In 1922 the Irish Free State began life with a constitution which embodied two contradictory principles. The first recognized that all powers of government derive from the people and provided for a system of government in which the Irish Cabinet was clearly responsible to the popularly elected Irish lower house, Dail Eireann. The second recognized a monarch, King George V, as head of the Irish executive, with substantial prerogative powers derived not from the Irish people but from British common law. The constitution was a compromise between Britain and Irish republicans to end the Irish War of Independence. Though not every compromise in politics makes complete sense, for Britain this one represented more than a short-range expedient. Its contradictions represented the dying gasp in a long, often anguished, and ultimately futile attempt by Britain to devise a formula which would simultaneously permit the Irish a measure of self-government and protect vital British interests in Ireland.
This essay will review the attempts to construct a satisfactory Anglo-Irish relationship in the years between 1782 and 1949. It will concentrate on four models of government proposed for Ireland: (a) the independent Irish Parliament of the period from 1782 to 1800, (b) O'Connell's proposals to repeal the union with Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, (c) the devolution proposed in the home rule bills of 1886, 1893, 1912, and the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, and (d) the independence provided in the Irish Free State constitution of 1922 and its successor, the Irish constitution of 1937. It will also place these models in the context of the constitutional evolution of the British Empire. In the Canadian, New Zealand, Australian, and South African colonies, colonial self-government and British imperial interests were reconciled, beginning in Nova Scotia in 1848, by using a kind of constitutional double-think involving the Crown and the colonial Governor. But the problem of the troubled Anglo-Irish relationship could not be resolved so easily.