It is a peculiarity of Irish life that an independence sought for so long and at such cost is not celebrated. Of the 20 or so nations which achieved their independence through the settlements that arose out of the first World War, the Republic of Ireland is the only one that does not have a day to celebrate its national freedom.
The Irish Free State came into being in December 1922 during the middle of the Civil War, when a substantial minority, who had held out for a 32-county republic, would not accept a 26-county state with dominion status. Even those who supported the Treaty side believed the State as constituted was a temporary arrangement. They put their faith in Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which made provision for a Boundary Commission that they anticipated would see Catholic-majority parts in the North being transferred to the Free State, thus making Northern Ireland unviable.
Those naive aspirations were brutally disabused by the leaking in 1925 of the deliberations of the Boundary Commission, which envisaged no such large-scale land transfer and, indeed, foresaw the transfer of parts of the Free State into Northern Ireland. The impoverished Cumann na nGaedheal government accepted the status quo in return for the cancellation of Ireland’s share of the imperial debt and the Border has remained in place since then.
Nevertheless, the ambivalence towards the status of the State persisted with the original Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution. Article 2 baldly stated that the “national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland”. It only went on to qualify that claim in Article 3, by acknowledging that the State’s jurisdiction was “pending the reintegration of the national territory”.
In the 1950s and 1960s successive Irish governments campaigned internationally to end partition, while creating a narrow, sectarian state inimical to that aim.
The Irish State (26 counties) and the Irish nation (32 counties) are not the same thing, and the notion of an independence day would undoubtedly cause offence to northern nationalists.
Yet just because Irish independence is problematic does not mean that it should not be celebrated. Today, April 18th, the State will mark 70 years since the declaration of a Republic in 1949. Speaking last year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated that this anniversary, along with the 75th anniversary of the declaration, will be marked.
He also raised the possibility of a Republic Day as an annual event. This is an excellent idea that did not gain the traction it deserved at the time. A possible template was set during the Easter Rising centenary commemorations with Proclamation Day, which occurred in March 2016.
Primary school children were invited to write a new proclamation for the current day. Thousands of schools responded. They addressed the issues of homelessness, climate change, obesity and cyberbullying. At the same time, schools were visited by Defence Forces personnel who presented Tricolours. Children learned the words of and then sang the national anthem.
It was an exemplary exercise in citizenship – teaching young people to think critically about the country they live in and to understand the symbols of nationhood.
A Republic Day need not be a national holiday – we already have St Patrick’s Day – but it would be essential that whatever happens involves schoolchildren. In that case the anniversary of the declaration of the Republic might have to be a moveable feast, given the Easter holidays.
Another interesting template was set by Cruinniú na Cásca, which ran on Easter Monday 2017 and followed on from the hugely successful Reflecting the Rising event on Easter Monday 2016. These programmes attracted hundreds of thousands to events across the country and provided some useful discussions on Irish history and identity.
A Republic Day could also help facilitate a reasoned, rational debate about the State. What, if anything, do we stand for? In his celebrated speech about the Cloyne report into clerical child sex abuse, taoiseach Enda Kenny made a stab at what we ought to be about: "This is the Republic of Ireland. It is a republic of laws, rights and responsibilities and proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored."
France has "liberté, égalité, fraternité". The US has "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Where is our mission statement as a State?
Some of the citizenship ceremonies which happen intermittently could be consolidated into Republic Day. Given that nearly one-fifth of the population of the Republic was born overseas – and projections see that percentage increasing – a Republic Day could be used to create a sense of belonging for new Irish citizens and their children.
It has often been noted that the State has no honours system – a possible legacy of our colonial past. Republic Day could be a good time to have award ceremonies. Republic Day awards could be used to honour those who work above and beyond the call of duty for society. It should avoid replicating the orgy of tomfoolery which surrounds the British honours system, with its rogues’ gallery of politicians, business people and celebrities.
The awards should be confined to those who work in a voluntary capacity to better the lives of others, not bolstering the already well rewarded. The emphasis should be on rewarding civic participation. To that end an independent presidential commission would be useful in picking worthy candidates.
A Republic Day would not need to be partitionist. Under the new Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, which replaced the old ones, every person born on the island of Ireland has the right to be a citizen of the Republic. Article 3 enshrines the principle of consent, and a Republic Day would be as good a day as any to have a discussion about future relations on this island.
The State celebrates its centenary in 2022. It has lasted longer than many envisaged at the time of its foundation and longer than some might have wanted at that time. After nearly 100 years, it is time to celebrate that fact.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. He is the editor of Centenary – Ireland Remembers 1916, the book about the Easter Rising commemorations in 2016.