Far from settling the partition issue, the Treaty created huge instability in the northern state during the first six months of 1922. Robert Lynch explains what happened.

While divisions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty would eventually lead to civil war in the twenty-six counties, its immediate effect was to provoke a similar conflict in Ulster. Far from settling the partition issue, the Treaty created huge instability in the northern state during the first six months of 1922.

The promise of a future Boundary Commission and a potential amendment to the border, which by optimistic Free State estimates could involve the transfer of a third of Northern territory to the South, raised the hopes of nationalists in majority Catholic areas, while for Unionists, it created profound fear and disillusionment.

Map of Ireland showing border, 1921
A contemporary map showing the partition not only of Ireland but of Ulster. Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although most nationalist political leaders appeared to place faith in the woefully ill-defined commission, the clause appearing unchanged in de Valera’s alternative to the Treaty Document no. 2, radical elements sought more direct intervention as a way of undermining partition.

Chief amongst these was Michael Collins. Even though he was a signatory to the Treaty, Collins displayed little confidence in the future proposed commission and from January 1922 would sponsor an aggressive political, diplomatic, and military campaign against the Belfast government, while the legendary propaganda machine of Sinn Féin was turned towards the perceived brutalities of the Unionist regime and the sufferings of the northern Catholic minority.


The rationale behind Collins’s northern offensive policy remains hard to discern. There was little likelihood that sporadic border attacks and the shooting of northern policemen would bring down the Unionist government and, if the aim was somehow to protect the Catholic minority, it proved to be woefully misjudged, sparking off prolonged bouts of reprisal rioting and sectarian expulsions, leading to over 200 deaths in Belfast alone.

Child arrives in Dublin in 1922, fleeing sectarian attacks in Belfast.
A Catholic child arrives in Dublin in 1922, fleeing sectarian violence in Belfast. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

However, the focus on the north also served the purpose of appeasing hard-line militarists in the south who had declared against the Treaty settlement. Viewed in this light, the policy was clearly a way of averting a civil war in the South by starting one in the North, the partition issue being the one subject on which there was broad substantive agreement amongst Irish nationalists.

Increasing tension

One of the key results of the escalating violence was increasing tension between the British government and the Unionist regime in Belfast. It was clear that the unqualified support offered by the Conservative establishment during the Ulster crisis had dissipated by 1922.

Senior civil servants in London were particularly concerned about the constant demands from Belfast for more resources to shore up its bloated security forces in the shape of the Ulster Special Constabulary, which by May would number over 30,000 men.

The involvement of these auxiliary police forces in all manner of extra-judicial killings and collusion in reprisals, including the horrific McMahon murders in March, twinned with James Craig’s unwillingness to engage with the Boundary Commission plan, led Churchill to call the two Irish leaders together.

Michael Collins and James Craig. Their meetings did not prove fruitful. Images: National Library of Ireland and the National Portrait Gallery.

The need to convene these meetings demonstrated that the partition plan, as originally envisaged, had failed. What was being attempted was essentially the renegotiation of the two ailing partition settlements and their amalgamation into one workable solution.

When Craig met Collins

While hopes for agreement were high, they were to prove hopelessly unrealistic in the rapidly polarising political situation of early 1922. The first meeting between Michael Collins and James Craig in January yielded a brief statement of principle, while that in March, although more substantive, foundered on the bad faith in which both sides engaged in the negotiations.

If anything, the second pact made things worse rather than better for the two Irish leaders, both of whom were wary of upsetting more hard-line elements back home. Collins was accused of essentially recognising the Belfast government while Craig faced vitriolic attacks for allowing the Dublin government a potential say in Northern Ireland’s security policy.

1st February 1922: James Craig, Colonel Spencer and Captain Nixon attend a conference with Michael Collins at City Hall, Dublin. (Photo by Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1st February 1922: James Craig, Colonel Spencer and Captain Nixon attend a conference with Michael Collins at City Hall, Dublin. Photo: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

With the failure of negotiation, the partition issue entered a crucial endgame. The months of May and June 1922 would see growing confrontation between North and South leading to almost open war. Southern Republicans were dispatched to Ulster to co-ordinate a series of border incursions from Donegal while IRA units inside the six counties were reorganised and resupplied, launching a series of bomb attacks and a campaign of arson in Belfast which caused over £3 million worth of damage.

The British Government realised immediately how dangerous this new Southern coalition could prove in threatening the whole basis of the partition plan. Indeed, on 31 May in the vicinity of Belleek and Pettigo, the British Army had to intervene to oust an IRA force which had secured positions inside the Northern Irish border. Of most concern was the fact that this force had consisted of both pro- and anti-Treaty units.

British soldiers on the streets of Belleek 1922
British soldiers in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, in June 1922. Photo: Getty Images

The sheer level of disorder and violence led many in senior government circles to question the sustainability of the partition settlement in its current form. The introduction of internment and the arrest of hundreds of IRA members under the Special Powers Act had not stemmed the flow of reprisal atrocities, which now, having previously been largely confined to Belfast, began to occur in large numbers throughout the province.

The British, who were footing for bill for this vast and palpably ineffective security apparatus, were coming to the conclusion that the northern government was no longer functioning. Collins’s crude and counter-productive policy appeared to be succeeding almost in spite of itself.

Civil War in the South

Northern Ireland would be saved by the outbreak of civil war in Dublin in late June. Southern support for the northern minority evaporated almost overnight as the South turned in on itself and the security situation in the north-east began to stabilise. The united policy against the North had proved to be largely unsustainable for the Provisional Government.

Domestically, Collins found it impossible to both placate the radical Republicans in the South, while at the same time retaining a public commitment to the Treaty. His death in August would further cement this retreat from confrontation and the instigation of a new peace policy by his successors in the Provisional Government.

Michael Collins's funeral cortege
Michael Colllins's funeral. His death would cement the new state's retreat from confrontation in the North. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

The northern minority was abandoned to its fate, while IRA units sent to the north to take part in the offensive were left isolated in the rapidly polarising situation as both Irish governments now colluded in hunting down their common Republican foe.

There can be little doubt that the onset of the Civil War in the South saved the partition settlement from collapse giving the Belfast government a crucial breathing space to consolidate its control of the new state. Craig moved against rebel local authorities and chose to abolish the safeguard of proportional representation, as enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, almost as soon as the dust had settled in July 1922.

The North would remain largely quiescent during the Civil War, however, the Unionist government did not see the new non-threatening southern government as a reason to relax its harsh security policy. Round ups of IRA suspects continued apace and despite the almost non-existent security threat, the Special Powers Act was renewed and later made permanent, while the 'B’ Specials remained the backbone of the Northern security forces. In many senses, the Northern government never got over the traumatic experience of its birth and for the rest of its fifty-year existence would remain in a virtual state of emergency.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.