The Easter Rising of 1916, and particularly the execution of fifteen people by firing squad, the imprisonment or internment of hundreds more, and the imposition of martial law caused a profound shift in public opinion towards the republican cause in Ireland. Meanwhile, opposition increased to Ireland's participation in World War I in Europe and the Middle East. This came about when the Irish Parliamentary Party supported the Allied cause in World War I in response to the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1914. Many people had begun to doubt whether the Bill, passed by Westminster in September 1914 but suspended for the duration of the war, would ever come into effect. Due to the war situation deteriorating badly on the Western Front in April 1918, which coincided with the publication of the final report and recommendations of the Irish Convention, the British Cabinet drafted a doomed "dual policy" of introducing Home Rule linked to compulsory military service for Ireland which it eventually had to drop. Sinn Féin, the Irish Party and all other Nationalist elements joined forces in opposition to the idea during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. At the same time the Irish Parliamentary lost in support on account of the crisis. Irish republicans felt further emboldened by successful anti-monarchical revolutions in the Russian Empire (1917), the German Empire (1918), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918). In the December 1918 General Election, Sinn Féin won a large majority of the Irish seats in the Westminster parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: 73 of the 105 constituencies returned Sinn Féin members (25 uncontested). The Sinn Féin party, founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, had espoused non-violent separatism. Under Éamon de Valera's leadership from 1917, it campaigned aggressively and militantly for an Irish republic.
On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin MPs (who became known as Teachta Dála, TDs), refusing to sit at Westminster, assembled in Dublin and formed a single-chamber Irish parliament called Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland). It affirmed the formation of an Irish Republic and passed a Declaration of Independence,
the irish people is resolved... to promote the common weal, to re-establish justice... with equal rights and equal opportunity for every citizen.
and calling itself Saorstát Éireann in Irish. Although the less than overwhelming majority of Irish people accepted this course, America and Soviet Russia were targeted to recognise the Irish Republic internationally. The Message to the Free Nations of the World called on
every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognizing Ireland's national status... the last outpost of Europe towards the West... demanded by the Freedom of the Seas.
Cathal Brugha, elected President of the Ministry Pro-Tem, warned, "Deputies you understand from this that we are now done with England."
The War of Independence (1919–1921) pitted the army of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army (known subsequently as the "Old IRA" to distinguish it from later organisations of that name), against the British Army, the Black and Tans, the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Auxiliary Division, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the Ulster Special Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force. On 9 July 1921 a truce came into force. By this time the Ulster Parliament had opened, established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and presenting the republican movement with a fait accompli and guaranteeing the British permanent entanglement in Ireland. On 11 October negotiations opened between the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Arthur Griffith, who headed the Irish Republic's delegation. The Irish Treaty delegation (Griffith, Collins, Duggan, Barton, and Gavan Duffy) set up headquarters in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. On 5 December 1921 at 11:15 am the delegation decided during private discussions at 22 Hans Place to recommend the negotiated agreement to the Dáil Éireann; negotiations continued until 2:30 am on 6 December 1921, after which the parties signed Anglo-Irish Treaty. Nobody had doubted that these negotiations would produce a form of Irish government short of the independence wished for by republicans. The United Kingdom could not offer a republican form of government without losing prestige and risking demands for something similar throughout the Empire. Furthermore, as one of the negotiators, Michael Collins, later admitted (and he would have known, given his leading role in the independence war), the IRA at the time of the truce was weeks, if not days, away from collapse, with a chronic shortage of ammunition. "Frankly, we thought they were mad", Collins said of the sudden British offer of a truce – although the republicans would probably have continued the struggle in one form or another, given the level of public support. Since Lloyd George had already, after the truce had come into effect, made it clear to President of the Republic, Éamon de Valera, "that the achievement of a republic through negotiation was impossible", de Valera decided not to become a member of the treaty delegation and so not to risk more militant republicans labelling him as a "sellout". Yet his own proposals – published in January 1922 – fell far short of an autonomous all-Ireland republic. Sinn Féin's abstention was unambiguous.
As expected, the Anglo-Irish Treaty explicitly ruled out a republic. It offered Ireland dominion status, as a state within the then British Empire – equal to Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Though less than expected by the Sinn Féin leadership, this deal offered substantially more than the initial form of home rule within the United Kingdom sought by Charles Stewart Parnell from 1880, and represented a serious advance on the Home Rule Bill of 1914 that the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond had achieved through parliamentary proceedings. However, it all but confirmed the partition of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. The Second Dáil in Dublin ratified the Treaty (7 January 1922), splitting Sinn Féin in the process.
The Treaty, and the legislation introduced to give it legal effect, implied that Northern Ireland would be a part of the Free State on its creation, but legally the terms of the Treaty applied only to the 26 counties, and the government of the Free State never had any powers—even in principle—in Northern Ireland.
The Treaty was given legal effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That act, which established the Free State, allowed Northern Ireland to "opt out" of it. Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its option by presenting an address to the King requesting not to be part of the Irish Free State. Once the Treaty was ratified, the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had one month (dubbed the "Ulster month") to exercise this option during which month the Government of Ireland Act continued to apply in Northern Ireland.
Realistically it was always certain that Northern Ireland would opt out of the Free State. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, speaking in the Parliament in October 1922 said that "when 6 December is passed the month begins in which we will have to make the choice either to vote out or remain within the Free State". He said it was important that that choice be made as soon as possible after 6 December 1922 "in order that it may not go forth to the world that we had the slightest hesitation". On the following day, 7 December 1922, the Parliament resolved to make the following address to the King so as to opt out of the Irish Free State:
MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.
Discussion in the Parliament of the address was short. Prime Minister Craig left for London with the memorial embodying the address on the night boat that evening, 7 December 1922. The King received it the following day, The Times reporting:
YORK COTTAGE, SANDRINGHAM, DEC. 8. The Earl of Cromer (Lord Chamberlain) was received in audience by The King this evening and presented an Address from the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland, to which His Majesty was graciously pleased to make reply.
If the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had not made such a declaration, under Article 14 of the Treaty Northern Ireland, its Parliament and government would have continued in being but the Oireachtas would have had jurisdiction to legislate for Northern Ireland in matters not delegated to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. This, of course, never came to pass.
On 13 December 1922 Prime Minister Craig addressed the Parliament informing them that the King had responded to the Parliament's address as follows:
I have received the Address presented to me by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in pursuance of Article 12 of the Articles of Agreement set forth in the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, and of Section 5 of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, and I have caused my Ministers and the Irish Free State Government to be so informed.
The Treaty established that the new Irish Free State would be a constitutional monarchy, with a Governor-General. The Constitution of the Irish Free State made more detailed provision for the state's system of government, with a three-tier parliament, called the Oireachtas, made up of the King and two houses, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate). Executive authority was vested in the King, and exercised by a cabinet called the Executive Council, presided over by a prime minister called the President of the Executive Council.
The King in the Irish Free State was represented by a Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The office replaced the previous Lord Lieutenant, who had headed English and British administrations in Ireland since the Middle Ages. Governors-General were appointed by the King initially on the advice of the British Government, but with the consent of the Irish Government. From 1927 the Irish Government alone had the power to advise the King whom to appoint.
As with all dominions, provision was made for an Oath of Allegiance. Within dominions, such oaths were taken by parliamentarians personally towards the monarch. The Irish Oath of Allegiance was fundamentally different. It had two elements; the first, an oath to the Free State, as by law established, the second part a promise of fidelity, to His Majesty, King George V, his heirs and successors. That second fidelity element, however, was qualified in two ways. It was to the King in Ireland, not specifically to the King of the United Kingdom. Secondly, it was to the King explicitly in his role as part of the Treaty settlement, not in terms of pre-1922 British rule. The Oath itself came from a combination of three sources, and was largely the work of Michael Collins in the Treaty negotiations. It came in part from a draft oath suggested prior to the negotiations by President de Valera. Other sections were taken by Collins directly from the Oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), of which he was the secret head. In its structure, it was also partially based on the form and structure used for 'Dominion status'.
Although 'a new departure', and notably indirect in its reference to the monarchy, it was criticised by nationalists and republicans for making any reference to the Crown, the claim being that it was a direct oath to the Crown, a fact demonstrably incorrect by an examination of its wording. But in 1922 Ireland and beyond, it was the perception, not the reality, that influenced public debate on the issue. Had its original author, Michael Collins, survived, he might have been able to clarify its actual meaning, but with his assassination in August 1922, no major negotiator to the Oath's creation on the Irish side was still alive, available or pro-Treaty. (The leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith, had also died in August 1922). The Oath became a key issue in the resulting Irish Civil War that divided the pro- and anti-treaty sides in 1922–23.
The compromises contained in the agreement caused the civil war in the 26 counties in June 1922 – April 1923, in which the pro-Treaty Provisional Government defeated the anti-Treaty Republican forces. The latter were led, nominally, by Éamon de Valera, who had resigned as President of the Republic on the treaty's ratification. His resignation outraged some of his own supporters, notably Seán T. O'Kelly, the main Sinn Féin organizer. On resigning, he then sought re-election but was defeated two days later on a vote of 60–58. The pro-Treaty Arthur Griffith followed as President of the Irish Republic. Michael Collins was chosen at a meeting of the members elected to sit in the House of Commons of Southern Ireland (a body set up under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) to become Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State in accordance with the Treaty. The general election in June gave overwhelming support for the pro-Treaty parties. W. T. Cosgrave's Crown-appointed Provisional Government effectively subsumed Griffith's republican administration with the death of both Collins and Griffith in August 1922.
The following were the principal parties of government of the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1937:Cumann na nGaedheal under W. T. Cosgrave (1922–32)
Fianna Fáil under Éamon de Valera (1932–37)
Michael Collins described the Treaty as 'the freedom to achieve freedom'. In practice, the Treaty offered most of the symbols and powers of independence. These included a functioning, if disputed, parliamentary democracy with its own executive, judiciary and written constitution which could be changed by the Oireachtas. However, a number of conditions existed:The King remained king in Ireland;
Prior to the passage of the Statute of Westminster, the UK government continued to have a significant role in Irish governance. Officially the representative of the King, the Governor-General also received instructions from the British Government on his use of the Royal Assent, namely a Bill passed by the Dáil and Seanad could be Granted Assent (signed into law), Withheld (not signed, pending later approval) or Denied (vetoed). Letters patent to the first Governor-General Tim Healy had named explicitly Bills that if passed were to be blocked, such as any attempt to abolish the Oath. In the event, no such Bills were ever introduced, so the issue was moot.
As a dominion, the Irish Free State had limited independence. Entitlement of citizenship of the Irish Free State was defined in the Irish Free State Constitution, but the status of that citizenship was contentious. One of the first projects of the Irish Free State was the design and production of the Great Seal of Sáorstát Éireann which was carried out on behalf of the Government by Hugh Kennedy.
The meaning of 'Dominion status' changed radically during the 1920s, starting with the Chanak crisis in 1922 and quickly followed by the directly negotiated Halibut Treaty of 1923. A reform of the King's title following an Imperial Conference decision and given effect by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, changed the King's royal title so that it took account of the fact that there was no longer a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The King adopted the following style by which he would be known in all of his Empire: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India. That was the King's title in Ireland just as elsewhere in his Empire.
In the conduct of external relations, the Irish Free State tried to push the boundaries of its status as a Dominion. It 'accepted' credentials from international ambassadors to Ireland, something no other dominion up to then had done. It registered the treaty with the League of Nations as an international document, over the objections of the United Kingdom, which saw it as a mere internal document between a dominion and the United Kingdom.
The Statute of Westminster (of 1931), embodying a decision of an Imperial Conference, enabled each dominion to enact new legislation or to change any extant legislation, without resorting to any role for the British parliament that may have enacted the original legislation in the past.
The Free State symbolically marked these changes in two mould-breaking moves:It sought, and got, the King's acceptance to have an Irish minister, to the complete exclusion of British ministers, formally advising the King in the exercise of his powers and functions as King in the Irish Free State. Two examples of this are the signing of a treaty between the Irish Free State and the Portuguese Republic in 1931, and the act recognising the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 separately from the recognition by the British Parliament.
The unprecedented replacement of the use of the Great Seal of the Realm and its replacement by the Great Seal of the Irish Free State, which the King awarded to the Irish Free State in 1931. (The Irish Seal consisted of a picture of 'King George V' enthroned on one side, with the Irish state harp and the words Saorstát Éireann on the reverse. It is now on display in the Irish National Museum, Collins Barracks in Dublin.)
When Éamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council (prime minister) in 1932 he described Cosgrave's ministers' achievements simply. Having read the files, he told his son, Vivion, "they were magnificent, son".
The Statute of Westminster allowed de Valera, on becoming President of the Executive Council (February 1932), to go even further. With no ensuing restrictions on his policies, he abolished the Oath of Allegiance (which Cosgrave intended to do had he won the 1932 general election), the Senate, university representation in the Dáil, and appeals to the Privy Council. One major policy error occurred in 1936 when he attempted to use the abdication of King Edward VIII to abolish the crown and governor-general in the Free State with the "Constitution (Amendment No. 27 Act)". He was advised by senior law officers and other constitutional experts that, as the crown and governor-generalship existed separately from the constitution in a vast number of acts, charters, orders-in-council, and letters patent, they both still existed. A second bill, the "Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937" was quickly introduced to repeal the necessary elements. De Valera retroactively dated the second act back to December 1936.
The new state continued to use sterling from its inception; there is no reference in the Treaty or in either of the enabling Acts to currency. Nonetheless and within a few years, the Dáil passed the Coinage Act, 1926 (which provided for a Saorstát [Free State] coinage) and the Currency Act, 1927 (which provided inter alia for banknotes of the Saorstát pound). The new Saorstát pound was defined by the 1927 Act to have exactly the same weight and fineness of gold as was the sovereign at the time, making the new currency pegged at 1:1 with sterling. The State circulated its new national coinage in 1928, marked Saorstát Éireann and a national series of banknotes. British coinage remained acceptable in the Free State at an equal rate. In 1937, when the Free State was superseded by Ireland (Éire), the pound became known as the "Irish pound" and the coins were marked Éire.
According to one report, in 1924, shortly after the Irish Free State's establishment, the new dominion had the "lowest birth-rate in the world". The report noted that amongst countries for which statistics were available (Ceylon, Chile, Japan, Spain, South Africa, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Australia, United States, Britain, New Zealand, Finland and the Irish Free State). Ceylon had the highest birth rate at 40.8 per 1,000 while the Irish Free State had a birth rate of just 18.6 per 1,000.
In 1937 the Fianna Fáil government presented a draft of an entirely new Constitution to Dáil Éireann. An amended version of the draft document was subsequently approved by the Dáil. A referendum was then held on the same day as the 1937 general election, when a relatively narrow majority approved it. The new Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) repealed the 1922 Constitution, and came into effect on 29 December 1937.
The state was named Ireland (Éire in the Irish language), and a new office of President of Ireland was instituted in place of the Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The new constitution claimed jurisdiction over all of Ireland while recognising that legislation would not apply in Northern Ireland (see Articles 2 and 3). Articles 2 and 3 were reworded in 1998 to remove jurisdictional claim over the entire island and to recognise that "a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island".
With respect to religion, a section of Article 44 included the following:
The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.
Following a referendum, this section was deleted in 1973.
It was left to the initiative of de Valera's successors in government to achieve the country's formal transformation into a republic. A small but significant minority of Irish people, usually attached to parties like Sinn Féin and the smaller Republican Sinn Féin, denied the right of the twenty-six county state to use the name Ireland and continued to refer to the state as the Free State. With Sinn Féin's entry into Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Executive at the close of the 20th century, the number of those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state, which was already in a minority, declined further. After the setting up of the Free State in 1923, some Protestants left southern Ireland and unionism there largely came to an end.