Section 2: Ireland Topic 3: The pursuit of sovereignty and the impact of partition, 1912-1949



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Section 2: Ireland
Topic 3: The pursuit of sovereignty and the impact of partition, 1912-1949

Question: . To what extent was the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921, responsible for the Irish Civil War?

The Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 was completely responsible for the Irish Civil War. On the 6th of December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by the British and Irish delegates, the signing of this treaty lead directly to split in opinion of the Sinn Fein Party and the spilt in the militia group, the IRA. Shortly after the signing of the treaty the anti-treaty IRA led by Rory O’Connor, seized control of the Four Courts. The shelling of the Four Courts by the pro-treaty Sinn Fein on the 28th of June sparked the beginning of the Irish Civil War. The British Government put pressure on Michael Collins to attack the Irregulars, Anti-Treaty IRA, in their headquarters, the Four Courts.

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th of December 1921, Lord Birkenhead, of the British Delegation, told Michael Collins of the Irish Delegation that he (Birkenhead) had just signed his political death warrant, to which Collins Replied, I have signed my actual death Warrant. Collins and rest of the Irish Delegation were quite aware that the treaty they had just signed did not result in an Irish Republic and that the signatories of the treaty would be seen as traitors by the hard-line Republicans back in Ireland. The treaty did not result in a new republic but instead gave Ireland Dominion Status, not the external association hoped for by Eamon De Valera, Ireland was now a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, no longer the British Empire, and shared the same political status as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Dominion status allowed Ireland the freedom to run its own economy and foreign policy but would still tie Ireland to Britain. The issue of Dominion status was so controversial among republicans because the members of the Dáil were required to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and the king would be represented in Ireland by a Governor General.

The Dáil was split into pro and anti-treaty, those who favoured the Treaty argued that Dominion status was the maximum available to Ireland at the time. Collins argued the pro treaty side and claimed that the Treaty would be a stepping stone “freedom to achieve freedom” was the phrase he used. Collins and Arthur Griffith, also a member of the Irish Delegation 1921, argued that the question of a republic was never a realistic option. Griffith also stated that the ‘problem’ of partition was established prior to the Treaty negotiations as the Government of Ireland Act was passed in 1920. Kevin O’Higgins stated that the Governor General did not interfere in the running of the other commonwealth countries. The pro treaty argument stressed that it was the first Treaty to admit the equality of Ireland.

Eamon De Valera denounced the Oath of Allegiance as it stated that the king was the head of Ireland, “It gives away Irish independence; it brings us into the British Empire”. There was also the argument of the treaty ports, that they prevented the Free State from pursuing a foreign policy independent to Britain. Partition was not a major focus of the anti-treaty debate as most agreed with Collins that the promised Boundary Commission would solve that particular problem. Many members of the Dáil had lost family members in the pursuit of an Irish republic and they opposed the treaty on the grounds that lives had been lost in the struggle for independence.

The Treaty was accepted by a narrow margin in the Dáil, 64 – 57, this narrow margin increased the danger of an outbreak of civil war. Collins failed to gain the support of the leading IRA leaders, Tom Barry, Seamus Robinson and Liam Lynch. They saw the Treaty as a betrayal of the republican ideal. This furthered the danger of civil war. Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows took over the political and military leadership of these anti-treaty men and as the RIC and British Army vacated their barracks these anti-treaty forces moved in. April 1922, the anti-treaty IRA reject the authority of the Dáil and on the 13th of April Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows along with their irregulars, anti-treaty forces, occupied the Four Courts. This split between pro and anti treaty lead indirectly to the occupation of the Four Courts of which lead directly to the Irish Civil War.

De Valera was seen as anti-treaty, but he was anxious to avoid civil war, so he agreed a pact with pro treaty Collins and to fight the forth-coming general election in June. Collins and De Valera decided that all candidates would stand as members of Sinn Féin and to form a joint government. The pro-Treaty TDs would provide the president and five government ministers, while the anti-Treaty side would nominate four ministers, including the Minister of Defence. Collins attempted to appease the anti-Treaty side by drawing up a new constitution for the Free State that made no reference to the Crown. This angered the British and they threatened to re-occupy Ireland. Collins backed down and changed the constitution and scrapped the election pact.

Up until June the occupation of the Four Courts had been ignored by the Free State and Britain but on the 22nd of June Field Marshal Henry Wilson, a leading Unionist and former British Army Leader, was assassinated by the IRA in London. The British Government wanted to take action and they wrongly held the Irregulars responsible for this assassination. Pressure was put on Collins to attack the Four Courts and on the 28th of June the Free State Army shelled the Four Courts and the civil war begun.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 led to the civil war both directly and indirectly. The treaty split both the political parties and military groups. The split in the IRA led to the irregulars and their seizure of the Four Courts. The Free State had chosen to ignore this occupation but pressure from the British Government sped up the inevitable beginning of the Irish Civil War. Both the pro and anti-treaty sides argued about the treaty but both knew that Civil War was inevitable. The British Government could also be said to understand that an Irish Civil War was bound to happen. Winston Churchill is on record as predicting Civil War would break out in Ireland within six months of the signing of the Treaty.



  1. Evidence of the broader, deeper context & significance of this question (conclusion): legacy of the IRA split, legacy of Sinn Féin’s split and effect on later Irish Free State & Ireland, legacy of partition, legacy of dominion status


  2. Introduction: Opening context of question i.e. background to treaty negotiations in 1921/ key personalities: Collins, Griffith, DeValera & key concepts: ‘Dominion Status’, ‘External Association’,



  1. Conclusion: re-state the key points of your argument


  2. Also, identify the areas of controversy in the negotiations which would split Sinn Féin; Sovereignty & Partition, DeValera’s contradictory directions (plenipotentiary powers v. Referring back to Dublin on a “main question” or before an agreement is reached)



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