Birth of a nation: the treaty that transformed Ireland

OPINION: NEXT TUESDAY marks the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921

OPINION:NEXT TUESDAY marks the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921. In creating a Free State dominion of the British empire rather than a republic, the divisions the treaty caused within Irish republicanism were to have fatal and enduring consequences, involving civil war, the poisoning of the body politic and the premature death of talented people, including the much lamented Michael Collins and the much neglected Arthur Griffith.

It remained a sensitive, divisive issue and some on both sides of the treaty divide maintained a dignified silence for many years after for fear of stoking hatreds and resentments that could not be considered buried.

Having worked hard to implement the treaty’s provisions and demonstrate its potential, the Cumann na nGaedheal governments of the 1920s led by William T Cosgrave had to look on in pain in 1932, as Éamon de Valera led Fianna Fáil to government less than 10 years after the end of the Civil War. Understandably for them, he was the man they could not forgive.

In 1927 he had been prepared to take the oath of allegiance to the British crown, a provision of the treaty that five years earlier he and his followers would not countenance and went to war over.


In government, de Valera set about dismantling the treaty, to the extent that by the time he unveiled his new Constitution in 1937, the 26 counties was a republic in all but name, ironically vindicating the assertion of Michael Collins that the treaty could be a stepping stone to further freedom. The final stepping stone was the declaration of the republic in 1949 by a Fine Gael-led government.

The negotiation of the treaty was fascinating because of the political strategies employed by both sides, the human dilemmas it created, the split it caused and the subsequent manner in which all these issues were framed.

At a very early stage, in 1935, writer and politician Frank Pakenham produced a brilliant account of the negotiations, Peace by Ordeal, which has remained the definitive account. He had the advantage of being able to talk to key participants on both sides and managed, with verve, to produce a balanced assessment, at a time when the issues were still raw and emotive.

He included vivid portraits of the participants, underlined the consequences of the tensions and distance between the Irish negotiators in London and their colleagues who remained in Dublin and the extent to which the Irish delegation were outmanoeuvred by the British in relation to a boundary commission clause in the treaty which they were led to believe would result in an alteration to the Border making the state of Northern Ireland unviable.

They had been sold a pup on that issue, but overall, they had negotiated a measure of independence that some more than others believed was substantial. There was to be no sense of communal political commemoration of the treaty in the decades that followed.

As was noted by the political correspondent of this newspaper in 1946, at the time of the 25th anniversary of the treaty, “the celebrations must inevitably be of a one-sided character” even though “the fact that the Oireachtas is able to assemble in Leinster House and direct the government of the country stems essentially from the treaty”.

The Fianna Fáil government then in power had no intention of marking the occasion. Fine Gael, in contrast, assembled in the Mansion House to stress that the treaty admitted Irish sovereignty “in peace and war”.

Fine Gael leader Gen Richard Mulcahy also emphasised that the treaty “gave Ireland back her purse”, a reference to the concession of fiscal autonomy conceded by the British towards the end of the treaty negotiations.

The 50th anniversary of the treaty in December 1971 was once again regarded as a Fine Gael commemoration, although its leader Liam Cosgrave suggested “it would be far better if commemoration was organised by the State”. Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s failure to mark the occasion was referred to as “pigmy- minded pettiness” by Fine Gael’s Richie Ryan.

Historian Leland Lyons wrote a series of essays on the treaty to mark the 50th anniversary. With the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a backdrop, Lyons challenged “republican apologists” who claimed public opinion was “manufactured” in favour of the treaty in 1922, when candidates who supported the treaty received 78 per cent of first preference votes in that year’s general election.

He also warned against simplifying the dilemmas of late 1921, suggesting it was legitimate to argue the Irish delegation “had a moral duty to sign” in face of the threat of renewed war with Britain if they did not.

For all the talk of the treaty destroying prospects of Irish unity, he pointed to the research of historian Maureen Wall, which revealed that the treaty debates in late 1921 and early 1922 had witnessed relative silence on the subject of Northern Ireland. Of the 338 pages of the debates printed in the Dáil report, only nine referred to partition.

By the time of the 75th anniversary in 1996, political scientist Tom Garvin took Lyons’s arguments further by distinguishing between those who in 1922 saw the abstract republic as “a moral and transcendental entity” and those who, more sensibly in his view, and with more legitimacy, saw it as a “bargaining device in achieving rational, legal self-government for as much of Ireland as possible”.

While he acknowledged there were those who had sympathised with both perspectives, he emphasised how important it was that the moderates triumphed.

There will be no triumphalism on the 90th anniversary of the treaty, which cruelly falls on budget day next week.

In launching an exhibition in the National Archives ( earlier this week to mark the anniversary, Taoiseach Enda Kenny joked that he hoped the 2012 budget document to be unveiled would not have the same consequences as the treaty unveiled in 1921. The tame laughter in response tapered off quickly. Kenny then solemnly emphasised that, 90 years on, his challenge was to regain economic sovereignty.

The question in 2011 is what sacrifices will be required of whom in the pursuit of the return of that purse. Unfortunately, the Irish Republic in 2011 has things in common with the nascent Free State of 90 years ago.

In the words of historian David Fitzpatrick, after the treaty “an insecure and inexperienced elite found itself presiding over a population that wanted unheroic things”. Now, people want such things again, in the form of fairness and burdens that are genuinely shared.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish History at University College Dublin