90th anniversary of signing of Anglo-Irish Treaty

signing of the anglo-irish treaty 6 December 1921
Image caption After weeks of negotiations the treaty was signed on 6 December 1921

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London 90 years ago on 6 December 1921.

The agreement, between the British government and representatives of secessionist Ireland, was signed in the aftermath of the truce which ended the Irish War of Independence.

A year earlier Westminster had passed the Government of Ireland Act which saw the creation of two governments - one in Belfast with jurisdiction over the six north-eastern counties and the other in Dublin, which was given control over the remaining 26 counties.

Both had very limited devolved powers, which were more acceptable to unionists, who were happy to remain under control from Westminster, than many Irish nationalists.

In October 1921, negotiations between the British government and a Sinn Fein delegation, which included Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, began.

Mr Collins, widely regarded as one of Ireland's most charismatic political leaders, was a reluctant Sinn Fein delegate during the treaty negotiations.


After weeks of negotiations an ultimatum was delivered by British Prime Minister Lloyd George - sign the text of the Treaty as it stood or refuse to sign and face the consequences of an immediate resumption of war.

Those who favoured acceptance argued that the powers it granted made it worthy of support; that it would lead to Irish unity; that it had the support of most Irish people and that the only alternative to it was renewed war with Britain.

Under the treaty, southern Ireland became a self-governing "dominion" within the confines of the British Empire.

Complete independence in its domestic affairs meant the 'Irish Free State' had the power to levy all taxes, regulate foreign trade and form an army.

But there was still one important thing missing for many nationalists.

The treaty's opponents criticised it most for failing to do 'the fundamental thing' - grant Ireland a republic; the English monarch would remain monarch of Ireland, with government there still conducted in its name.

However, Collins stated that it provided Ireland not with "the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it".

The divisions the treaty caused within Irish republicanism had enduring consequences, including the civil war which waged from 1921 to 1923 and claimed the lives of over 5,000 people, including Michael Collins.


It remained a sensitive issue for those on both sides of the treaty divide for many of the 90 years which followed.

Dr Margaret O'Callaghan, senior lecturer in Politics at Queen's University Belfast said the treaty still had relevance in 2011.

"It matters because it framed the constitutional structures within which we still live," she said.

"In the context of what we now call the Republic of Ireland, I suppose it is a limited settlement to what they wanted.

"The division becomes that between the pragmatists who said 'let's take what deal we can get and do the best with it', and the idealists who stand out for the republic represented by De Valera and I suppose that's what leads to civil war and the structure of politics within the 26 counties."

Historian Tim Pat Coogan has penned an autobiography of Michael Collins.

He described the Anglo-Irish Treaty as a "seminal event" in Irish history.

The fundamental importance of the treaty was that it did confer on the south of Ireland, our own army, civil service, flag, education system and a whole lot of other things that grew from it.

Image caption Michael Collins is regarded as one of Ireland's most charismatic political leaders

"It is a most fundamentally important document."

Mr Coogan said the sovereignty that had been conferred by the treaty had been "very seriously eroded by the fact that we've lost our economic sovereignty to Europe and the IMF and are now standing in the dole queue in Brussels".

"Obviously the division has lessened and there are new preoccupations.

"The governmental party is still Fine Gael, the descendants of the Michael Collins faction and what's left of Fianna Fail is still the biggest segment of the opposition, so it is of course still important.

Online exhibition

"It casts its shadow but lessened in the context of the European and economic circumstances."

As part of the 90th anniversary commemorations, an online exhibition created by the National Archives which focuses on the treaty negotiations and features related digitised documents has been launched.

The original Anglo-Irish Treaty in digital format can be viewed on the 90th anniversary of its signing.

"Irrespective of your political persuasions, this exhibition has no bias and no agenda," said the Irish Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan.

"It is simply an excellent opportunity for the public to see, not only the treaty itself but the papers leading up to the signing of the treaty.

"As a former teacher of history myself, I know the value of material like this being made widely available."

Mr Deenihan said he hoped the exhibition would "bring to life" the story of the establishment of the Irish Republic to a much wider audience.

The exhibition and more information about the treaty is available to view online.

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