Thursday, December 21, 2023

This Day in Irish History (Republic of Ireland Act Signed)

Dec. 21, 1948—Twenty-seven years after guerrilla leader Michael Collins signed a treaty with Great Britain that brought Ireland closer to self-government but stopped short of independence, the head of the Irish Free State, President Seán O'Kelly, took the last step by signing into law a bill formally declaring a republic.

Longtime supporters of Irish independence declared the Republic of Ireland Bill had finally removed the last institutional barriers that Great Britain had insisted on in the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

But, as with so many events involving the cause, the implicit promise of the 1840s patriot song “A Nation Once Again”—i.e., one not only free, but fully united with all 32 counties—remained unfulfilled.

In fact, when the diplomatic moves and countermoves of Ireland and Britain concluded several months into 1949, it only solidified the partition between the Catholic-dominated 26 counties in the south and the six Protestant ones in Northern Ireland: what one mordant wit termed, when anti-Treaty forces lay down their arms at the end of the Irish Civil War, “three-quarters of a nation once again.”

This final push towards independence was not the work of Eamon de Valera, the figure who dominated the nation’s politics for four decades, but rather John Costello—who, despite wielding power over two terms in the Forties and Fifties, was correctly labeled “The Forgotten Taoiseach” [Gaelic for “Chief” or “Leader”] by John Bruton, who held that post himself some five decades later.

Why did Costello take this last step, particularly when de Valera had not done so when he had the chance?

Already, “Dev” had cleared so much diplomatic space through his wranglings and faceoffs with Britain.

Most notably, he had used the abdication crisis surrounding King Edward VIII to push through Ireland’s legislative body, the Dáil Eireann, the External Relations Act of 1936, which eliminated the Crown’s role in Irish domestic affairs while retaining its influence in external affairs, including as part of the British Commonwealth.

At the time of the act’s enactment, Costello had already expressed reservations about some of its provisions. (Not without justification: It was a typical study in ambiguity by de Valera.) A decade later, politicians across the political spectrum were perceiving even more issues with adhering to it.

In his address to the Dail on the Republic of Ireland Bill in early December 1948, Costello alluded to the continuing restiveness on the part of old IRA men who had never reconciled themselves either to the Anglo-Irish Treaty or to remaining restrictions on the nation’s self-determination, noting that the new legislation would be in “the interests of peace, order and the end of bitterness between Irishmen.”

And, in a phrase that would echo even louder when used more than 40 years later by Ulster nationalist leader Gerry Adams in calling for IRA disarmament, he hoped to “take the guns out of Irish politics.”

Yet a further motive lurked beneath the surface for Costello. 

De Valera and his Fianna Fail party had reaped political capital by pushing back against the limits set by Britain. As leader of the rival Fine Gael party that formed part of Ireland’s first coalition government, Costello now saw the movement toward a republic as a political opportunity.

Or, as J.J. Lee put the matter in his magisterial history, Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Costello “stole Fianna Fail’ s Sunday suit of constitutional clothes. Who were the real republicans now?”

Whether expressed or not, Fine Gael’s rationale for moving ahead was rational. What the media, political insiders, and many ordinary citizens could not understand was why Costello didn’t undertake this sea change in Irish politics while on Irish soil, but instead did so while on a foreign trip originally expected to be inconsequential.

Several explanations have been offered—one easily dismissible, the rest not mutually exclusive. But all of them hark back to the phrase made famous in the 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut: i.e., “Blame Canada.”

That other country emerging from British imperial rule had played host to Costello in late summer 1948. One rumor of the time, almost certainly an urban legend, had it that, while drunk, Costello had blurted out his plans to declare a republic.

Another theory has more credence, simply because Costello himself told others at the time and later that he had been “stung”: i.e., subjected to dissing of his country and himself as its representative.

According to Tristin Hopper in Canada’s National Post and Philip Currie’s 2020 history Canada and Ireland, Governor General Earl Alexander of Tunis possessed Ulster unionist roots. Not surprisingly given that background, at a dinner party he’d hosted, the Crown had been toasted but not Costello.

An even worse affront occurred at the party when Costello caught sight of a flower arrangement at Alexander’s table featuring “Roaring Meg,” a replica of a cannon used in defending Derry against Catholics in 1689--the ultimate red flag for Irish nationalists.

Nevertheless, Costello’s September 8 announcement in Canada of a planned change in Ireland’s status more likely resulted from the fact that the Taoiseach was confronting a sudden press leak while in a foreign country—and, in those pre-satellite days, not enough time to convene his Cabinet and assemble a careful response.

Events then took on a momentum of their own, with Costello deciding it was easiest to answer the question honestly at the Ottawa press conference and ram the required enabling legislation through the Dail.

But in reacting on the spot, Costello surprised and annoyed the British government, which had been prematurely celebrating more cordial relations with Ireland than had existed under de Valera.

It bided its time through the fall, even as the Taoiseach guided the legislation into unanimous approval by the Dail, with the republic officially coming into being in April of the following year, on the anniversary of the Easter Rebellion.

Then, in January 1949, the British sprang their own surprise: Northern premier Sir Basil Brook’s call for a general election to be held in Ulster in February. Five days after Brook’s announcement, Costello and his Cabinet decided to fund anti-partition candidates in the Ulster polling.

The decision proved counter-productive, driving Ulster Protestants to circle the wagons against what they saw as absorption by the republic. Ulster’s Unionist Party reaped the same lopsided majority it had achieved at the time of partition in 1921: 40 seats to 12.

The final indignity—and the crushing of any early hope that reunification would occur any time soon—came via British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who, to appease the Unionists, introduced the following provision into the Ireland Act in early May:

“It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.”

For the next 50 years, that provision only hardened unionist opposition to any concessions by the British government giving Ireland more of a voice in Ulster. 

As during so much of its recent history, the most fervent believers in a free, self-governing 32-county Ireland had to settle for a half-measure. However overstated, Lee’s scathing assessment of the process is, given the circumstances and outcome, entirely understandable:

“Whatever the merits of proclaiming a republic at that stage, the whole performance of the government, from Costello's Ottawa announcement to the inaugural Easter Sunday parade, seems to have been a shambles from start to finish, perhaps the most inept diplomatic exhibition in the history of the state.”

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