top of page

The treaty

On December 6th 1921, exactly 100 years ago, Michael Collins must have shuddered as he put pen to paper. His foreboding was so intense that he famously told Lord Birkenhead that he was signing his own death warrant.

At 2 o’clock that morning, he was actually signing the Anglo Irish Treaty bringing to an end centuries of English rule for the 26 counties. Why did he sign it if he knew it was going to lead to civil conflict in Ireland?

Lloyd George had threatened ‘immediate and terrible war’ if the Irish delegation walked away from the negotiations. As such, those opposed to the Treaty terms claimed that the delegates had signed under duress.

Collins correctly predicted that the Treaty would provide Ireland with the freedom to achieve freedom but woefully overplayed the significance of the Boundary Commission. When I read Frank O’Connor’s The Big Fellow as a teenager I wasn’t fully aware of how I was supposed to think about Collins.

I recall my grandfather Todd Andrews making suggestive comments about Collins and his supposed connections with Lady Londonderry - bad enough with the nobility but the name! He also regretted the credit that Collins’ Squad got for the events of Bloody Sunday 1920to the detriment of the IRA Volunteers that had done much of the work.

As recently as 1984, a year before his own passing, Todd got into a row with the then Minister for Justice Michael Noonan. Noonan had referred to the murder of Collins in a speech. “He was not murdered. He was killed in action,” retorted Todd.

O’Connor’s book paints a hugely romantic portrait and was written as a form of penance by an anti-treaty man who regretted having taken up arms against his fellow Irish.

The claim that the Treaty was signed under duress has unusual resonance to this day.

The claim is not very different to the one being put forward by Lord Frost to justify reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol which the UK Government agreed to in 2019. Lord Frost claimed in the July 2021 Command Paper that the UK Parliament forced the Government to sign the Protocol.

“Parliament’s insistence in the Benn-Burt Act that the UK could not leave the EU without an agreement radically undermined the Government’s negotiating hand.” Not exactly ‘immediate and terrible war’ but enough to force the Government’s signature, he claims.

Last September, Lord Hannan (a former UK MEP called Daniel Hannan), made the following contribution in the House of Lords.

“It is true that it [the Protocol] was signed, as what we might call an unequal treaty. History is littered with examples of treaties that ceased to be valid and were then abrogated or annulled. An apt example, given both the subject matter and this being its centenary year, is the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. It was repudiated in stages by successive Irish Governments, first breaking their residual constitutional links with the UK, then declaring a republic and leaving the Commonwealth.”

He is saying that the Protocol should be used as a basis for further negotiation, just as the Treaty was throughout the 20s and 30s. Although I don’t agree with much that Lord Hannan usually says, it’s not completely inaccurate in this case. Following the publication of Vice President Sefcovic’s non-papers in October there is weekly dialogue going on with Lord Frost.

The Tories have sought on a number of occasions to sidestep legal obligations. In 2017 Gina Miller won her case that prevented the UK Government from triggering Article 50 without Parliament’s ratification.

The Internal Market Bill and the attempt to prorogue Parliament are further examples.

How ironic that Frost and company are cast in the role of bitter-enders, hold outs and impossibilists. 100 years ago it might have been said that an Englishman’s word was his bond.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page