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Background to the Treaty negotiations

Following its strong mandate from the electorate in the general election of December 1918, Sinn Fein as promised, established its alternative legislative assembly, Dáil Éireann, on 21 January 1919. The opening shots in the War of Independence were fired that same day as a group of dissident Irish Volunteers ambushed a RIC-accompanied delivery of dynamite to a local quarry in Soloheadbeg, county Tipperary. A two-and-a-half-year long struggle ensued during which such incidents of random violence were coordinated due to the central organising influence of Michael Collins. His ‘Squad’ of assassins, counter-intelligence work and countrywide command structure which coordinated the efforts of IRA flying columns, forced the British government to bolster the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary.


This demoralised and increasingly ineffective police force was augmented first by the Black and Tans and later by the Auxilliaries in the course of 1920. The London administration was attempting to deal with the increasingly embarrassing situation with policemen rather than with troops; to treat the struggle as a domestic rather than an international conflict. That conflict escalated in intensity, witnessing atrocity and counter-atrocity committed with seemingly no end in sight.


An impasse had been reached which was broken by a combination of diplomatic efforts by King George V and a man with experience in fighting against the British Crown forces, the Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Christian Smuts. It was at his suggestion that King George spoke such conciliatory words at the opening of the Belfast parliament on 22 June 1921 and subsequently, his visit to parley with Sinn Fein representatives the following month which saw a truce take effect on 11 July and the path cleared for negotiation.


Those negotiations took place in two instalments. Firstly, Éamon de Valera led a delegation to London on 12 July for preliminary discussions with Prime Minister David Lloyd George during which a series of four one-to-one meetings between the two men ended inconclusively. Secondly, August 1921 saw a new exchange of letters between de Valera and Lloyd George seeking ways to break the deadlock and on 30 September, the former accepted the latter’s formal invitation to negotiate a settlement. The Irish delegation of five plenipotentiaries ratified by Cabinet on 7 October arrived in London and opened formal negotiations with their British counterparts on 11 October 1921.