Today in Irish History,the Anglo-Irish Treaty is Signed, 6 December 1921

 On December 6, 1921, a Treaty was signed between Irish and British negotiators that determined the shape of 20th century Ireland. This is an adapted extract from The Story of the Irish Civil War, by John Dorney.   

The Irish War of Independence was brought to an uneasy end with a Truce on July 11 1921 between the IRA and British forces. In the autumn of that year, negotiations began, which were to eventually result in the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Eamon de Valera, the President of the Irish Republic, engaged in preliminary negotiations with the British, but decided not to take part in the final talks that would thrash out a settlement. Perhaps, as has often been alleged, he did not want to take responsibility for a settlement short of the Republic. His thinking was as follows, “we will have proposals brought back to us [the cabinet] that cannot satisfy everybody…when such a time comes, I will be in a position …to come forward with such proposals as we think just and right”.[1]

In his place he sent Michael Collins as head of the Irish negotiating team. With him went Arthur Griffith, founder of the Sinn Fein movement, Eamon Duggan, George Gavin Duffy and Robert Barton. Erskine Childers went as secretary to the Delegation.

Michael Collins, who would do so much to shape subsequent events, was only 31. Born in West Cork to a family of middle-sized farmers with a strong Fenian tradition, he had emigrated to London and worked there as a bank clerk, while also joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He had fought in the Easter Rising and had emerged from nine seven months imprisonment in Frongoch in Wales to orchestrate the Volunteers’ military campaign of 1919-21.

In theory he had been Minister for Finance of the Irish Republic and Director of Intelligence of the Volunteers. In fact, with much of the civilian leadership imprisoned, he had done most to provide coordination to the IRA in 1919-21. Possessed of a dynamic and powerful personality, he was known for his macho horseplay but also for his capacity to build strong personal relationships with his friends.

Collins was not keen on leading the negotiating team, citing both his lack of experience in matters of state and his vulnerability in exposing himself should hostilities resume. In spite of this, Collins followed the orders of his ‘Chief’ and went to London. It was a decision that De Valera would later have cause to regret.


Three Vital Points     

The negotiations that led to the Treaty essentially concerned three vital points. First, the unity of Ireland, second, the degree of independence an Irish government would have, and third the relationship of an Irish State to the British Empire.

The three vital points in the talks were; Irish unity, the extent of Irish independence and Irish relationship to the British Empire.

The first of these points had  already been decided before negotiations started. The Ulster Unionists had been the first Irish group to raise their own armed force back in 1912 in order to resist the implementation of Irish Home Rule, and were fiercely against living under Catholic, nationalist government.

In December 1920, in the midst of the War of Independence, the British had passed the Government of Ireland Act, creating two autonomous Irish political units,Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Northern Ireland consisted of the six north-eastern counties of Ireland, and had a Protestant and unionist majority. The unionists were granted an autonomous parliament within the United Kingdom which was up and running by June 1921 and its government was granted executive powers in November of that year.

By the time of the Treaty negotiations, the partition of Ireland was therefore an established fact and no longer up for negotiation. Thus the Unionists, under James Craig, did not even take part in the Treaty talks. The Sinn Fein delegation insisted that they could not accept a settlement that made partition permanent, but the only element of the northern situation to be seriously discussed was the future of counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, both of which had Catholic majorities. The Irish wanted a county by county referendum on inclusion into the northern or southern states.

What they got in the end was that Northern Ireland as a whole was given the option of uniting with the southern state after a year. There would also be a Boundary Commission set up to arbitrate on how the border could be changed to reflect the wishes of the local population. It was the hope of Irish delegation that Northern Ireland’s viability would eventually be undermined by the defection of much of its Catholic-populated western and southern territory to the southern state. Nevertheless, the Treaty confirmed the partition of Ireland in the short term.

Perhaps more important to the overwhelmingly southern members of the Irish delegation was the question of the independence of the southern state. The British had determined ahead of the talks that they would not grant the Irish an independent republic. Nor would the new state be allowed to secede completely from the British Commonwealth. [2]

The British would retain three deep water naval ports – in Lough Swilly in the north and Bearhaven and Cobh in the south. Irish citizens also retained the right to appeal to the British High Court.

 The symbolic head of the state would be the British monarch, to whom elected representatives would have to swear an Oath of Allegiance and who would be represented in Ireland by a Governor General. The British also made sure that the new state would have what they considered a responsible administration by insisting on the retention of the existing civil service and committing the Irish to pay the pensions of the those, such as the RIC police force, who were dispensed with.

 British concessions

Outside of these areas, the British conceded quite a lot – making the southern Irish state much more independent than the Northern one. The Irish were given leave to choose any name short of ‘republic’, for their state. What Collins came up with was the “Irish Free State”, which was taken from the Irish language term “Saorstait” which the nationalist movement had been using.[3]


The British conceded to an independent Irish army, a disbandment of the old police force and Irish control over Irish fiscal and financial affairs.

British troops were to be  withdrawn from the country, which was to have its own armed forces and a new police force. It was also to have full control over it fiscal policy, tariffs and customs.

 These terms were a considerable improvement on either Home Rule (drafted in 1912), or the 1920 Government of Ireland Act in terms of Irish independence. Nevertheless, they were still far from the independent Irish Republic.

The Irish team was divided. Arthur Griffith, who had never really been a physical force republican, wanted to sign.  So too, to everyone’s surprise, did Michael Collins, who apparently decided it was Dominion status and peace or a republic and war. Gavan Duffy, Childers and Barton were opposed – the latter two ended up fighting against the Treaty and Childers died for his opposition.


“The British selected their men”

The negotiating team brought back the terms for the Dail Cabinet’s perusal on December 3, 1921. In a bad tempered all-day meeting, Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence, all but accused Collins and Griffith of treachery, “the British government selected its men”, he remarked acidly. President De Valera told the negotiators that he might have been willing to compromise on either Irish unity or on unconditional independence, but not both, “you have got neither this not that”. The meeting was brought to an end when Griffith proposed that they not sign the document in London but bring it back for the Dail to vote on its acceptance.[4]

Late that evening, the negotiating team sailed back to Britain, but so divided were they that they took different boats, Barton, Childers and Duffy leaving via Dublin’s North Wall, with Collins, Griffith and Duggan sailing from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).


“I may have signed my actual death warrant”, Michael Collins.

The negotiators had agreed at the cabinet meeting in Dublin that they would not sign the Treaty but bring it back for the Dail to debate.  But back in London on December 5th at 7:30 pm, Lloyd George told them it was immediate signature or war and that he had to know by the next day.

Lloyd George’s threat may have been bluff – he was under pressure from his shaky coalition of Liberals and Conservatives – but it worked. Collins and Griffith impressed on Robert Barton, the last dissenter, that if he did not sign, he alone would be responsible for , “Irish homes laid waste and the youth of Ireland butchered”. Barton caved in at about 11:00 pm on December 5th.

It was the early hours of the morning before the two sides could be brought together and the document printed. The Treaty was signed at 2:20 am, December 6th 1921. [5]

In an oft-repeated exchange, F.E. Smith, Earl Birkenhead, one of the British negotiators, told Collins, “I may have signed my political death warrant”, “I may have signed my actual death warrant”, Collins replied. [6]

Seven months later he would  order the new National Army to open fire, in defence of the Treaty, on his intransigent former comrades in the Four Courts.  Nine months after signing the Treaty, he was dead.

See aslo: The Treaty Debates December 14 1921 -January 7 1922


[1] John M Regan, The Irish Counter Revolution 1921-1923 p12

[2] Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green, The Irish Civil War, p27 9,

[3] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins (1991), p263.

[4] Frank Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal, (1972), p209-211

[5] Hopkinson p30-32, Pakenham, p245-247

[6] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins p 276

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