To what extent was the Anglo-Irish Treaty responsible for the Irish Civil War? The Irish Civil War occurred following the signing of a treaty between Sinn Fein and the British government. The Anglo-Irish Agreement brought the Irish War of Independence to an end and establihsed the Irish Free State.. The civil war caused a split in the nationalist movement between those who supported the Treaty with Britain and those who were opposed. It created deep divisions that lasted in Irish society for decades. The two main political parties since the foundation of the state, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are direct decendants from the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides in the civil war. The civil war began as a result of divisions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. However, other factors also played a role in these divisions. This essay will look at the role the Anglo-Irish Treaty played in bringing about the civil war and what other differences also caused divisions during this period.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed between Sinn Fein representatives and the British government in December 1921. The signing of the Treaty led to an acrimonious debate in the Dail before being accepted by a slim majority in January 1922. The divisions in the Dail spilled over into the wider nationalist movement and into the ranks of the IRA. A number of issues in the Anglo-Irish Treaty caused disagreements the most prominent being the Oath of Allegiance to the British crown and the partition of Ireland into North and South.
The Oath of Allegiance was highly objectionable to many republicans and was the most divisive issue in the Treaty. Those opposed could not understand why they should be forced to swear allegiance to a British king that they had fought against only weeks earlier. For those who were seeking an independent republic swearing an oath of allegiance to a foreign king went against eveything they believed in. The inclusion of the oath of allegiance was to be a significant contributing factor to the divisions that caused the civil war.
The second major issue in the Treaty that caused divisions was the partition of the island into North and South with the north-eastern six counties remaining part of the United Kingdom. In the eyes of the British government partition had already been established in the Government of ireland Act 1920 which allowed for the establishemnt of a separate parliament in Belfast and Dublin. Unionists in the North welcomed this development as they saw it as protecting the interests of the Unionist majority in the six counties. While those in Sinn Fein who supported the Treaty saw partition as a temporary measure, those opposed felt that the Catholic minority in the North were being abandoned and left to suffer Unionist domination and sectarian attacks.
The nationalist movement included a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds and many different social classes, all with their own view of what Irish independence should mean. From the pro-monarchy views of Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith right across the political spectrum to the socialist views of IRA commander Liam Mellows, there was a wide a diverse range of political views within the nationalist movement. Prior to independence the one thing that united all of the wide range of opinions within the nationalist movement was the desire for independence. This allowed the divisions that did exist to be papered over for the duration of the War of Independence.
Within the nationalist movement there was a wide range of opinion about what independence should mean. While the expectations of some sections of the nationalist movement were met by the Anglo-Irish Treaty for others it fell far short of what they believed was necessary. The one thing that had unified the nationalist movement in the past, the desire for independence, was now the thing that was causing divisions within the same nationalist movement and contribute to the civil war.
Attempts at a compromise were made in the run up to the general election in June 1922. Collins and DeValera agreeed a pact whereby the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides would fight the general election jointly and form a coalition government afterwards. Both sides of the nationalist movement were worried that divisions between them could allow other parties like the Labour Party, to make gains in the election. A new constituion was agreed between both sides prior to the election that offered hope a compromise could be reached. However, the British government objected to the new constitution and threatened military intervention unless the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement were fully implemented. As a result Collins withdrew from the pact and the last opportunity of compromise was lost. The insistance by the British that the Anglo-Irish Treaty be implemented in full contributed to the civil war.
A further contributing factor in the development of the civil war was the tactics of the anti-Treaty IRA. When the IRA split over the Treaty a majority of the IRA were on the anti-Treaty side. In April 1922 members of the anti-Treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts and other buildings in Dublin. This followed on from a scramble by the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty sides to take over army and police barracks as the British began to withdraw. Taking over prominent public buildings in Dublin was a direct confrontation to the authority of the pro-Treaty majority. The British government also demanded that action be taken against the anti-Treaty rebels. When the rebels in the Four courts kidnapped pro-Treaty army general JJ O’Connell, Collins decided he had to act and ten days after the general electon began bombarding the Four Courts signalling the beginning of the civil war.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was the key factor that led to a civil war in Ireland. The terms of the Agreement were unacceptable to a large secion of the nationalist movement. It brought to the surface divisions within the nationalist movement because of the different expectations on the part of those who made up the movement for independence. Ireland was not the only country that suffered from a civil war after independence and the attitude of the British government also contributed to forcing the pro-Treaty side to act against anti-Treaty rebels. The irony of the situation is that in 1927 DeValera and many others who opposed the Treaty entered the Dail as members of Fianna Fail and took the Oath of Allegiance.