Agreement led to division of Ireland and brought decades of violence
In the early hours of December 6, 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London. It was to define politics in Ireland throughout most of the 20th century until it was superceded by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
This was a seminal political event in the relationship between Ireland and Britain. It determined the nature and future shape of politics on this island, north and south.
Surprisingly, for such a fundamentally important event, its recent media coverage was mediocre.
There is a terrible sadness thinking about the treaty, which promised so much, by giving unprecedented political freedom in the form of the Irish Free State, to the greater part of this island, but which, in fact, delivered heartbreak, division and violence to its people.
Even today, we suffer from the fallout of that fateful agreement.
As Belfast historian Dr Eamon Phoenix has outlined in his authoritative book, Northern Nationalism, the treaty in Ulster was given a cautious welcome by Catholics, both nationalists and republicans.
Certainly, Catholics in Fermanagh and Tyrone saw in the Boundary Commission (contained in Article 12), a means of them eventually joining the new Free State.
By contrast, Catholics living in Belfast were particularly vulnerable, having been under siege from unionist murder-gangs over the previous year.
Many Catholics had been killed over that period.
The intention of these murderous sectarian attacks was to drive out as many Catholics as possible from Belfast.
In 1920, 8,000 Catholic shipyard workers had been expelled from their workplaces, reducing many Catholic families to abject poverty.
Catholics therefore longed to see an end to their immediate suffering and the demise of the new unionist parliament and partition through the political agreement that had been negotiated with the British.
The Boundary Commission, even if it reduced the size of the new northern state, would still leave them as an even smaller minority within a unionist-dominated state.
But the fact was that partition was a fait accompli, even before the signing of the treaty.
By the Government of Ireland Act 1920, derided by nationalists as the ‘Partition Act’, the Northern Ireland Parliament had been set up in June to govern the Six Counties.
The deliberate exclusion of the other Ulster counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan was an attempt to maintain a permanent Protestant/unionist majority and as small a nationalist minority as possible.
During the course of the treaty negotiations, Ulster was the primary issue, along with that of the Free State’s future relationship with the Crown.
Unhappily, the British government, led by the untrustworthy Prime Minister, Lloyd George, ultimately backed the unionists, led by Sir James Craig.
The issue of Ulster was supposedly solved by the stratagem of the Boundary Commission, which was an early exercise in constructive ambiguity.
Nationalists falsely hoped that this Commission was a clever device to transfer majority nationalist areas from the northern state to the new Irish Free State.
Primarily, it was believed that Tyrone and Fermanagh, together with Derry City and parts of south Down, would at least be transferred.
This, it was hoped, would make the new state economically and politically unviable and force the unionists to join in some arrangement with the southern state and thereby achieve the “essential unity” of Ireland.
Paradoxically, in November 1921, during the course of the treaty negotiations, the British brazenly devolved power, especially over law and order, to the northern parliament. Prior to that point, the powers of that parliament were minimal.
Strangely, this did not disrupt the negotiations.
In truth, the Sinn Fein plenipotentiaries, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, were politically divided and out-manoeuvred by the British negotiators, who included the top politicians of their day, Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill.
The Sinn Fein negotiators were in the end no match for the well-experienced and well-resourced British team under the wily Lloyd George.
Even after the disaster of the First World War, Britain still ruled an Empire that covered a quarter of the globe. The Irish delegation, especially Michael Collins, the IRA’s top military strategist, knew well, that the IRA was no match for the military might and firepower of the British forces if the treaty negotiations were to fail.
Any resumption of the war in Ireland would inevitably have led to an Irish military defeat.
The Sinn Fein negotiators were convinced that the Boundary Commission would secure the ultimate unity of Ireland.
But they had put their eggs into one basket, without realising just how feeble a device the Boundary Commission was to become in the near future.
The treaty negotiations are akin to a Shakespearean tragedy: from the beginning, we know in our heart that the ending will be tragic — and so it was.
One hundred years later, we are still living with its tragic consequences.