The Irish Free State

The Ireland that emerged from the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 was known as the Irish Free State. In many ways, it had the independence that Irish Nationalists had dreamed about for years. It had its own Parliament, the Dáil Éireann (doyl ay-ran), which was responsible for Ireland's social and economic affairs. It inherited a British government infrastructure that allowed it to jump quickly into efficient self-government. Police and Irish home defense forces were now entirely under Ireland's control, with a new, unarmed police force known as the Garda Síochána (GAR-dah sho-HA-na).

But the Free State still maintained a number of ties to England. It was still subject to British international policy, a point made clear by the naval bases that the British navy maintained at Irish ports. A British “governor” continued to serve in Dublin, although the role was largely symbolic. The most powerful symbolic gesture was that Irish civil servants were required to swear the Oath of Fidelity (also known as the Oath of Allegiance) to the British Empire before they could serve. These remnants of the old relationship with England played a powerful role in the course of Irish Free State politics.

The Irish Free State flew the same green, white, and orange flag that the Republic of Ireland flies today. The three colors represent the hope of many Irish people for their island's reunification: green is the traditional color of Ireland, orange represents the Protestant population in the north, and white signifies the hope for peace between these two groups.

Free State Politics

The civil-war beginning of the Irish Free State accounts for the curious political divisions of twentieth-century Ireland: the fundamental political divisions in Ireland developed around those who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and those who opposed it, rather than on the Liberal/ Conservative or Labor/Business lines seen in the political systems of most modern democratic states.

The victorious pro-treaty faction created a political party called Cumann na nGaedheal (ku-man na gah-yehl), which had been the original name of Sinn Féin in 1900. Cumann na nGaedheal formed the basis of the Free State government. Its leader, William T. Cosgrave, tried to establish a stable Irish state within its constitutional boundaries as a British dominion.

But the opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty were still an important force. The opposing party, Fianna Fáil (fee-AH-na foil), was created in 1926 by Éamon de Valera and his supporters. Fianna Fáil maintained that the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty — the Oath of Fidelity and the partition of Northern Ireland — were unacceptable compromises. Although de Valera had called a halt to military opposition to the treaty, he still believed that Ireland needed to assert its independence. Fianna Fáil had limited influence in the early days of the Free State because its members refused to swear the Oath of Fidelity to the British Empire and thus could not take their seats in the Dáil.

The priority of the Free State government under Cumann na nGaedheal was to create a stable government. In 1924 a contingent of old IRA men within the Free State Army voiced objections to the new government. Rather than risk a military coup, the Free State government immediately removed all objectionable officers from power and placed the army under the command of a loyal Garda commander. They made clear from the start that the Irish Free State was going to be ruled by civil rather than military powers.

Conflict over Partition

A potential crisis arose when the Boundary Commission met in 1925. This was a joint meeting between English and Irish diplomats to re-examine the Northern Ireland border. When Michael Collins had negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty back in 1921, he had not wanted to partition Ireland and had been led to believe that the Boundary Commission would bring additional northern Catholics into the Free State. Collins, however, was dead at this point and could not defend his position on the treaty. When it became clear that Ulster Unionists were unwilling to grant any additional land to the Free State, the Free State government pulled out of the talks rather than risk another destabilizing conflict.

In 1923, Ireland joined the League of Nations and then, in 1955, the United Nations. Both were important steps for Ireland to demonstrate its independence. Éamon de Valera served as president of the League of Nations Council in 1932 and as president of the Assembly in 1938. Irish peacekeepers have been active with the UN since the 1950s.

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