How parliament approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which resulted in independence for what was initially known as the Irish Free State, was signed 100 years ago today. David Torrance outlines how MPs and peers reacted when asked to approve the treaty at a specially convened parliament later that month.  

Despite its significance to the history of the United Kingdom, the Anglo-Irish Treaty – signed a century ago on 6 December 1921 – has had remarkably little attention from historians and constitutional scholars.

Especially neglected has been the UK Parliament’s consideration of that treaty, in marked contrast to considerable analysis of the Dáil debates during December 1921 and January 1922. In accordance with Article 18 of the treaty, its provisions required approval by both the UK Parliament and ‘a meeting’ of those elected to the (devolved) Parliament of Southern Ireland in May 1921.

Parliament was convened on 14 December 1921 for the sole purpose of considering the treaty. King George V said in his speech opening parliament that it was his:

earnest hope that by the Articles of Agreement now submitted to you the strife of centuries may be ended and that Ireland, as a free partner in the Commonwealth of Nations forming the British Empire, will secure the fulfilment of her national ideals.

Both Houses of Parliament were instructed to make a humble address by way of reply to the King’s Speech. This was unusual – Sir Austen Chamberlain later explained that this means of ratification was ‘founded […] on a precedent which had prevailed uninterruptedly up to the year 1890’ – but then the treaty itself was unusual in that it had been agreed between two parts of the UK rather than two (internationally recognised) sovereign states.

The reply stated that having taken into consideration the Articles of Agreement, both Houses of Parliament were ready ‘to confirm and ratify these Articles’ in order to establish ‘for ever’ the ‘mutual consent of the peoples of Great Britain and Ireland’. The reply also offered the King ‘humble congratulations’ on the near accomplishment of reconciliation to which he had ‘so largely contributed’.

David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister and primary instigator of the treaty, claimed that no agreement ‘ever arrived at between two peoples has been received with so enthusiastic and so universal a welcome’. ‘They [the Articles] have been received in every quarter in this country with satisfaction and with relief,’ he continued. ‘They have been received throughout the whole of His Majesty’s Dominions with acclaim.’

The House of Commons went on to consider the treaty on 15 and 16 December 1921. H. H. Asquith, the former Liberal Prime Minister and a long-standing supporter of Dominion status for Ireland, spoke first:

It is because this Treaty—Treaty is the right word to apply to it—this instrument of Agreement, this Treaty between two peoples, as far as I can judge, gives the full substance of self-government without ignoring special local conditions, that I heartily commend it to the acceptance of the House.

Not everyone agreed. Colonel John Gretton, a leading ‘die-hard’ Conservative MP, proposed an amendment to the humble address which expressed regret:

that the proposed settlement of the government of Ireland […] involves the surrender of the rights of the Crown in Ireland, gives power to establish an independent Irish Army and Navy, violates pledges given to Ulster, and fails to safeguard the rights of the loyalist population in Southern Ireland.

Colonel Gretton argued that the treaty set an unwelcome precedent, adding that:

We are inviting everybody throughout the world to come to the British Government with sufficient violence and persistence in outrage, to insist on getting what they want, and we shall be told of another great act of statesmanship, another great, glorious and generous concession. This policy is destructive, ruinous, and fatal.

Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies and a signatory to the treaty, disputed that it represented a humiliation:

No doubt England [sic] is conceding more to Ireland in this Treaty than she has as a nation ever been willing to concede before [but it] is not as a humiliation that this event is viewed by the world or by the Empire. It is as a great and peculiar manifestation of British genius, at which the friends of England all over the world have rejoiced. Every foe of England has been dumbfounded.

An important intervention came from Andrew Bonar Law, the former Conservative Party leader and a long-standing champion of the Ulster Unionists. Indeed, Lloyd George had been careful to secure Bonar Law’s support during the treaty negotiations, fearful that he might attempt to form a militarist government in opposition to any concessions.

Taking care not to offend his die-hard colleagues (the label, he said, was ‘not an insult’), Bonar Law nevertheless politely ‘differed’ from opponents of the treaty:

Let me say at the outset that I am in favour of this Agreement[…] It seems to me now that it would have been impossible to present any other alternative policy except this—that we would give to the South and West of Ireland what the Prime Minister has been ready to agree to, and that Ulster should be kept absolutely, if she wished it, within the United Kingdom.

Articles 12 and 13 of the treaty – which allowed the Parliament of Northern Ireland to opt out of its future inclusion in the Irish Free State – had reassured Bonar Law that previous pledges not to ‘coerce’ the six counties of Ulster (into an undesired constitutional settlement) were not to be broken.

However Sir William Allen, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Armagh, argued that while there may not have been any ‘physical coercion’ of Northern Ireland, there was ‘in every line of this Treaty a moral coercion’, not least because Article 12 meant Northern Ireland was ‘to suffer the penalty’ of having its boundary ‘remodelled’ should it decide not to join the Irish Free State. This was a reference to the Boundary Commission which was to be formed in that event.

When the Commons again considered the treaty the following day, 16 December 1921, another Ulster Unionist MP, Hugh O’Neill, accused the Prime Minister of being in ‘flagrant violation of his written pledge, making a treaty with a third party, without a word of consultation with the Ulster people, the effect of which may be radically to alter the boundaries within which they now have jurisdiction’.

Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Leader of the House of Commons (and another signatory to the treaty), later responded to another Ulster Unionist complaint, that Northern Ireland had ‘automatically’ been placed in an all-Ireland parliament:

One of the hon. Members for Belfast complained that she was brought within the ambit of the Treaty, and then left to vote herself out. Yes, but until she has taken her decision, the Parliament of the Irish Free State has no authority in Northern Ireland, and, if her decision be, as evidently it is going to be, that at the present time she will not join in an Irish Free State, the Irish Free State Parliament in Dublin will never exercise any authority within the boundaries of Northern Ireland.

Beyond the Northern Ireland question, other MPs hoped the treaty would finally answer the larger Irish Question which had cast a shadow over British party politics for the past 35 years. The Secretary of State for War, Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, said he believed the treaty would ‘secure a more friendly people, a people who will turn their eyes off us as their governors and concentrate them upon their own representatives’. Those representatives in Dublin, he added, would soon ‘realise the difficulties of Empire’.

Arthur Henderson, Labour’s Chief Whip, also pledged his party’s support:

The outstanding fact of the Treaty is that it means peace. That is a consideration beyond measure […] the most permanent action in favour of peace is for us to endorse as speedily as possible the great work of the Prime Minister and his colleagues and to ratify the Treaty.

Sir Austen Chamberlain said he believed the Commons’ deliberations would ‘rank as one of the greatest Debates in the history of this House, alike in the importance of the subject with which it has dealt, and in the character of more than one of the speeches which have been delivered’.

During the House of Lords’ consideration of the treaty, Lord Sydenham described it as a ‘stupendous surrender’, and even questioned whether the people of Ireland really desired independence.

Lord (Edward) Carson (a former Attorney General and leader of the Ulster Unionists who had become a Law Lord in June 1921, removing him from frontline politics) criticised the manner in which parliament was to give its approval:

It is brought out one morning cut and dried, signed, sealed, and delivered; and before making this great act of constitutional change, which is to break up the United Kingdom […] you are not to present this to Parliament or to the country, but you are to advise His Majesty to give his consent. I say there never was a greater outrage attempted upon constitutional liberty than this Coalition Government have attempted at the present time.

This earned a withering rebuke from Lord Birkenhead – Lord Chancellor and a signatory to the treaty – who said that ‘as a constructive effort of statecraft’ Lord Carson’s speech ‘would have been immature upon the lips of a hysterical school-girl’. 

In spite of this noise and fury, both Houses of Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the treaty. On 16 December the Commons voted by 401 to 58 to present an address to the King approving the Articles of Agreement, while an identical address in the Lords was carried by 166 votes to 47 on 19 December 1921.

Upon proroguing the specially-convened parliament, the King said he had ‘received with deep satisfaction the assurance of your approval of the Articles of the Irish Agreement and of your readiness to give effect to its provisions’.

Parliamentary approval was only the first step. By a much narrower margin, the Dáil ratified the treaty in January 1922. A Provisional Irish Government was then formed, while Westminster passed two Acts to give effect to the Agreement and the constitution of the Irish Free State. With Civil War raging across much of Ireland, the Free State was constituted, as planned, on 6 December 1922 – exactly a year after British and Irish delegates had reached an agreement at 10 Downing Street.

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About the author

Dr David Torrance is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Northern Ireland. See here for other posts written by him.