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The Treaty That Divided Ireland

No matter how many times I watch the film "Michael Collins" the sight of Irishman killing Irishman moves me to tears. The Irish Civil War is the blackest mark on Irish history. Until very recently the Irish people avoided the subject, perhaps too painful. But there is another reason.

The legacy of that civil war rages on today in the northern six counties. Many Irish people are only recently focusing their attention on the plight of nationalists in the north. Neal Jordon's epic drama deserves much credit for this emotional transition. The film was a smashing success in the Republic of Ireland. Jordan's flattering portrayal of Collins's life was seen by more Irish people than any film in the country's history.

Today many Irish people are finally overcoming their shame and guilt. After looking away for seventy-five years, most eyes are finally looking north. No other event expresses this dramatic change more than the Presidential election of Mary McAleese on October 30, 1997. For the first time in Irish history, the office of President in the Republic of Ireland will be held by a Belfast Catholic from the north. Many view this unprecedented victory as one more step towards resolving the bitter aftermath of The Treaty of 1921.

In the United States, millions of Irish-Americans are also focused on the British statelet. On September 9, 1997, in an effort to end the dispute over partition, Irish Peace Negotiations were initiated. Despite the efforts of individuals like Neil Jordon, much of the Irish Diaspora has received little to no truthful information about the infamous Treaty and is therefore mislead on an issue crucial to the argument, the "consent of the majority."

At the core of the discussions is the element of "consent." Irish nationalists prefer to identify this component as the "unionist veto." The purpose of this paper is to provide factual information on the Treaty that divided Ireland into two separate entities; a British statelet of six "northern" counties and an independent Ireland of twenty-six counties and to understand the origin of "consent."

To begin with "northern" cannot be taken literally. The northern-most portion of the island remains a part of the "southern" Republic of Ireland. The boundary devised by the British government and unionists exhibits no geographic logic. The border was designed to specifically create a majority of residents loyal to the British empire. The gerrymandered boundary divides even farms and villages. To this day, property owned by some farmers is "half-British and half-Irish." Nothing less than the promise of a horrific full scale war forced the hand of Irish nationalists to temporarily accept such a proposal.

The Treaty of December 1921 was signed following the threat of "immediate and terrible war" by the British government. It partitioned the country, split the Republican Movement and deeply divided the Irish people. Beginning in August 1922, a bloody civil war erupted pitting former comrades against each other. By the time anti-treaty forces called off their campaign in May 1923, more deaths resulted from Irish killing Irish than during the War of Independence.

In the British general elections of December 1919, 78% of the people of Ireland voted to end British rule in Ireland. Campaigning on a platform for an independent Irish Republic, Sinn Féin swept all Parliamentary elections promising to refuse their seats in London and set up a new Irish government. Within one month, the new Irish government was at war with Great Britain. Under the leadership of Michael Collins, the Irish Republican Army was born.

Following is a chronological time-line of events leading to the partition of Ireland, and in its aftermath "A Protestant State for Protestant People."

July, 1921:
Irish and British governments agree to a ceasefire.

September, 1921:
Irish and British governments agree to convene a conference in London to discuss a negotiated settlement.

The Plenipotentiaries appointed by Eamon de Valera, President of the Irish government and approved by Dail Eireann on 14 September are:

  • Arthur Griffith, Minister for Foreign Affairs.
  • Michael Collins, Minister for Finance.
  • Robert Barton,Minister for Economic Affairs.
  • Eamon Duggan TD, member of Dail Eireann.
  • George Gavan Duffy TD, member of Dail Eireann.
  • Erskine Childers, secretary and adviser to the delegation.

Authorised "to negotiate and conclude on behalf of Ireland...a treaty or treaties of settlement, association and accommodation between Ireland and...the British Commonwealth", the five delegates received instructions limiting their authority:

  • All decisions on key issues need approval from the Cabinet in Dublin.
  • No treaty may be signed without the approval of the cabinet in Dublin.
  • Progress reports on all negotiations will be forwarded to the Dublin Cabinet.

Representing the British government are:

  • British Prime Minister David Lloyd George
  • Lord Birkenhead
  • Winston Churchill
  • Austin Chamberlain
  • Sir Hamar Greenwood
  • L Worthington Evans
  • Gordon Hewart

October 11, 1921:
Negotiations begin in London and continue through November. The Irish delegation is firm and demands evidence that Unionist leader Sir James Craig will agree to unity. Michael Collins informs Prime Minister Lloyd George that the delegation's fighting position will be surrendered if they agree to sign without Craig's agreement on unity and that every document given to the British on Association with the Commonwealth is contingent on unity.

December 3, 1921:
Dublin Cabinet rejects a draft of the treaty. Elements of the draft unacceptable to the Irish Cabinet includes:

  • Dominion status, the form and degree of association with the British Commonwealth.
  • The oath of allegiance to the king and Empire.
  • The permanent status of the British-controlled northern six counties.

December 4 - 5, 1921:
The Irish delegation returns to London and resumes negotiations under orders to return to Dublin for a second round of discussion.

During the second round of the discussions the British delegation adopts a new strategy of "divide and conquer." Experienced statesmen and shrewd negotiators, the British representatives this time meet with individual Irish delegates.

Using diplomatic finesse the British representatives succeed in securing an agreement from Griffith, unknown to his peers.

Lloyd George issues an ultimatum to the Irish delegates to sign the Treaty by 9pm on the night of 5 December or face "immediate and terrible war." In his ultimatum that night, Lloyd George informs the Irish team:

"I have to communicate with Sir James Craig (Unionist Leader) he said, holding up two envelopes. Here are the alternative letters which I have prepared, one enclosing the Articles of Agreement reached by His Majesty's Government and yourselves, and the other saying that Sinn Féin representatives refuse the Oath of allegiance and refuse to come within the Empire. If I send this letter, it is war - and war within three days. Which letter am I to send? Whichever letter you choose travels by special train to Hollywood, and by destroyer to Belfast....we must have your answer by ten PM tonight. You can have until then but no longer to decide whether you will give peace or war to your country."

Lloyd George rejects the Irish team's request to refer back to the Irish Cabinet in Dublin. Aware that the Irish people are devastated by the effects of war, the Irish delegation's resistance crumbles.

Michael Collins knowing the Irish Republican Army cannot defend its people against a full-scale British invasion agrees.

Following hours of discussion and argument, the Irish delegates give in, one by one, and agree to sign the Treaty in direct contravention of their written instructions from Dail Eireann. Erskine Childers advice to break-off the negotiations and return to Ireland is rejected.

December 6, 1921:
At 2:20 AM the Treaty is signed by the Irish and British delegates. The Treaty contains 18 Articles of Agreement including:

  • Dominion status for the 26-County Free State within the British Commonwealth.
  • Partition and the creation of a Protestant/unionist Six- County Statelet within the United Kingdom.
  • An oath of allegiance to the English king and British empire.
  • Continued occupation of Irish ports by British forces.
  • The payment of compensation to ex-British officials in Ireland and a limitation on the size of the Free State defense forces.

The agreement reached between the two delegations partitions Ireland and promises a Boundary Commission to reevaluate the border. Presumably, the two counties containing a Catholic nationalist majority will return to the Irish Free State. Recognizing that a four-county statelet is economically unviable, the Irish negotiators assume that the remaining four counties will elect to be absorbed by the Irish Free State

December 8, 1921:
The Irish Cabinet accepts the Treaty by a vote of four to three; Griffith, Collins, Barton and William T. Cosgrave voting yea, and President De Valera, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack opposed.

January, 1922:
Following a month of heated debate, the Irish government approves the Treaty by a slim vote of 64 - 57. Protesting, President De Valera and his supporters walk out of Dail Eireann. The Irish Republican Army, the brainchild of Michael Collins, splits down the middle.

For the next seven months, minor skirmishes dot the new Irish Free State.

Collins, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Army restrains from fighting his former soldiers.

In August the British government issues another ultimatum. Either squash the insurrection, or British military forces will return and the treaty will become nullified. Using British artillery, the new Free State Army begins a nine month campaign and successfully defeats the IRA.

1022 - 1924:
After two years of bitter unresolved differences, the Boundary Commission is dissolved and never reaches a new settlement.

Thousands of Catholic nationalists are abandoned to a discriminatory and oppressive "Protestant state for Protestant people." A nightmare of ruthless pogroms crushes the nationalist resistance inside the border.

A unionist apartheid government gerrymanders voting districts to strip the nationalist community of any political voice even in cities where they represent a majority.

The unionist majority housed inside the boundary is established from less than 28% of the island's population.

The concept "majority of consent" is born and later becomes a crucial point of contention in negotiations.

1968 - 1971:
The Civil rights movement takes hold in the Six-Counties.

The Unionist government, backed by British security forces responds ruthlessly using extreme force to suppress Derry demonstrators singing "We Shall Overcome" mimicking Martin Luther King's US movement.

The Irish Republican Army is nonexistent at this point. Graffiti visible throughout nationalist communities expresses anger and disappointment: "IRA, I ran away."

Over the next three years loyalists attack nationalist areas, torching the homes of over three-thousand nationalist families.

Their forces spread thin, the British Army fails to defend a loyalist attack on a Catholic Church in Belfast. The Irish Republican Army emerges to defend unprotected nationalist communities against loyalist attacks and resumes its war to end British rule. The first British soldier is shot by an IRA volunteer.

January 30, 1972:
The conflict reaches a climax. Commonly referred to as "Bloody Sunday" British troops fire over 200 rounds on unarmed civil rights protesters, killing thirteen nationalists. New battle lines are drawn. The IRA's numbers swell as angry nationalists flock to join its' ranks.

July, 1997:
The Irish Republican Army announces its ceasefire. On September 9th Irish Peace negotiations begin.

Michael Collins caught just a glimpse of his country imbrued by the Treaty. Sickened by the first large-scale attack on rebel forces in August 1922, he brokered a meeting with IRA leaders that same month. He was assassinated by angry IRA members on his way to the meeting. At the time of his death he was operating numerous campaigns to aid northern nationalists including underground gun-running.

Resources inform us though, that Collins clearly understood the bitterness the Treaty would bring. Upon his return to Ireland following the negotiations, Collins told his aide "I may have signed my actual death-warrant."

The Treaty Michael Collins zealously supported dramatically altered the course of Irish history,divided the island of Ireland and the Irish people. Collins' support of the treaty resulted in widely opposing opinions of his role in Irish history. Collins is called a traitor by many, yet considered the "George Washington of Ireland" by others. Today, hard-line Irish republicans are wary of the negotiations. Graffitti displayed in nationalist communities reminds Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin to "Remember Collins." No doubt, he heeds their warning.


Work Cited
Coogan, Tim Pat, The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael
. Niwot, Colorado: Robert Rinehard, 1992.

Questions should be directed to Ireland32 at: Ireland32@gmu.edu

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