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Treaty Reflection by Professor Paul Bew

From a Belfast perspective, the most striking things about the Treaty document ninety years on are the role of British strategic interests, the treatment of partition and the significance of the Canadian model of dominion status.


In the lead up to the Treaty negotiations, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared on 18 July 1921:


‘There can be no doubt in the mind of any reasonable man that if Ireland were given complete independence, with its own army and control of its ports and harbours, to enter into treaties with foreign nations, whether they were friendly or hostile to us, that would place Britain in a position of such peril that I should hesitate to think what would befall in the event of a repetition of either the great struggle with Napoleon or the great struggle with Germany’.


The traces of this thinking can be seen clearly in Article 7 of the Treaty, in particular 7 (b) in which Ireland offers ‘In time of war or of strained relations with a Foreign Power such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require’. The Treaty’s insistence on continued British control of the flow of information from Ireland to the outside world (as in the provision that the Free State should not construct additional underwater communications cables without British approval) prefigures some of the tensions of the Second World War period, with its British fears that the German mission in Dublin might provide a listening-post for the Axis powers; the de Valera government’s repudiation of the formal Treaty provisions intended to prevent such an eventuality but this did not alter his government’s tacit awareness that Irish sovereignty could only survive if the British did not see it as seriously threatening their national survival.


As far as partition is concerned, the Treaty is remarkably explicit. It lays such great weight on the will of the parliament of Northern Ireland that it is difficult to see why so many nationalists felt that the Boundary Commission was likely to change in any material way the terms of the question. Many people will feel however that Article 15 (d) making provisions for minorities in Northern Ireland was effectively a dead letter from the start. The principal responsibility for this must lie with the Stormont government but it also remained the case that successive Southern governments prioritised the assertion of Irish sovereignty over the possibility of intercession on behalf of the northern minority. The Civil War was fought over sovereignty rather than partition and when partition was discussed in the debates over the Treaty (as with the Home Rule debates before it), the primary nationalist response was not to see partition as the separate ‘outstanding issue’ it later became, but to treat it as an aspect of the wider issue of sovereignty (ie by refusing to accept the will of the nationalist majority on the island as a whole, Britain was showing that it still made the final decision and therefore that the will of the Irish people was not ultimately sovereign). The British on the other hand, might actually have preferred an all-Ireland dominion with a large unionist minority reinforcing the imperial bond but since the Ulster unionists could command enough sympathy within the Conservative Party to endanger the whole settlement if they were not accommodated, the Treaty emphasised that partition derived from the decision of the Ulster unionists for self-determination (as provided in Article 12) with the hope of insulating the British political system from future Irish conflicts. The Ulster can was thus kicked down the road for the next few decades.


The provision equating the status of the Irish Free State (and the powers of the Governor-General) with those of the dominion of Canada may not attract much attention now but they were hotly debated at the time. Michael Collins argued that while a specific definition of the powers enjoyed by the Irish Free State (as advocated by de Valera and Erskine Childers) might have been treated as permanently binding, the Canadian example would allow Irish sovereignty to expand as Canada evolved towards greater autonomy; furthermore, Canada would have an incentive to support future Irish demands within the Commonwealth since refusal might serve as a precedent to restrict Canada’s own freedom of action. Childers on the other hand, argued that Canada exercised much more freedom of action than strictly authorised because Canada was large and distant from Britain: Ireland, small and close at hand, would be held to the letter of the law.


Within a few years, Collins’ position was to be vindicated. In December 1921, as the Dáil was still debating the Treaty, the Conservative-dominated Canadian government was replaced by a Liberal administration under WL Mackenzie King which was committed to asserting Canada’s diplomatic freedom of action. By refusing Canadian support during the Chanak crisis of September 1922 (when the British government threatened war against the Turkish nationalists led by Kemal Ataturk), King established the precedent that a British declaration of war would not automatically commit the dominions (and helped to precipitate Lloyd George’s fall from power) and in 1926, by successfully appealing to the Canadian electorate when the Governor-General called on the Conservative Party to form a minority government after refusing King’s request to dissolve parliament when his own minority government faced defeat, King established a restrictive definition of the political role of the representative of the Crown vis-à-vis dominion parliaments (cf Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty) and precipitated the redefinition of the Commonwealth which was ultimately codified in the 1931 Statute of Westminster and which, from the British point of view, formed the legal basis for de Valera’s later dismantling of the Treaty. Although Collins’ predictions of future developments were thus borne out by subsequent events, it is important to note that these developments had not yet taken place and that republicans’ fears were plausible at the time. In the 1918 and 1920–1921 elections, Sinn Fein had advocated a republic on the basis that the delays and compromises forced on the Home Rule party showed that only a republic could be truly sovereign; those who opposed the Treaty on the same basis may have been shortsighted but they were above all consistent.



About the author

Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queens University Belfast and most recently the author of Enigma: a New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (Dublin, 2011) and Ireland: the Politics of Enmity 1789–2006 (Oxford, 2007).