A republic in name but constitutional conundrums remain


The Republic of Ireland was established amid much fanfare on Easter Monday 1949, the 33rd anniversary of the Easter Rising. Events began at one minute past midnight, with a salute to the new republic at the GPO, heralded by a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of drums, continuing against the backdrop of a 21gun salute and concluding with the national anthem.

Later in the morning, at 10 a.m., the president, the taoiseach, members of the government and distinguished citizens attended solemn high mass in the Pro-Cathedral. Two hours later they watched a military parade outside the GPO.

In the evening, the president received members of the diplomatic corps and the celebrations ended with a function in Dublin Castle and fireworks in the Phoenix Park.

For all the ceremony, the Republic of Ireland Act, which laid the foundation for these celebrations, was one of the shortest pieces of legislation placed on the statute book in 1948. The first two-thirds of its 90 words contained its essence:

1. The Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, 1936 (No. 58 of 1936) is hereby repealed.

2. It is hereby declared that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland.

3. The President, on the authority and on the advice of the Government, may exercise the executive power or any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations.

The first and third articles made important changes in two aspects of the Irish governmental system: Ireland's relationship with the Commonwealth, and the position of the king as head of state. The remaining article initiated a dispute about the title of the state that has not yet been resolved.

The Irish Free State had become a reluctant member of the Commonwealth in 1922. It subsequently struggled vigorously, and with some success, to redefine the Commonwealth as a looser alliance than the British would have liked.

Its enthusiastic efforts to carve a uniquely independent role for itself within the Commonwealth culminated in the enactment in 1936 of the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, which limited the king's role in Irish government to external matters but provided for continued recognition of the king as head of the Commonwealth.

The Act was not affected by the adoption of the present Constitution in 1937. The Constitution refers to the king rather obliquely in article 29 as an "organ, instrument or method of procedure", a description that was accepted with irritated resignation by the British.

The most widely acclaimed effect of the Republic of Ireland Act piloted through the Oireachtas by the inter-party government of John A. Costello was to end Ireland's membership of the Commonwealth.

This had little political or constitutional effect, since Ireland had not in any case been participating actively in Commonwealth affairs.

But it had a considerable symbolic effect. It finally severed the links with Britain and its former empire that had been so irksome to Irish people of many parties.

There was, it is true, a negative side to this. It further reinforced partition, and the Northern Ireland prime minister, Basil Brooke, had already dismissed it as having created an unbridgeable "yawning gulf" between North and South.

The break with the Commonwealth might have had other undesirable consequences. It had implications for the status of Irish citizens resident in the UK and in other Commonwealth countries (who, if the break were taken to its logical conclusion, would now become aliens in their adopted countries) and for Irish trade with the Commonwealth, and especially with the UK (in that Ireland could now be defined as a "foreign" country, not eligible for preferential treatment).

It is not clear that in its rush to depart from the Commonwealth the Irish government had fully considered all of the implications, but in any case agreement between the remaining Commonwealth governments spared the Irish potentially embarrassing social and economic consequences.

The Commonwealth states agreed that neither Irish residents abroad nor Ireland itself as a trading partner would be regarded as "foreign".

The 1948 Act had a second, less publicised, effect. It broke Ireland's link with the king not only as head of the Commonwealth but also as head of state. This role of the king had remained unaffected by the 1937 Constitution, which had been careful not to define the president as head of state.

IN FACT, the president had played no formal role in the country's external relations. Letters of credence for diplomats accredited to Dublin were addressed to the king, and were presented by the incoming diplomat to the minister for external affairs, who passed them on to Buckingham Palace.

Foreign diplomats might well visit the president of Ireland, but these were courtesy calls devoid of constitutional significance in the arena of international relations. Letters of credence of diplomats representing Ireland abroad, similarly, were signed by the king.

This was no mere empty formality. The king took an active interest in the external relations of his Irish subjects, and clearly did not see his role as a rubber-stamping one. On a number of occasions the king's views had to be taken into account by the Irish government.

In 1938, for example, when de Valera wished to appoint a new ambassador to "The King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia", he had to assure King George VI that this did not imply de jure recognition of Italy's annexation of Ethiopia.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the government's plans to appoint a new head of the Irish mission in Berlin were thwarted by the king, whose objections to issuing a letter of credence to a state with which he was at war were made known.

The matter was resolved when the Irish government kicked to touch: de Valera appointed a charge d'affaires in Berlin for the duration of the war, a lower-level appointment that did not require the king's agreement.

What is rather remarkable about this relationship is the lengths to which Irish governments were prepared to go to deny its existence. De Valera had frankly admitted, in briefing the Dominions Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, on the implications of his new constitution in January 1937, that this would leave George VI's position as "King of Ireland" entirely unaffected.

Yet everything possible was done to play down the significance of the king's role, or at least to minimise its visibility. In 1945 de Valera claimed that Ireland was a republic, a claim later repeated by others.

In the course of the debate on the Republic of Ireland Bill in the Dail in 1948, he even claimed that "there was no King of Ireland since 1936 and certainly not since 1937", arguing that the king had simply been used as an agent by the Irish government rather than being seen as head of state.

The third change brought in by the act was the new title "Republic of Ireland". This proved controversial in two respects, constitutional and political. At the constitutional level, some argued that it conflicted with Article 4 of the Constitution, which defined the name of the state as "Eire, or, in the English language, Ireland".

This was circumvented by a peculiar device: the name of the State continues to be Ireland, but its "description" is "Republic of Ireland".

The political problem raised more intractable issues. The British had been prepared to put up with "Ireland" in the 1937 Constitution, since the royal title had, since 1927, recognised the king as king of "Ireland", one of the few symbolic expressions of post-partition Irish unity.

The word "Ireland" in the royal title was, indeed replaced by "Northern Ireland" only in 1953, the year after Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, though at her inauguration the issue was sidestepped by avoiding any mention of the territories over which she reigned.

ON the other hand, the Irish version, Eire, gave British officials and journalists a useful label for distinguishing the state from the island of Ireland. This survives in British usage up to the present, though many British people genuinely believe that in referring to the 26 counties as "Eire" they are merely deferring to Irish preferences as articulated in the Constitution, and are making a gesture towards the Irish language.

After 1949, when the president of Ireland replaced the king of Ireland as external representative of the state, the British objected strongly to this title. The king, in this view, had indeed been king of Ireland: he had reigned over both parts.

The president, however, was head of the state of "Eire" only, and describing him as president of Ireland represented a territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

The issue was defused in Anglo-Irish relations since both sides agreed simply to avoid titles; but the government was not prepared for a similar compromise with other Commonwealth states, and insisted on usage of the constitutional title of the president, even if this meant a prolonged diplomatic stand-off, as occurred in Irish-Australian relations in the 1950s.

Official British preference for long after 1948 continued to be for the expression "Irish Republic", or even "Eire", and this was reflected in usage in the British press. Indeed, it was only after Ireland's accession to the EEC in 1973 that the expression "Republic of Ireland" gained wider and rather grudging currency in Britain.

The legacy of incomplete acceptance of Ireland's attempt to redefine its status in 1949 remains to be seen in the continued widespread usage of terminology such as "Irish Republic" not only in Britain but also in Ireland, and in the continued refusal of the British to confer on the Irish head of state the title by which she is constitutionally recognised in Ireland.

Events 50 years ago may well have brought a new republic into existence, but its territorial identity - and even its name - remains an object of dispute.

John Coakley is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at UCD and co- editor of Politics in the Republic of Ireland

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