Diarmaid Ferriter: British took pragmatic approach to new Irish Republic

Ireland Act saw the exit from the Commonwealth and a burst of pious hot air in the Dáil

Taoiseach John A Costello  arriving at Northolt Airport for trade talks with the British government, June 16th,  1948. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

Taoiseach John A Costello arriving at Northolt Airport for trade talks with the British government, June 16th, 1948. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

 

Those presiding over the inauguration of the Irish Republic 70 years ago this weekend arguably ended up making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The previous year, in January 1948, John Maffey, the UK representative in Dublin, told his government he would not mourn the Irish government’s likely repeal of the External Relations Act (ERA) of 1936, which was southern Ireland’s last remaining formal link with the Commonwealth.

It had long been clear, Maffey maintained, that the ERA “will not provide the bridge to closer association” between Britain and Ireland and “it may well be that its removal will make closer association easier. The relationship between the UK and Eire is now based on facts, not on sentiments, and we must adopt our policies to this principle”.

This was an example of what historian Ronan Fanning referred to as Maffey’s “laconic realism”. Maffey’s preferred course, however, was not the one initially adopted by the British Labour government after taoiseach John A Costello announced the Irish government’s decision to repeal the ERA in September 1948.

The declaration of the Republic, Costello told the Dáil, in one of his many erroneous assertions during that era, would help remove the gun from Irish politics

The British government wanted to be pragmatic, but also had to consider how southern Ireland’s exit from the Commonwealth might impact on partition and UK defence policy. The British cabinet noted that while the UK government “had hitherto maintained the attitude that partition was an issue for settlement by the Irish themselves . . . Eire’s secession from the Commonwealth would raise acutely the issue of whether, for defence reasons, it was not possible any longer to maintain that attitude”.

Northern Ireland’s prime minister Basil Brooke subsequently stayed with the British prime minister Clement Attlee at his country house, Chequers, in late November 1948 and had his unionist belly partially tickled. He told Attlee “his immediate anxieties would be allayed if he could be given an assurance that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not be prejudiced by Eire’s ceasing to be a member of the Commonwealth”. Attlee gave him that assurance, but Brooke’s suggestions that the name Northern Ireland should now be changed to “Ulster” and that the South’s proposed new title “The Republic of Ireland” should not be recognised were rejected.

What transpired in May 1949 was the UK Ireland Act, asserting, “In no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be a part of His Majesty’s dominions and of the UK without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland”.

Partition

The British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin explained the rationale for this: “Northern Ireland had stood with us against Hitler when the south was neutral . . . moreover the present government of the Irish republic had made it much more difficult to make any move about partition”. Another illustration of this view were British cabinet minutes recording that the Irish government’s decision to become a republic had shown “that she laid more store on formal independence than on the union of Ireland”.

She also laid a lot of store on pious hot air. The declaration of the Republic, Costello told the Dáil, in one of his many erroneous assertions during that era, would help remove the gun from Irish politics. There was also the satisfaction of supposedly gaining the upper hand on Fianna Fáil; as historian Leland Lyons put it, “Fianna Fáil could not oppose it, though they might have been excused for feeling that the government had caught them bathing and stolen their clothes”. But in truth, “the clothes did not fit very well. What de Valera had fought for had been an all-Ireland, not a truncated Republic”.

Costello lost the run of himself in the Dáil in the face of the Ireland Act and comically insisted, “We have built a spiritual empire out of our misfortunes and miseries of the last 100 years . . . we have at least 40,000,000 of our race scattered throughout the world. Those people of our far-flung spiritual empire could be a great force . . . We can marshal the terrific energies of our people in the North American Continent. We can direct the unified effort of our people here in Ireland and in Great Britain and we can urge that terrific force behind our efforts to end Partition. We can hit the British Government in their prestige, in their pride and in their pocket”.

He received applause for that marvellously imperial assertion, but then it was back to pragmatism on both sides; it was agreed that existing trade, nationality, and immigration arrangements would be maintained and that Britain would not treat the new Republic as a foreign country. The Irish Department of Finance and the London Treasury remained close and Ireland’s crucial trade links with Britain persisted.

The current tensions in Anglo-Irish relations will probably be excavated by historians in the future to reveal a similar mix of rhetorical defiance and righteousness matched ultimately by pragmatism, alongside the reality that dramatic exits do not necessarily make the challenge of a divided Ireland any easier to solve.

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