Anglo-Irish Treaty: Centenary Exhibition (1921-2021)

7 November 2021

The history of modern Ireland began on 6 December 1921 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by representatives of the British Government and the provisional Irish Republican government by which Ireland was partitioned and the Irish Free State created. The Irish delegation was led by the revolutionary Michael Collins (1890-1922).* It laid the foundations for the division of Ireland into two areas of sovereignty. The long and troubled history of a divided island has continued in the North across the political, religious, economic or social divides. Political support structures and institutions have been established, most noticeably those of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The latter was the first All-Ireland ballot since 1918, approved by 94.39% in the Republic and 71.12% in the six counties of the North.

The signed Articles of the Anglo-Irish Treaty followed five months of complex negotiations during which there was much to and fro between Dublin and London culminating in a two months Conference in London. The terms offered by the British government were presented as the limit of a possible concession. The ‘Free State’ was to have a large measure of independence in domestic concerns along Canadian lines. It had to make an Imperial contribution to the British exchequer, and the so-called ‘Treaty Ports’ within the Free State were to remain under British jurisdiction to provide ‘harbour and other facilities’ in peace time, with the possibility of additional facilities being employed in time of war or strained international relations. Clause X11 made provision for a Boundary Commission in Northern Ireland that had opted out of membership of the new State. Most controversially an oath of fidelity had to be sworn to the British Crown by Irish Ministers and representatives, a Governor-General to be appointed, and appeals to the British Privy Council to be permitted.

For all the melodrama at the end of the negotiations, the Treaty terms were predictable. They were committed to referring any document back to Dublin before signature. In the final hours Lloyd George threatened immediate resumption of war if all the Irish delegates did not sign. The Treaty was enthusiastically received in Britain and by the spring of 1922 was comfortably passed by Parliament. In the twenty-six counties ‘Free State’ it split all elements of nationalist opinion, winning only what they regarded as a sell-out. British insistence on the treaty terms ended any hope of compromise in the South and led to a lengthy and brutal outbreak of civil war in late June. Despite the pro-Treaty in the ensuing conflict and the Dail ratification of the Treaty on 7 January 1922, it continued to polarise political opinion for most of the twentieth century. In 1932, Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) progressively began to abolish the ‘dominion settlement’ that he had opposed.

Centenary Exhibition (1921-2021)

Kept in the archives for 100 years the two typescript copies of the Anglo-Irish Treaty have been reunited in the city where they were created. Shown in public for the first time, they are displayed side by side at a current exhibition at the British Academy until 23 October 2021 as part of the Irish Embassy in London’s programme of events to commemorate the centenary. The exhibition hosts a number of other materials including documents, photographs, newsreels that bring to life an intense period in the political life of two nations with contending views of how they should co-exist. The exhibition includes portraits of the British and Irish negotiators by John Lavery. Most of the documents have a permanent home in an ornate first-floor gallery in the British Prime Minister’s residence at No 10 Downing Street.

The aim of the exhibition is to present the historical and political story around the Anglo-Irish Treaty, also to tell the story of the lives of those men and women who came from Dublin in 1921, who rented two houses in London, one in Hans Place as the Irish Delegation Office, the other in Kensington Gardens. They ran an administrative office in both houses that included support of domestic and other services over the course of two months. The invoices of different expenses and accounts form part of the exhibition, along with bills from Harrods for food supplies since it was the nearest grocery store and the London Telephone Exchange.

Ita Marguet, October 2021

Note: Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and other sources used in preparation of this text. It follows an extended text titled Irish Struggle for Freedom: Landmark events, by Ita Marguet, November 2020, written as an advance contribution to the Centenary Year of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921-2021). *Michael Collins quotes are many, amongst which is ‘In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations deserve, but the freedom to achieve it’. While on a tour of duty in his native west Cork he was killed in an ambush at Bealnablagh, near Macroom. He is buried with honours at the Dublin Necropolis and has since become recognised as a founding father of Irish democratic independence. On 20 October 2021 a denominational religious ceremony was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh to commemorate the Centenary.