On This Day: Ireland gains independence from Britain as Free State is born

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Ireland gains independence from Britain as Free State is born

DECEMBER 6, 1922: Most of Ireland gained independence from Britain on this day in 1922 following a brutal guerrilla war waged by the IRA against British forces and the police.

Northern Ireland, whose people were predominantly protestant, remained part of the UK after controversially being partitioned from the largely Catholic Irish Free State.

The new southern state was born amid a bloody civil war, which was fought between former IRA comrades who either supported or opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The accord, signed a year earlier, gave 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties self-government after seven and a half centuries of English rule.

But many Irish opposed it because, as well as partition, the new Free State would be a dominion within the
British Empire - and not the republic they had dreamed of.

It was also divisive – causing a split in the original Sinn Fein party - because it forced Ireland’s politicians to swear an oath of allegiance to the widely hated crown.

Nevertheless, despite lacking agreement and with violence continuing to rage across the country, Britain pulled its forces out of the south.

A silent British Pathé newsreel from 1922 shows British troops handing over the Curragh Camp – the largest army HQ in Ireland – to their Free State counterparts.

The year-long Irish Civil War, which followed the two-and-a-half-year Irish War of Independence, ended in May 1923 with victory for the Pro-Treaty forces.

But Michael Collins, the leader of the winning movement and former IRA chief, was killed along with 3,000 others and the treaty remained divisive.

It became the defining issue in Irish politics for decades, with Ireland almost unique among democracies in having almost no traditional left-right divide.

And Collins's Fine Gale (“Tribe of the Irish” in Gaelic) and ex-Sinn Fein rival Eamon deValera’s Fianna Fáil (“Warriors of Destiny”) remain the two main Irish parties.

Although Fine Gael now govern in a coalition with the much smaller Labour Party, it has been Fianna Fáil that has largely dominated the country’s politics.

Since coming to power in 1932, De Valera, who served as Taoiseach – or PM – for 21 years and President for 14, has shaped Ireland more than anyone else.

The Easter Rising leader, who escaped the death penalty following the 1916 rebellion due to his American birth, succeeded in pursuing his dream of bringing to life a distinctly Irish state with Gaelic and Catholicism at its core.

Among a minority of Irish speakers, he drafted a new constitution that gave Gaelic primacy over English in a bid to revive the dying native language.

While granting religious freedom, it also recognised the “special position” of the Church and ensured that divorce, abortion and the sale of contraceptives were banned.

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The constitution, which came into force in 1937 after being sent to the Vatican for approval, also abolished the controversial oath of allegiance to the crown.

After World War II - in which Ireland remained neutral – Ireland, during a brief era of Fine Gael government, finally declared itself a republic, without British opposition.
Following decades of isolationism and social conservatism, Ireland has become increasingly cosmopolitan and largely moved on from its post-Civil War divisions.

However, the status of Northern Ireland remains controversial – with the vast majority of people in the Republic supporting unification and a British exit from the province.

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Nevertheless, relations between the UK and Ireland have improved dramatically since the end of The Troubles, a three-decade period of political violence in the north.

Highlighting this, in 2011 the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the area that now comprises the Republic since 1911.

A bigger concern for most Irish people now is their economy, which has struggled to recover from a 2008 crash following the “Celtic Tiger” boom that began in the 1990s.