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Partition and Civil War: Global Forces and Irish Divisions in 1922

19 Oct 2022
July 1922: Republican and Free State forces battle in the streets of Dublin during the Irish Civil War. (Photo by Brooke/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Global Influence was a crucial weapon in the fight for independence at home, writes Professor Fearghal McGarry, Queen's University Belfast

In recent years historians have increasingly emphasised how global factors, such as the role of the Irish diaspora, revolutionary diplomacy and the propaganda war, strengthened the republican struggle for independence. But how did international developments shape the settlements that brought the Irish conflict to a close?

The key international shift following the First World War was the retreat of empire in the face of popular demands for self-determination. The collapse of empires across central and eastern Europe saw democratic republics rapidly emerge as the new norm. Although Britain’s Empire reached its greatest territorial extent during this period, these developments also shaped politics in Ireland. Sinn Féin’s 1918 election manifesto, for example, centred on its appeal to the Paris Peace Conference. Although republicans were not naïve about the likelihood of the Irish Republic gaining international recognition, they understood the importance of identifying their demand for independence with President Woodrow Wilson’s support for a new world order based on the right to self-determination.

Although the hopes of Irish revolutionaries – like those of Indians and Egyptians (the movements with which the Irish were most often compared) – were dashed at Paris, international concerns remained central to their strategy. Surveying Irish efforts within the context of this ‘Wilsonian moment’, what is most striking is the extent to which different anti-imperial movements adopted similar strategies. For instance, it was not just the Irish but also the Koreans who proclaimed independence, established a republican government, sent delegates to Paris, set up diplomatic missions in Washington, mobilised diasporic support, issued revolutionary bonds in the US, and organised presidential tours across America.

Two factors distinguished Irish republicans from most anti-colonial movements. First, the relative size of the Irish diaspora, a product of post-Famine migration which scattered almost two million people across the world with, conveniently, the largest number settling in the new global superpower that was the US. This meant the Irish were among the best connected and most influential of the revolutionary movements excluded from the Peace Conference. A second factor, which was also deployed to legitimise Irish claims, was race: Ireland, Éamon de Valera complained, was ‘the last white nation . . . deprived of its liberty’.

The globalization of the Irish question enabled the republican campaign to transcend ethnic loyalties. Press coverage of ‘Black and Tan’ atrocities provoked international outrage (including within England), diminishing Britain’s reputation. Republicans and imperialists understood the importance of the propaganda struggle which made visible forms of colonial violence that attracted less attention in more peripheral regions. ‘Real progress’, Michael Collins advised the Dáil’s representative in Rome, ‘is much more to be estimated by what is thought abroad than by what is thought at home.’ This ‘propaganda business’, the British commander-in-chief in Ireland General Nevil Macready complained, is Sinn Féin’s ‘strongest weapon’.

The two initiatives that underpinned the Irish settlement – partition and the Anglo-Irish Treaty – were shaped by international pressures and imperial calculations. The implications of an Irish settlement for British rule in Egypt, Palestine and India were frequently cited by leading imperialists such as Sir Henry Wilson: ‘If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire.’ The fateful decision to devolve power from Westminster to a Unionist-controlled parliament (rather than merely excluding Ulster from an Irish settlement) resulted, in part, from the necessity to be seen to conform to the post-war gospel of self-determination.

Shifts in liberal political thought enhanced the appeal of partition as a means of resolving differences between nationalities. The ‘un-mixing of peoples’ was regarded within the international community as a necessary part of creating new states, as was demonstrated by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which combined the redrawing of borders in former Ottoman territories with mass population transfers. Only after the Second World War did it come to be generally accepted that partition was a violent process that intensified conflict over identities and the mistreatment of minorities.

Like the Treaty settlement for which it paved the way, partition was shaped by broader British imperial concerns. It formed a key part of the strategy enabling rival national demands for self-government to be reconciled with continued imperial rule. Indeed, the perceived success of Irish partition influenced Britain’s partition proposals in Palestine and, with horrific consequences, the partition of India. Novel political structures, such as the mandate system created by the League of Nations and the limited forms of self-government granted to Egypt and Ireland in 1922, were developed by the victorious First World War powers as part of the same strategy of containing nationalist aspirations for independence within reconfigured imperial frameworks.

Britain’s willingness to negotiate with republicans whom it had recently denounced as a ‘murder gang’ was similarly influenced by international and imperial considerations. Pressure from the United States, and from sympathetic British dominions, contributed to London’s willingness to concede an Irish Free State. The South African statesman Jan Smuts exerted considerable influence on the British government and King George V to this end and, in a less effective intervention, met secretly with de Valera in July 1921.

Leverage exerted by the diaspora also moderated Britain’s Irish policy. Justifying the unpopular decision to concede dominion government, Winston Churchill explained to MPs at Westminster how Britain’s ‘great interests in India and in Egypt’, the Dominions, and the US had been damaged ‘by the loud insistent outcry raised by the Irish race all over the world’. In his influential Caird Hall speech advocating a Treaty that extended his government ‘to the utmost limit possible’, Churchill claimed that it would ‘not only be a blessing in itself inestimable, but with it would be removed the greatest obstacle which has ever existed to Anglo-American unity . . . far across the Atlantic Ocean we should reap a harvest sown in the Emerald Isle.’

Both the King’s speech at the opening of the Northern Irish parliament and the British debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty demonstrated, as the historian Heather Jones has observed, how a shift in British imperial ideas was occurring not just in – but through – Ireland. As George V declared in Belfast: ‘everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.’ For many Irish revolutionaries, political developments since Easter 1916 had made the prospect of swearing an oath to the monarch unthinkable because a particular form of state, the republic, had become synonymous with national sovereignty. But British Conservatives were no less in thrall to the power of the abstract symbols through which sovereignty is made real. The role of the monarch as the crucial element binding the community of nations that was rapidly transitioning from the British Empire to a less hierarchical ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ (a term whose first legal use occurred in the Anglo-Irish Treaty) was too important to allow for compromise on the oath. These global political shifts help to explain the difficulty of agreeing a Treaty settlement acceptable to both Irish republicans and British imperialists.

Ultimately, Britain’s insistence on the role of the monarch and membership of the Empire proved a pyrrhic victory, deligitmising the Irish Free State in the eyes of many nationalists. By 1937 both Treaty and Free State had been scrapped. Ironically, this was made possible by the cooperation between the Irish Free State and other ‘restless dominions’ to assert their legislative autonomy within the Commonwealth. Poignantly, the split that led to the Civil War had hinged on this question of whether the Treaty would consign Ireland to imperial subjugation or permit a gradual evolution to independence.

How does this global context enhance our understanding of Irish divisions in 1922? In February of that year, as the hard-won Treaty settlement came under immense pressure due to sectarian violence in Ulster and growing anti-Treaty militancy, Churchill famously lamented that although ‘Great Empires have been overturned [and] The whole map of Europe has been changed’ by the Great War, ‘the dreary of steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ had once again emerged. Although depicting this as evidence of Ireland’s atavistic hatreds, Churchill’s real grievance was the continuing ability of the Irish question to grip ‘the vital strings of British life and politics, and to hold, dominate, and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country’.

But rather than being ‘unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world’, the Irish question had in fact been transformed by it. Global perspectives highlight the commonalities between the conflict in Ireland and those raging across post-war Europe and beyond. The international retreat of empire, as David Lloyd George wearily complained, had created ‘a series of Ulsters all over Europe’. Nor were great powers the benign arbiters of these disputes. The violence accompanying Irish partition was not merely the product of the rival aspirations of Ulster’s inhabitants, just as the Civil War was not solely brought about by Irish differences over the Treaty. The particular forms of settlement that structured both conflicts bore the imprint of the dominant political and military power in Ireland. Britain’s prioritisation of its imperial objectives saw Ireland’s minorities left, in Churchill’s revealing phrase, ‘to stew in their own juice’ as they found themselves stranded on the wrong side of new borders as the imperial tide ebbed.


Fearghal McGarry is professor of modern Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast. His co-edited publication, The Irish Revolution. A Global History, was recently published by New York University Press.


  – This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 – 

The Irish Revolution Project

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