Mon, 2 October 2023

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By John Oxley
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The Irish Question

4 min read

It has been 100 years since Lloyd George attempted to answer the question of the Irish border with the creation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Dr David Torrance sets the scene

The articles of agreement for a treaty, generally known as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was signed at Downing Street a century ago this month. The agreement – not an international treaty in the conventional sense – reduced the United Kingdom’s territory by two-fifths and recalibrated its party politics, yet it does not loom large in the British historical consciousness. 

To David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader of an increasingly uneasy Conservative-Liberal coalition, it was a final attempt to answer the Irish Question first posed by WE Gladstone 35 years earlier. It was, of course, a compromise. Most of Ireland was to achieve “Dominion” Home Rule while the six counties of Northern Ireland were to determine their own future. 

The long negotiations had hinged upon two issues: the Crown, and what most still referred to as “Ulster”. London wanted the 26 counties of Ireland to remain under the Crown while Dublin wanted an all-Ireland republic in “association” with the British Empire but not part of it. For almost two months, leading Irish and British politicians attempted to chart a middle way. 

When it came to the Crown, particularly controversial was the UK’s insistence that members of Ireland’s Dominion parliament would be required to swear an oath of allegiance to the British sovereign. Much ink was spilt trying to find a form of words acceptable to both sides. The result was a rather contrived formulation comprising an oath of allegiance to the “constitution” of the Irish Free State and a statement of fidelity to the King as head of the British Commonwealth.

Finding compromise over Northern Ireland proved harder still. Partition had become a reality in May 1921 and therefore had to form part of any negotiated agreement. Lloyd George felt bound by previous pledges not to “coerce” Northern Ireland into a constitutional arrangement it did not support, while the Irish delegates rather naively believed Ulster Unionists might be persuaded to join an all-Ireland parliament. They would not, although Lloyd George did his best to cajole them. 

Like most political compromises, the resulting treaty displeased almost everyone

The result was Article 12 of the treaty, which granted the Parliament of Northern Ireland the option to join the Free State after a period of one month or remain a devolved part of the United Kingdom. If it chose the latter (which of course it later did), then a boundary commission would be formed to revise the boundary between both parts of Ireland. To this Dublin consented, having been persuaded by Lloyd George that such a process would significantly expand Free State territory. 

Like most political compromises, the resulting treaty displeased almost everyone; Irish republicans, Ulster Unionists and “diehard” Conservatives opposed any compromise. Yet after decades of fraught debate about Ireland, there was immense relief that Lloyd George had apparently solved the insoluble. The treaty was overwhelmingly approved by British parliamentarians, yet only narrowly endorsed by the Dáil in Dublin. 

This ultimately led to civil war in Ireland over the terms of the treaty (mainly the oath of allegiance), while British politics did not settle down until 1925, when the governments in London, Belfast and Dublin agreed to shelve the Boundary Commission’s recommendations – which proposed minor transfers in both directions – lest the instability continue for another decade.

In 1927 the treaty had another overlooked consequence for the UK. Following years of skilful lobbying by the new Free State government, Westminster legislated to change not only the King’s titles but the name of Parliament itself. The former became known as King of “Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions” (but not the United Kingdom), while the legislature became the “Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” – which it remains to this day.


Dr David Torrance is senior library clerk (devolution, monarchy, church and state), House of Commons library.

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