How the Irish Free State Won its Independence from Britain

History Hit

4 mins

24 Oct 2018

At 2:20am 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed between Irish Republican and British leaders. The treaty established a self-governing Irish Free State and provided for Northern Ireland (established in 1920) to become part of the United Kingdom.

The treaty brought the Irish War of Independence to an end but also stirred up fresh conflict between the new Provisional Government and Republican forces, which resulted in the Irish Civil War.

Opposition to British rule

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Opposition to British Rule in Ireland, just 20 miles off the British mainland, was well established.

The 20th century saw the growth of organisations such as the Fenian Brotherhood, who advocated rebellion and the push for independence. Such activities worried the government in London to such an extent that Prime Minister Herbert Asquith considered granting Irish Home Rule in 1912 to prevent conflict. This however led to rioting by loyalists in the north of Ireland.

Having no wish to put down the protests of men eager to stay in the Union, British soldiers refused to deal with the crowds. Only the distraction of the First World War prevented a civil war.

It was becoming clear that the Irish situation required a more complex and subtle solution than simply granting independence.

The British Empire in 1910.

The Easter Rising and its consequences

Tensions came to a head in Dublin in 1916, with the Easter Rising. Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic during an uprising that lasted six days and descended into a bloody street battle with British soldiers.

The better-equipped British forces prevailed, though not without significant loss of life. By resorting to heavy-handed tactics they also alienated those with previously moderate views.

The divisions within Ireland were growing wider. This was demonstrated by the 1918 Irish General Election, in which Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood (which would evolve into the IRA), won a landslide majority in the south and began taking steps towards independence.

Stunned initially by their boldness, and preoccupied with the end of World War One, the British government waited a year before deciding to act. In January 1919 Sinn Fein formed a breakaway government, the Dáil Éireann, and it was then outlawed by the authorities in London.

Furious and seeking to avenge the Easter Rising, attacks on policeman and British soldiers escalated into what is now known as the Irish War of Independence.

The Black and Tans

Across the country armed police of the Royal Irish Constabulary battled with IRA forces.

The government also enlisted ex-servicemen, in need of employment after the war, as paramilitary auxiliaries known as the ‘Black and Tans’. These war-hardened men became infamous across Ireland for their brutality.

Fighting between the two sides continued over the next two years. It became clear the IRA could not defeat the regular troops, nor could the government’s forces stamp out the IRA without incurring civilian casualties.

When news of the Black and Tans’ reputation reached Britain, sympathy with the Irish cause increased. In response, Prime Minister David Lloyd-George called for a ceasefire and talks, telling the RIC to step down the brutality of their reprisals and dropping his demands that the IRA give up their arms.

In July, a truce was agreed amongst the more moderate rebels but attacks continued nevertheless and many IRA members also refused to accept the treaty in December.

The Black and Tans.

Among the Irish leaders were those who believed a formal treaty was needed if their nation was going to begin its road towards independence. Foremost among them was Michael Collins, a master of urban guerrilla warfare, who was feared and respected in equal measure. He also proved to be an astute and articulate negotiator.

The need to reach a compromise

The first issue to contend with was the north-east of Ireland.

Michael Collins knew that a simple home rule bill would not be enough, the Ulsterman would object just as they did before the First World War. He therefore conceded losing that part of the country to enable negotiations to move on to the Republican cause.

The Cabinet wanted to grant Ireland a similar status to dominions such as Australia and Canada, which enjoyed full independence but remained part of the Empire with the Queen as their head of state. For the IRA however, the word Republic was their holy grail, their inspiration and the reason for the adoption of a French-revolution-style tricolor flag.

A divisive agreement

It was this difference of opinion that led Dáil Éireann President Eamonn de Valera to stay away from the negotiations, leaving Collins with the unenviable task of reaching a compromise that made sense to him, and which would satisfy the IRA and the British. It proved impossible.

Collins did achieve home rule, with the exception of the 6 counties of Ulster that remained in the Union. The Dáil Éireann was officially recognised across the world and Ireland was set on the path to becoming a Republic – which was achieved in 1949.

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For the most fervent nationalists however, Collins’ agreement was not enough. The day after signing the Treaty on 6 December, Collins wrote in a letter to a friend that he had just signed his own death warrant, and so it proved. Ireland’s reaction to becoming part of the Commonwealth – and losing the north – was so vociferous that civil war broke out from 1922-1923 over whether the treaty should be recognised.

Collins was ambushed and killed by anti-treaty forces in August 1922.

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