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  • The Dominion of Ireland:The Anglo-Irish Treaty in an Imperial Context
  • Jason Knirck (bio)


When the Irish negotiators journeyed to London in October 1921 in an attempt to end the Anglo-Irish war, they assumed that the Crown and partition would be the most difficult problems to resolve with their British counterparts.1 This quickly proved to be the case, as the discussions in London pivoted on Ireland's relationship to the empire and the political unity of the island. In fact, Irish plenipotentiary George Gavan Duffy's overly frank admission, on the penultimate day of negotiations, that "our difficulty is coming within the Empire," nearly scuttled any chance of an agreement.2 However, once the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, these two issues did not receive equal attention. With some significant exceptions—Seán MacEntee chief among them—partition was generally relegated to the back-burner by deputies during the Dáil debates.

The empire was another matter. Discussion of the Oath, the Crown, the Governor-General, and other such imperial paraphernalia dominated the Treaty debates, and caused the most dissent [End Page 229] within the Irish delegation of plenipotentiaries, the Irish Cabinet, and the Dáil. Having failed to achieve a republic, Sinn Féin ultimately had to face the voluntary membership in the empire envisioned by the Treaty. The widespread unpopularity of such imperial ties in Ireland made the pro-Treaty position potentially treacherous, as neither pro-Treatyites nor anti-Treatyites dared stray too far from the Sinn Féin political legacy and the credibility it bestowed. Sinn Féin had been consistently anti-imperial, and, in opposing the Treaty, republicans could simply echo traditional Sinn Féin anti-imperialist rhetoric.3 Pro-Treatyites, on the other hand, had to voice their support for the Treaty, and present their visions for a post-colonial Ireland, in ways that would not indicate a clear break from the Sinn Féin platform. The furor over the Treaty showed that the imperial question had moved to the center of debates within Irish nationalism.

The relationship between Ireland and the British Empire has received growing attention from scholars in recent years. A good portion of this academic debate has queried whether Ireland was a colonized or colonizing society, with a number of scholars recently arguing that Ireland represented a hybrid of both.4 The debates among Sinn Féiners during the revolution, however, did not focus much on this issue. Although there were occasional references during the Treaty debates to Irish participation in the institutions of empire, most Sinn Féiners assumed that Ireland was not metropolitan, and that Ireland and England were distinct entities culturally, racially, and historically. They also presumed that Ireland was a clear victim—in fact, the first victim—of English colonialism.

Instead, the debate in the revolutionary Dáil focused on the nature of British colonialism in Ireland, and on the other regions of the empire, if any, with which Ireland shared similarities. Anti-Treatyites [End Page 230] relied on previously standard and agreed-upon Sinn Féin rhetoric in denouncing the agreement, portraying the empire as a rapacious and oppressive entity, and the Treaty itself as a transparent and insincere attempt by Britain to cling to imperial power in Ireland. The Treaty's opponents also tended to emphasize the uniqueness of Ireland's status within the empire, particularly challenging analogies between the Irish situation and that of the white-settled Dominions. The template apparently provided by the experience of the other Dominions in achieving self-government would not and could not be made to fit the Irish case, according to republicans.

Pro-Treatyites, on the other hand, tried to place the Treaty in both national and imperial spheres. They had little interest in contesting the standard Sinn Féin creed that Ireland was racially, culturally, and historically different from Britain or England. Challenging this would have been political suicide, and, in any case, most pro-Treatyites agreed with these positions. As a result, to sell the Treaty, its supporters had to use both national and imperial rhetoric to defend their case, accepting the realities of imperial membership established by the Treaty, while still...


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