Change text
  • Normal text
  • Colour Text
  • Black and white text

Treaty Reflection by Dr Martin Mansergh

The 1921 Treaty gave formal recognition to Irish statehood within the 26 counties while consolidating Northern Ireland’s status as not being subject to it. It continued as a distinct, devolved area within the UK, established under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, otherwise known by northern nationalists as the ‘Partition Act’.


The settlement went further than anyone even ten years previously could reasonably have expected, while falling short both in terms of status and of unity of the full national demand. The British elided the outcome as ‘dominion home rule’, as if there were not a huge difference between being a dominion and having Home Rule.


Full independent statehood was first sought by the United Irishmen in the 1790s. For more than a century after the Act of Union of 1800, it looked as if the most that might be achieved would be less even in many respects, than the legislative independence won by Grattan’s Parliament. The First World War created conditions in which the whole map of Europe – or at any rate, large parts of it – would be redrawn in accordance with the principle of national self-determination. The Easter Rising of 1916 highlighted Ireland’s full claim that was politically articulated from 1917 on by the Sinn Féin party led by Éamon de Valera, which won a huge electoral mandate outside northeast Ulster in the general election of December 1918. The War of Independence developed when that mandate was ignored by the British, who attempted to impose in the South what they called ‘crown colony government’.


What was achieved in the Treaty was – in the words of Michael Collins – a stepping stone for the Irish Free State to develop over a quarter of a century into a fully-fledged republic, not without some resistance and even with economic sanctions from the British along the way. The Treaty was never a stepping stone to a united Ireland and indeed left northern nationalists at a serious disadvantage. In some ways, they, principally, paid the price of Irish independence and unionist rejection of it.


As in many other newly independent states in the 20th century, independence was soon followed by civil war. Was it as much a power struggle as an ideological conflict?


The supremacy of democratic values was demonstrated and widely accepted at the end of the conflict. Despite periodic paramilitary challenges, Ireland has been one of the world’s most stable and successful democracies since then, reconnecting with older Irish constitutional traditions as well as creating a new one of its own.


The Treaty also bears the marks of the preoccupations of the time. Post World War I, the British were concerned about defence on their flank, but also about debt. An independent Ireland was never on its own account going to pose a strategic threat to Britain. In 1938, as part of the policy of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain preferred Irish goodwill on his flank, even as a friendly neutral, to holding onto naval bases. In the Boundary Agreement of 1925, most of Ireland’s obligations to discharge its part of the imperial debt were scrapped in return for dropping any claims on Northern Ireland territory, either as recommended by the Boundary Commission or otherwise. This recognition was opposed by republicans and negatived internally – though not necessarily in international law – by Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of 1937. The Boundary Commission report was considered by Irish public opinion to be the third in a line of major breaches of faith, following the Treaty of Limerick of 1691 with its promises of toleration and the Act of Union that was to have been immediately followed by Catholic Emancipation.


The Treaty was based on a recognition of the principle of non-coercion, even if not everyone believed in that in practice. That principle did not benefit the nationalist community in Northern Ireland which was subjected to fifty years of discriminatory one-party rule. This situation was brought to an end by the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, there were 25 years of conflict before a new, comprehensive political settlement, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, based on mutual consent, could be negotiated, superseding the settlement of 1920–1921. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920, along with the original Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution, were replaced. It could thus be said that over an extended period of time and unfortunately, following an intense and tragic conflict in the North, the main defects of the original Treaty have finally been corrected


Both Ireland and Northern Ireland owe their original confirmed and recognised status to the Treaty and over the coming centenary decade, their origins will be well studied and commemorated.



About the author

Dr Martin Mansergh is a former civil servant, political adviser, senator, junior Minister for the Arts and Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works (2008–2011) and member of the Council of State during President Mary McAleese’s second term. He published The Legacy of History for Making Peace in Ireland (Dublin, 2003), was the subject of a biography by Kevin Rafter (Dublin, 2002) and was also a weekly Irish Times columnist from 2003 to 2006.