Why were the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations of 1921 controversial and to what extent did they lead to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, 1922 – 1923?

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Why were the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations of 1921 controversial and to what extent did they lead to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, 1922 – 1923?




he Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations of 1921 were highly controversial for a number of reasons. To begin with, Dáil Eireann’s Declaration of Independence in January 1919, which served as a pretext to the War of Independence, left little room for the Sinn Féin delegation to compromise. Ever since the 1916 Rising had achieved a martyred significance, backed up by the astounding victory of 73 Sinn Féin seats at the 1918 Election, the aim of an outright republic had become less like rhetoric, and more like a political necessity. The concept of negotiations between a Dáil delegation and British Government was in itself, historic and unprecedented, especially when viewed in the light of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy from 1918 on. This was undoubtedly clear in the minds of both Eamon deValera and Michael Collins. With the added effect of the political implosion of the old Home Rule Party, Sinn Féin could rightly claim to be the contemporary voice of the Irish people. However, with issues such as Unionist intransigence and the Government of Ireland Act (1920), added to the clear indication throughout Eamon deValera’s communications with British P.M. Lloyd George in 1920 that absolute independence, either in the form of a sovereign republic of an ‘externally-associated’ state was less than likely, the Sinn Féin delegation were set an almost impossible task to both satisfy their own party and at the same time, reach an acceptable compromise with the British Government.


Of Delegation



Controversy of Negotiation
ven before the Sinn Féin delegation left for London, the battle of internal intrigue had already begun. DeValera’s insistence on remaining behind, thereby removing himself from the possibility of being forced to sign anything unacceptable, caused much debate and concern. DeValera then issued the Sinn Féin delegation with private instructions, contradicting the power of plenipotentiaries, to refer back to Dublin if a “main question” or a treaty was to be signed. Collins, Griffith, Barton, Duffy and Duggan formed the Sinn Féin delegation, assisted by Erskine Childers. Collins’ reluctance to go to London was a precursor (indication) of his discomfort at being exposed to the British Cabinet and Prime Minister. As this was the first time that negotiations were being held between the British Government and a representative group of Republicans, controversy also existed in Britain at the idea of negotiating with a ‘rebel government’. However, Lloyd George had learned from Herbert Asquith’s mistakes and the clear proof that a military solution to Ireland had not worked between 1919 & 1921. For these reasons, Lloyd George took the controversial approach, in British terms, of attempting to negotiate a settlement with Sinn Féin which would satisfy both Unionist demands and British supporters of the Empire.

Sovereignty & Partition

Draft Treaty A – External Association

Dominion Status

nce the negotiations began, it became clear what the controversial and contentious issues were – Sovereignty and Partition. DeValera’s ‘Draft Treaty A’, which he had given to the Sinn Féin delegation and which proposed the idea of ‘External Association’, was almost immediately rejected by the Lloyd George & the British delegation as being far too much down the road to absolute independence. As DeValera was no among the delegation, his carefully-crafted and complex ideas of ‘external association’ could not be articulated properly by Collins or Griffith, and therefore undermined the use of ‘Draft Treaty A’ itself. The British delegation preferred the concept of ‘Dominion Status’; an upgraded version of Home Rule which did not impress the Sinn Féin delegation greatly. The other issue which became most contentious was that of Partition. Already enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act (1920), Griffith argued that some acknowledgement of the King of England as head of state of an independent Ireland could be allowed IF the “essential unity” of Ireland could be guaranteed. Lloyd George countered this argument by referring to the already-agreed Government of Ireland, but the deal was sweetened with the vague offer of a ‘Boundary Commission’ to be set up after agreement to look at the border itself. With a view to the impossibility of moving the British on ‘essential unity’, the Sinn Féin delegation concentrated their efforts on the sovereignty issue.

Controversy: Conditions of Acceptance &

Cabinet Split
ost controversial of all issues was the manner of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th December, 1921. Heeding Lloyd George’s warning of “immediate and terrible war” if the Sinn Féin delegation did not sign the Treaty, Collins and Griffith decided that it was the best that they could achieve at that time. The Sinn Féin delegation returned to a muted reception with deValera furious at not having being consulted before signing. The Dáil Cabinet was evenly split on even accepting or rejecting the Treaty, but William T. Cosgrave, having the casting vote, voted to bring the Treaty before the Dáil for debate and voting.

Controversy: N.Ireland opts out of Irish Free State


Pro-Treaty Arguments

n the 8th of December, the Northern Ireland Government, established by the Government of Ireland Act, choose ‘opt out’ of the new ‘Irish Free State’, thereby adding fuel to the fire of controversy brewing in Dublin. Once before the Dáil, the Treaty was dissected and discussed in great detail. The Pro-Treaty members, led by Collins and Griffith argued passionately on the basis of it being an historic, first-ever settlement between Ireland and Britain. Collins declared that it gave the Irish the “freedom to achieve freedom”, a pragmatic best in a bad situation. Collins and Griffith also managed to assuage most fears, but not all, regarding the North by convincing TDs of the future effectiveness of the proposed Boundary Commission. They also declared that it had finally removed the British presence from most of the country and gave real, internal control and autonomy to the Dáil Government.

Anti - Treaty Arguments

he Anti-Treaty side, led by deValera, Stack and Brugha rubbished the central terms of the Treaty: Sovereignty, in their eyes, was not achieved and ‘Dominion Status’ was little more than Home Rule. This contradicted every TD’s oath of allegiance to the ‘Republic’: proclaimed in 1916, supported electorally in 1918 and declared in the Dáil’s ‘Declaration of Independence in 1919. They argued that the 73 Sinn Féin seats won in 1919 directly mandated the Dáil Government to secure a ‘Republic’. They also refused to even consider the oath of allegiance as this was a complete betrayal and undermining of the Proclamation of 1916 & the Declaration of Independence of 1919. DeValera and his Anti-Treaty supporters argued passionately and referred continuously to those who had been sacrificed during the years 1916 – 1921. The ‘Treaty Ports’ were also a point of contention for the Anti-Treaty side, showing how they falsified the claim that British forces were now removed from Ireland and undermined the future Irish State’s ability to pursue a sovereign, independent foreign policy.

From the 14th of December through to the 7th of January 1922, with a break for Christmas, the Treaty debate was thrashed out in the Dáil. Outside the Dáil, two agents of public opinion mostly supported the Treaty: the national press and the Catholic Church. The press, fearing a return to the lawlessness of the War of Independence, backed the Treaty heavily. The Catholic Church, abhorring (hating) violence in any form, advocated that all its flock back the Treaty and allow Ireland to begin re-building its social, economic and spiritual stability. Hard-line republicans, however, were strongly opposed to the Treaty. Once particular ominous warning of the conflict to come was the almost nationwide opposition to the Treaty from local IRA commanders. Having had a virtually free hand in action between 1919 & 1921, they now opposed what they saw as a very limited success with severe compromises. They saw their role as being intrinsic to the ‘Republic’ and having fought a long, dangerous and nerve-wracking guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland, they were in no mood to accept anything less than what they saw as a ‘victor’s spoils’. The truth however, was that the truce which had been declared on July 11th, 1921, came just in time for a severely-depleted and disorganised IRA nationwide. This did not change the extremist views of local IRA commanders, such as Tom Barry, who felt that they had fought the British to the point of accepting an independent, Irish Republic. In this rejection of the Treaty by IRA commanders, the real seeds of the Irish Civil War were planted.

National Press & Catholic Church (Pro-Treaty)


Local IRA (Anti-Treaty)

Formal Split in Sinn Féin –

Walkout of DeValera & Supporters –

Leading IRA Commanders

– Recap of Controversial Issues

n the 7th of January, 1922, the Dáil voted to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty by 64 votes to 57. This was the moment that Sinn Féin, as a political party, first split, thereby creating a political opposition for the new Free State Government. The narrow margin of its successful passage, coupled with the intense and sometimes bitter debates and personalised attacks on Collins and Griffith, added to the controversial nature of deValera leading the Anti-Treaty TDs out of Dáil Eireann in protest. The ominous first steps had been taken to undermine the new Irish Free State, leading prominent IRA men such as Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows & Frank Aiken to stage a military assault on the Free State only months later, while deValera & the rest of the Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin fired rhetorical rounds against the State. The controversial nature of the Treaty negotiations themselves i.e. the debate concerning the power of plenipotentiaries and the acceptance of the Treaty under threat of war caused great confusion and controversy. Collins & Griffith’s avowal that deValera’s ambitions were grandiose and unrealistic, with the added uncomfortable reference to his absence from the negotiations, added cordite to the debate. The partition of Ireland, though not the most controversial issue at the time, fuelled the resentment and disappointment of many hard-line Republicans. In this confused, divisive and yet historic moment in Irish History, the very best intentions of a previously-united Sinn Féin Party were brought down by circumstances both outside and within their control. The Irish Civil War of 1922 – 1923 was the immediate, short-term and bitter result of this divisiveness. The emergence of a moderate nationalist party in the form of Cumann na nGaedhael and the later formation of a populist-Republican Party in the form of Fianna Fáil would underline the controversial importance of both the nature of the Treaty negotiations and the treaty itself.


R: highly controversial, split in Sinn Féin = split in IRA, cause of Irish Civil War. DeValera’s Absence. Power of Plenipotentiaries. Agreement under duress?

S: Sovereignty & Partition: key topics of both Treaty Negotiations & points of division in Sinn Féin over Treaty

C: 1916 Rising/ 1918 Election Victory/ 1919 Dáil & Declaration of Independence/ 1919-1921 War of Independence/ TRUCE offered by British Government/

N: DeValera/ Lloyd George/ James Craig/ Collins & Griffith/ Local IRA Commanders/ National Press/ Catholic Church

Paragraph 1: CONTROVERSY over Choice of Delegation & Powers of Plenipotentiary

Paragraph 2: Issues of Contention & Controversy between Irish & British Delegations

Paragraph 3: Controversy of Conditions of Acceptance & Subsequent Sinn Féin Cabinet Split

Paragraph 4: Controversy of N. Ireland opting out & Pro-Treaty Arguments

Paragraph 5: Anti-Treaty Arguments

Paragraph 6: Controversy regarding support by Press & Church/ Opposition by IRA Commanders


Dáil Vote & Controversy of narrow margin of victory.

Controversy of Anti-Treaty walkout.

Split in Sinn Féin = Split in IRA.

Recap of Controversial Issues – BOTH the negotiations AND the articles of Treaty

Immediate cause of Irish Civil War & legacy of political parties in Ireland.

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