The Treaty: 90 Years On, And Still Dividing Us

Those with a mind for historical documents and the Irish Revolutionary period will greatly enjoy this online exhibit, showcasing the various documents arising out of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, including the original treaty itself.

The actual Treaty is well known, its text widely available. The plethora of other documents provide interesting insight, from back and forth correspondence with Dublin, to the actual expenses of the delegates. The memo’s and requests come from a very long time ago, but one cannot help but be struck by how inane and frivolous some of the requests for payments seem – sweets, tips for porters, etc – but the more cynical side of me also cannot help but remember James O’Reilly and his trouser press.

The 90th Anniversary of the signing of this treaty was today. The Treaty is an important point in our history, the real beginning of an independent Ireland. But it is important for us, today, to step back and recognise that our modern state is not defined by it.

Discussion of the Anglo-Irish treaty inevitably brings talk of the “loss” of the north, the Civil War that resulted. People forget, or choose to not remember, that partition was not the only point, or even the major point of division on its contents, or just how fast large parts of the document were dismantled. It was, essentially, obsolete within 17 years of its ratification, due almost entirely to Irish actions. Collins claimed the treaty would give us the power to achieve our freedom, even if it meant further years under British authority, even if that authority was almost nominal. It is a strange irony is Irish politics that it was his Civil War opponent, De Valera, who made good on that promise.

Was the Treaty signed under duress? I would say yes, looking at the testimony of the Irish plenipotentiaries. Was it a bad treaty for Ireland? Looking at the long-term results, I would give an emphatic “No” to that question. We agined all of the hallmarks of soverignty and the North has proven itself to be a viable entity, and the inhabitants of this island, north and south, both free, have proven themselves to be peaceful neighbours.

The document, and the bitter division over its contents, caused the Civil War, and set the scene for most of Irish politics up to the present day, but that division is now purely political. No one joins Fianna Fail or Fine Gael over things that happened 90 years ago, not in their right mind anyway.

I say this because I see the treaty, its very name, invoked as an argument on both sides of a new divide in Irish politics, between those friendly to Europe, and those opposed. Fine Gael point to it, a Treaty from which they can trace back their ancestor organisations, as something to be inspired by in this current crisis, as proof of greatness from small, difficult beginnings. Sinn Fein use it as a crux to warn against future treaties from the EU, that we do not “betray” the nation in signing such a document again.

Ireland is as guilty as any country in misusing and abusing its history. The Treaty and its times cannot be compared to the current crisis. Then, it was a new nation taking shape, painfully, Today, we are a grown nation stunted by our own inaction, our own faults, our weakness on economic matters, internal and external. The Treaty should not be used as a ward against the EU. Doing so frames the Treaty in a negative light that betrays personal bias, a misguided bias in my own (trying to be neutral) opinion. Moreover, the Treaty gave Ireland more sovereignty. It did not, as the EU may attempt, take it away. SF should not try and compare the two, unless they want to be stuck with the public perception of being a primarily northern party.

For those who debate back and forth over its contents, some with more vitriol then others, I can only say this: I cannot put myself into that room with Collins and Lloyd-George. I cannot feel what they felt, fear what they feared, hope what they hoped. It is not my desire to second guess their intentions, their decisions, their results, though in my weaker moments I may do so. The Treaty is an important historical moment for us, all of us, but we should keep it there, within history. Discuss it on its historical merits by all means, but remember: the ghosts of 1921 have no place in modern political discourse.

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