01 December 2021, The Tablet

Peace by ordeal: the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty


Peace by ordeal: the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty

The treaty talks in the Cabinet Room at No 10. The British team is on the left, with David Lloyd George, third from left, facing Michael Collins, third from right, and Arthur Griffith to his right

 

The treaty that brought an end to the Irish War of Independence was signed in London on 6 December one hundred years ago. It was to lead to the creation of the Irish Free State, to a bitter civil war and to a division that still marks Irish society and politics

The actors involved were a remarkable cast. On the Irish side, the most forceful personality was Michael Collins, the famed linchpin of armed resistance against British rule – he was also Minister for Finance of the secessionist Irish republican government in Dublin. While on the British side were ranged the heaviest-­hitting politicians of the age, notably the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George; the Lord Chancellor F.E. Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead; and the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill. Their pragmatic coalition government, made up for the most part of Tories (the party was known at the time as the Unionist Party) and “coalition” Liberals, had brought the First World War to an end and had played its part in the formation of a Versailles peace compatible with British interests. Each man was incandescently ambitious, and each had been utterly committed to the escalation of war in Ireland using whatever means they deemed necessary.

Against opponents like these it should be no surprise that from the start the Irish dele­gation was on the back foot. Formally headed by Arthur Griffith, pamphleteer and journalist, although Collins was clearly the most impressive of their number, the Irish delegation entered negotiations with the heightened and unmanaged expectations of the Nationalist population of Ireland weighing on its shoulders. True, the IRA campaign had successfully impelled Lloyd George’s government to offer a truce and seek negotiations, but the terms on which both sides engaged favoured a result more palatable to the British. Its acceptance of Lloyd George’s invitation to a conference to discuss “how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations” meant that from the start the interests of the Empire as conceived by the British government would be the ­reference point against which Irish national aspirations would be measured.

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