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Ireland first became an independent state on 6 December 1922. On that day it became a dominion in the British Commonwealth called the Irish Free State. Its independence followed a revolutionary period which began with a rebellion in 1916, the unilateral establishment of a separatist regime in 1919, and the Irish War of Independence. The state was re-established on 29 December 1937 under its current name and constitution.


Background to independence

Separatism and rebellion

From Union in 1801 until 6 December 1922 the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1914, the UK Parliament enacted a Third Irish Home Rule Bill but suspended its effect until after what was confidently expected to be a brief Great War (World War I). During the Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland in 1916 some republican leaders contemplated giving the throne of an independent Ireland to Prince Joachim of Prussia, last son of the German Kaiser. In the late 1910s, after the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising by the British government, and the perceived failure of the moderate home rule movement, militant nationalists in the form of the Sinn Féin party and its paramilitary wing, the Irish Volunteers, began to win popular support. In the 1918 general election Sinn Féin won the vast majority of seats, many of which were uncontested. Sinn Féin's elected candidates refused to attend the UK Parliament at Westminster and instead assembled in Dublin as a new revolutionary parliament called "Dáil Éireann". They declared the existence of a new state called the "Irish Republic" and established a system of government to rival the institutions of the United Kingdom.

The first meeting of the Dáil coincided with an unauthorized shooting of two RIC men in Tipperary, now regarded as the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War. From 1919 to 1921 the Irish Volunteers (now renamed as the Irish Republican Army, being deemed by the Dáil to be the army of the new Irish Republic) engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British army and paramilitary police unit known as the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. Both sides engaged in brutal acts; the Black and Tans deliberately burned entire towns and tortured civilians. The IRA attacked Loyalists who collaborated with the Crown forces, as well as burning historic homes in retaliation for the torching of homes of suspected IRA members. A few historians describe this as "ethnic cleansing of Protestant communities"[1], but most challenge[2] the validity of that interpretation, as the IRA sought to publicly humiliate, exile or kill anyone who collaborated with the British, regardless of their religion. Nevertheless, between 1911 and 1926, the Free State lost 34 percent of its Protestant population.[3] While there were many reasons for this, secession from the United Kingdom was a factor in Protestant emigration.

Autonomy within United Kingdom

On 3 May 1921 the Government of Ireland Act 1920 described the partition of the island of Ireland into two autonomous regions Northern Ireland (six northeastern counties) and Southern Ireland (the rest of the island, including its most northerly county, Donegal).[4] However, political turmoil and the ongoing War of Independence meant that only the entity of Northern Ireland was established under the Act in 1921[5]. The potential entity of Southern Ireland was superseded in 1922 by the creation of the Irish Free State, meaning that "Southern Ireland" never came into existence.

Anglo-Irish Treaty and Partition

Political map of Ireland.

Negotiations between the British and Irish sides produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty, concluded on 6 December 1922. The treaty envisaged a new system of Irish self government, known as "dominion status", with a new state, to be called the Irish Free State.

For three days from midnight on 6 December 1922 the newly established Irish Free State included all of the island of Ireland (including Northern Ireland).[6] However Northern Ireland left the Irish Free State on 8 December 1922. This remarkable constitutional episode arose because of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the legislation introduced to give that Treaty legal effect.[7]

The Treaty was given effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That Act established a new Dominion for the whole island of Ireland but also allowed Northern Ireland to opt out. Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its opt out 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 to exercise this opt out during which month the Irish Free State Government could not legislate for Northern Ireland, holding the Free State’s effective jurisdiction in abeyance for a month.

Realistically, it was always certain that Northern Ireland would opt out and rejoin the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, speaking in the Parliament in October 1922 said that “when the 6th of 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 was 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”.[8] On 7 December 1922 (the day after the establishment of the Irish Free State) the Parliament demonstrated its lack of hesitation by resolving to make the following address to the King so as to opt out of the Irish Free State:[9]

”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:[10]

"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."

With this, Northern Ireland had left the Irish Free State and rejoined the United Kingdom. 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:[11]

“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.”

Civil War

On a vote of 64 to 57, the Dáil narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 7 January 1922.[12] Under the leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith it set about establishing the Irish Free State, a national, fully re-organised army from the IRA and a new police force, the Civic Guard (soon renamed the Garda Síochána) which replaced one of Ireland's two police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary. The second, the Dublin Metropolitan Police merged some years later with the Garda.

However a minority led by Éamon de Valera opposed the Treaty, on the grounds that it did not create a fully independent state, or a republic, that it imposed a declaration of fidelity to the British monarch on Irish parliamentarians and that it provided for the partition of the island. De Valera led his supporters out of the Dáil and a bloody civil war, between pro and anti-treaty sides, followed; only coming to an end in 1923. The civil war cost more lives than the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it and left divisions that are still felt in Irish politics today.


After Collins's assassination in August 1922 and Griffith's natural death shortly before, W. T. Cosgrave assumed control of both the Irish Republic's cabinet and the Provisional Government and both administrations disappeared simultaneously shortly afterwards, replaced by the institutions of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922. The Free State was a constitutional monarchy over which the British monarch reigned (from 1927 with the title "King of Ireland"). The Representative of the Crown was known as the Governor-General. The Free State had a bicameral parliament and a cabinet, called the "Executive Council" answerable to the lower house of parliament, the Free State Dáil. The head of government was called the President of the Executive Council.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty provided that should Northern Ireland choose not be included in the Free State, a Boundary Commission would be set up to revise the borders between the two jurisdictions. The Irish perspective was that this was intended to allow largely nationalist areas of Northern Ireland to join the Free State, and shortly after the establishment of the Free State this commission came into being. However the commission concentrated on economic and topographic factors, rather than the political aspirations of the people who would be living near the new border. In 1925 the Boundary Commission report, contrary to expectations, proposed ceding some small areas of the Free State to Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons the governments agreed to accept the original Northern Ireland/Southern Ireland delineation and the Dáil approved the boundary by a large margin of 71 to 20.

The parliament of the U.K. passed The Statute of Westminster 1931, which granted legislative independence to the six Dominions, Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa. In 1932, Éamon de Valera, who had been the political leader of the anti-treaty faction of Sinn Fein had resigned from Sinn Féin in 1926 to found the Fianna Fáil party. He defeated President Cosgrave in the general election and became President of the Executive Council. The 1922 Irish Free State constitution, amended through a series of legislative changes, was subsequently replaced with a new constitution. This document was drawn up by the De Valera administration. It was approved by the electorate in a plebiscite by a simple majority.

Constitution of Ireland

On the 29 December 1937 the new "Constitution of Ireland" came into effect, renaming the Irish Free State to simply "Éire" or in the English language "Ireland". The Governor-General was replaced by a President of Ireland and a new more powerful prime minister, called the "Taoiseach", came into being, while the Executive Council was renamed the "Government". Though it had a president, the new state was not a republic. The British monarch continued to reign theoretically as King of Ireland and was used as an "organ" in international and diplomatic relations, with the President of Ireland relegated to symbolic functions within the state but never outside it.

World War II, Neutrality, "The Emergency"

The state was nominally neutral during World War II, a period known within the state as the "Emergency", though behind the scenes it worked closely with the Allies; for example the date of the D-Day Normandy landings was decided on the basis of transatlantic weather reports supplied by the Irish state. It is estimated that about 100,000 men from Ireland took part, with that number roughly evenly divided between Northern Ireland and the southern state. Tens of thousands more men who enlisted in Britain also gave next-of-kin addresses in Ireland, so the true figure is much higher. Conversely, following the suicide of Adolf Hitler, de Valera, following diplomatic protocol, controversially offered condolences to the German ambassador. The state's decision to adopt neutrality was influenced by memories of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War, and the state's lack of military preparedness for involvement in a war.


On 18 April 1949, the Republic of Ireland Act was enacted by the Oireachtas. That legislation described Ireland as the Republic of Ireland but did not change the country's name. The international and diplomatic functions previously vested in or exercised by the King were now vested in the President of Ireland who finally became unambiguously the Irish head of state. Under the Commonwealth rules then in force, the declaration of a republic automatically terminated the state's membership of the British Commonwealth. Unlike India, which became a republic shortly afterwards, Ireland chose not to reapply for admittance to the Commonwealth.

Though a republic since 1949, the Crown of Ireland Act 1542 that had established the Kingdom of Ireland was not finally repealed until 1962, along with many other obsolete Parliament of Ireland statutes.[13] However, long before that, the British Government in its Ireland Act 1949 recognised that "the Republic of Ireland had ceased to be part of His Majesty's dominions" (But would not be "a foreign country" for the purposes of any law).[14]

The state joined the United Nations in December 1955, after a lengthy veto by the Soviet Union.[15] Turned away by the veto of France in 1961, the state finally succeeded in joining the European Economic Community (now known as the European Union) in 1973.

1973 onward

The period of economic crisis of the late 1970s was a difficult time for Ireland. Fianna Fáil's budget, the abolition of the car tax, borrowing to fund spending, and global economic trouble were felt by some to have caused high unemployment and mass emigration. One possible reason for this was that the Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald governments borrowed even more, and tax rates went up by 60% (with one Fine Gael finance minister suggesting people were not being taxed enough). There was widespread tax evasion and political corruption. Power alternated between the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with some governments not even lasting a year, and in one case, three elections in a period of 18 months.

Starting in 1989 there were significant policy changes with economic reform, tax cuts, welfare reform, an increase in competition, and a ban on borrowing to fund current spending. This policy was started by the 1989–1992 Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat government, with the support of the opposition Fine Gael, and continued by the subsequent FF/Lab government and Fine Gael/Labour Party/Democratic Left governments. It is debated whether the tax cuts caused the "boom" or just followed it.

Relationship with Northern Ireland

Irish governments have sought the peaceful unification of Ireland and in recent decades have cooperated with the UK government against paramilitary groups such as the Provisional IRA and the 'Real IRA'. Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA refused until the 1980s to participate in the political institutions of the Republic.

The party has changed its policy stance on the existence of both the Republic and Northern Ireland, serving in the parliament of the former and the cabinet of the latter, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, which set up power-sharing institutions within Northern Ireland, North-South instructions and links between the various components of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Irish state also changed Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution to acknowledge both the existence of Northern Ireland and the desire of Irish nationalists for a united Ireland.

National scandals

Both church and state were hit by a number of scandals in the 1980s and 1990s. The revelation that one senior Catholic bishop, Eamon Casey, fathered a child by a divorcée caused a major reaction, as did the discovery of child abuse by a large number of clerics, notably the infamous paedophile Father Brendan Smyth (the incompetent handling of a request for the extradition of Smyth brought down an Irish government in 1994). Another bishop subsequently resigned over his mishandling of child abuse cases in his diocese.

Until the 1970s and 1980s the Catholic Church had great influence in Irish society. This was famously demonstrated by a number of religious references in the 1937 constitution and the controversy over health minister Noel Browne's "Mother and Child Scheme" in the 1950s. The scandals of the '80s and '90s contributed to an increased secularisation of the state, a trend which began in the 1960s and 1970s.

Also in the 1990s, a series of tribunals began inquiring into major allegations of corruption against senior politicians. Ray Burke, who served as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1997 was gaoled on charges of Tax Evasion in January 2005.

Liberalisation and economic success

Since 1992 the state has become less socially conservative. Liberalisation has been championed by figures like Mary Robinson, a radical feminist senator who became President of Ireland, and David Norris, who led the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

Gripped by poverty and emigration for most of its existence, the state became one of the fastest growing economies in the world by the 1990s, a phenomenon known as the Celtic Tiger. By the early 2000s, the Republic had become the second richest (in terms of GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity) member of the European Union, had moved from being a net recipient of EU funds to a net contributor, and from a position of net emigration to one of net immigration.

In 2005, its per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) became the second highest in world (behind Switzerland) with 10 percent of the population born abroad.

The Celtic Tiger started in the mid 1990s and boomed right on up to 2001, when it slowed down, only to pick up again in 2003. It slowed again in 2007 and in June 2008 the Irish Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) predicted that Ireland would go into recession briefly before growth would resume.[16][17]


  1. ^ Peter Hart The IRA at War 1916-1923(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003 ISBN 0-19-925258-0) and The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (OUP 1998, ISBN 0-19-820806-5)
  2. ^ Meda Ryan Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Cork: Mercier Press, 2003). ISBN 1-85635-425-3 quotes Lionel Curtis, political advisor to Lloyd George, writing in early 1921 that Protestants in the south do not complain of persecution on sectarian grounds. If Protestant farmers are murdered, it is not by reason of their religion, but rather because they are under suspicion as Loyalist. The distinction is fine, but a real one.
  3. ^ the website Changing distribution of Protestants in Ireland, 1861 - 1991
  4. ^ NSR&O 1921, No. 533.
  5. ^ John Furlong (2006). Ireland – the Name of the State. Legal Information Management, 6, pp 297-301. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/S1472669606000934
  6. ^ Times, 6 December 1922, Ulster in the Free State, Voting-Out Today, Memorial to the King
  7. ^ For further discussion, see: Dáil Éireann - Volume 7 - 20 June, 1924 The Boundary Question – Debate Resumed.
  8. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates, 27 October 1922
  9. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Report, 7 December 1922
  10. ^ Times, 9 December 1922
  11. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Report, 13 December 1922, Volume 2 (1922) / Pages 1191 – 1192, 13 December 1922
  12. ^ Record of the Dáil debate on the Treaty and vote on the 7 January, 1922
  13. ^ Statute law revision Act 1962
  14. ^ Sections 1 and 2 from the UK Statute Law Database
  15. ^ Ireland joins the U.N. 1955
  16. ^ ESRI warns of recession, job losses and renewed emigration
  17. ^ Recession Ireland 2008: It may be like a Feast and a Famine as Celtic Tiger declared dead but all is not lost

See also

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