Higgins controversy a reminder of ambiguity in naming of State

Way in which the Republic describes itself has always involved constructive ambiguity

The Constitution states: ‘The name of the State is Éire, or in the English language, Ireland.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

The Constitution states: ‘The name of the State is Éire, or in the English language, Ireland.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The rumpus about President Michael D Higgins allegedly being described as President of the Republic of Ireland in the invitation to this week’s service marking the centenary of Northern Ireland, had echoes of a standoff that occurred in 1976 after the assassination of British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs and the resignation of President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh shortly afterwards.

A new British ambassador-designate had arrived in Dublin anxious to present his credentials and take up office. However, it was not acceptable to our government that these should be addressed to the President of the Republic of Ireland; the British, for their part, were unwilling to address the credentials to the President of Ireland; they saw this description of the State as an implicit claim to sovereignty over the whole island.

A way out of the impasse had been invented in the 1950s so that the British sovereign, described simply in the credentials as Queen Elizabeth, addressed them to the president using his surname. This was not possible when there was no president in office. The unfortunate ambassador-designate was left hanging around in a diplomatic limbo, unable to attend as British ambassador the inauguration of President Patrick Hillery.

It all had deep historical roots deriving from the claim in the 1937 Constitution that the national territory embraced the whole island of Ireland.

It was complicated by inconsistency in how independent Ireland described itself. The 1916 Proclamation declared an Irish Republic. This was endorsed by the democratically elected Dáil in 1919.

The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which brought Northern Ireland into existence, described the rest of the island as Southern Ireland. Although occasionally used in common parlance even yet, it had a short legal life, being repealed by the legislation giving effect to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.

Saorstát Éireann

In the negotiations leading to the Treaty, the Irish expression Saorstát Éireann was dangled as a useful ambiguous term that could mean a republic or something less. However, the terms of the Treaty and the Constitution of what was called the Irish Free State, with its oath of fidelity (not allegiance) to the king, made clear that it was not a Republic.

So it was that renaming the State was high on the agenda of republican leader Éamon de Valera when, as victor in the 1932 general election, he became president of the executive council of the Irish Free State. He moved to enact a new constitution. The original drafts said simply: “The name of the State is Éire.”

It was only as a result of a late amendment moved by the pro-Commonwealth co-founder of Fine Gael Frank MacDermot, then estranged from the party, that the provision in the Constitution ultimately provided: “The name of the State is Éire, or in the English language, Ireland.”

Nonetheless, the government described itself in the English language as the government of Éire in the agreement of April 1938 under which Neville Chamberlain’s British government ceded to the Irish government the ports retained under the 1921 Treaty.

Winston Churchill, who was isolated politically opposing this agreement, referred to the “so-called Éire” – pronouncing it “eerie”. This name Éire offered the British an easy way to distinguish the independent State from the rest of the island. This was the last thing de Valera intended.

Republic declared

Matters took a further turn in 1949 after de Valera had been ousted and a coalition government stole his clothes by declaring a republic. The legislation decreed that “the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland.” This nomenclature was used subsequently in several treaties.

When Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1951, it set its face against the formal use of “the Republic of Ireland” even in contexts where other republics such as France were proud to describe themselves as such. It was not without irony that those who had fought to keep a republic in being should so eschew the use of the term.

The arguments that the Constitution took precedence over the legislation declaring a republic and that France was France even when it lost Alsace and Lorraine prevailed and succeeding governments followed this line.

I encountered the issue as a legal adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs in the 1970s. Every agreement with the British was done in two versions; our one used “Ireland” and “the United Kingdom”; their one used “the Republic of Ireland” and “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Verbal gymnastics had sometimes to be employed to avoid ambiguity in the agreement itself and trying not to say “Northern Ireland”.

Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the British and Irish governments have been content to describe one another and their countries as they describe themselves. Yet, notwithstanding the repeal of the constitutional claim to Northern Ireland at that time, the coincidence of the name of the State with the larger geographical entity that is the island of Ireland creates sensitivities and ambiguities with potential for discord.

Charles Lysaght is a lawyer, biographer and columnist

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