to be governed on an all-Ireland basis.
The Northern Ireland parliament nominated its members, the Dáil never did. The Irish negotiators did not want such a body fettering the exercise of sovereignty of the new state and secured in the treaty agreement that it would have no powers over the Free State. Northern Ireland did not want a body made up primarily by members from the South to have any authority over it. So, the institution was set aside following a meeting between Collins and Craig in favour of an alternative that was never agreed. I think this was regrettable. It took until the Belfast Agreement to establish functioning North/South institutions and even these are much less than had been envisaged 100 years ago.
The Boundary Commission remains controversial to this day. The signatories believed it would lead to a major redraw of the Border bringing Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry city and large parts of Armagh and Down into the Free State, thus rendering Northern Ireland unviable. However, a radical boundary review might not have made Northern Ireland unviable. Smaller political entities have lasted centuries. It would, however, have ensured a more durable unionist majority for Northern Ireland.
The treaty also contained a concept called ‘common citizenship’ between Britain and Ireland. This persisted until 1949 and is still reflected in the Common Travel Area and reciprocity of citizens’ rights, meaning that Irish citizens in Britain are treated as though they are British and vice versa with some minor exceptions. The concept is also expressed in the Belfast Agreement, which affirms the right of people in Northern Ireland to be Irish, British or both and accepted as such. It is perhaps one that we will need to express in the event of reunification to affirm that there are two nationalities on this island, not one, and that you can belong to either or both.
Identities are not set in stone and they evolve over time. Partition left behind thousands of loyal unionists in the Border counties and the south, and caused unionism to become rooted only in Ulster. The reverse happened for nationalists north of the Border, few of whom fought for independence believing they would be left behind.
We have been dealing with the consequences of this schism ever since. As we enter a second century of statehood in Ireland and in Northern Ireland, we should pause to reflect on all that has been achieved, all that was lost and what can be regained together.
Leo Varadkar is Tánaiste and leader of Fine Gael