This December marks a hundred years since the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed at 10 Downing Street.

This set Ireland on a path to becoming an independent republic and reconstituted the United Kingdom in its current form.

This Insight looks at the background to the Treaty, its main provisions and how it developed over the three decades that followed.

The Irish Question

What was known as the “Irish Question” had dominated UK politics since a Liberal government’s attempt to grant “Home Rule” (devolution) to Ireland in 1886. Several further Bills failed, and only in 1920 did the Government of Ireland Act become law. This partitioned Ireland and established two devolved parliaments, but only the Parliament of Northern Ireland (which covered six counties in Ulster) functioned as intended.

The Parliament of Southern Ireland (which covered Ireland’s other 26 counties) met briefly in Dublin but the ongoing Irish War of Independence between British forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) made it clear that alternative governing arrangements would need to be found. A Truce was agreed in July 1921 and negotiations between Sinn Féin (the most popular party in southern Ireland) and the UK Government began in October.

The goal of these talks was to find a way of reconciling Irish national aspirations (to become an independent republic, as declared in 1916) with the UK’s desire that Ireland remain part of the then British Empire by becoming a self-governing “Dominion” like Canada or Australia. The UK monarch would remain head of the “Irish Free State”, but it would have significant autonomy.

Negotiating the Treaty

On the British negotiating team were the current and future Prime Ministers David Lloyd-George and Winston Churchill. The Irish “plenipotentiaries” included the soldier Michael Collins and Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith.

The main points of disagreement were the Crown and Northern Ireland. The UK insisted that members of the Irish Free State parliament should swear an oath of allegiance to King George V and that Northern Ireland could not be forced into a united Ireland. The Irish delegates, on the other hand, wanted to uphold their oath to the republic and achieve the “essential unity” of Ireland.

On the Crown, the Irish suggested “external association”, under which an Irish republic would not join the British Empire but remain associated with it in areas of “common concern”. This was rejected by the UK, although it did agree to change the wording of the oath of allegiance so the constitution of the Irish Free State took precedence over an oath of fidelity to the King.

When Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, refused to join an all-Ireland parliament, the UK delegation suggested that a Boundary Commission be formed to determine the precise boundary between both parts of Ireland. Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were persuaded that this process would result in significant territorial transfers to the Free State and the eventual reunification of Ireland.

Articles of Agreement

Following last-minute concessions on fiscal autonomy and defence, the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland were signed in the early hours of Tuesday 6 December 1921.

Articles 1 to 4 stated that the Irish Free State would have the same constitutional status as other Dominions, with the King represented by a Governor-General. Article 4 set out of the wording of the controversial oath of allegiance.

Articles 5 to 10 dealt with finance, defence, trade and compensation to officials discharged as a result of the Treaty. The Free State was to be fiscally autonomous yet assume an agreed share of UK national debt. As an interim measure, the UK was also to retain control of certain “Treaty Ports” in the Free State for defence purposes, although this was to be reviewed after five years.

Articles 11 to 15 concerned Northern Ireland. For one month the provisions of the Treaty would not apply to Northern Ireland, whose parliament was to decide whether it joined the rest of the Free State or remained a devolved part of the United Kingdom. If it chose the latter, then a Boundary Commission would be formed to determine a new border, accounting for the wishes of the population as well as economic and geographical factors.

Finally, Articles 16 to 18 allowed for the Treaty’s ratification by the UK and Irish parliaments as well as the administration of “Southern Ireland” until the Treaty took effect a year later.

Implementation and development

The UK Parliament endorsed the Treaty in December 1921, as did Dáil Éireann the following month. During 1922 the Provisional Parliament of the Irish Free State drafted a constitution while the UK Parliament passed two ratifying acts. King George V formally proclaimed the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922 and, the following day, the Parliament of Northern Ireland resolved to remain part of the UK.

The Treaty did not fully answer the “Irish Question”. The Irish Civil War, which began as a result of disagreements over its terms, continued until May 1923. In 1925 the governments of Northern Ireland, the Free State and the UK agreed to keep the border as established in 1921 (the Boundary Commission’s proposals were rejected). In 1927 Westminster legislated to change its name to the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster stated that any Dominion did not need Westminster’s permission to alter its own laws.

As a result, the Free State government introduced a series of constitutional amendments which abolished the oath of allegiance, the office of Governor-General and appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1937, Ireland changed its name to Éire and adopted a new constitution which claimed the whole island as its “national territory”. The UK relinquished its Treaty Ports in 1938. Finally, in 1949, Éire broke its remaining links with the British monarchy and became the Republic of Ireland.

Further reading

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921, The House of Commons Library

About the author: Dr David Torrance is the Commons Library specialist on Northern Ireland

Image: Leinster House by Jean Housen, CC BY-SA 3.0

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