Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act

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Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act

Under the External Relations Act of December 1936 the role of the British crown in internal Irish affairs was removed, though the Irish state remained associated with the Commonwealth for external affairs. External association with the Commonwealth had been devised by Eamon de Valera in 1921 as a compromise between dominion status and an outright republic. He hoped in vain that the 1936 act, with its remaining link with the Commonwealth, would facilitate Irish unity by allowing Ulster unionists a path into a united Ireland. The 1937 constitution complemented the External Relations Act, and through the two documents Ireland effectively became a republic within the Commonwealth, though no official declaration to this effect was ever made. A consequence was that though Ireland had a president beginning in 1937, the British monarch continued to sign the credentials of Irish diplomats, so it appeared to the international community that the British king, not the president of Ireland, was the head of the Irish state.

De Valera was careful not to formally break the link between Ireland and the Commonwealth, because such an action would allow Britain to treat Irish citizens living in Britain as aliens and it could lead to the curtailment of Irish exports to Britain. In the run-up to the 1948 general election it seemed as if de Valera was prepared to repeal the External Relations Act, declare a republic, and keep Ireland within the Commonwealth. The interparty government that came to power in February 1948 was led by Fine Gael's John A. Costello, a former Irish Free State attorney-general and veteran of Irish delegations to the imperial conferences of the 1920s. Many members of the government, including its minister for external affairs, Seán MacBride (who was the leader of Clann na Poblachta, a small radical republican party), felt that the External Relations Act was damaging to Ireland's international status. On 1 September 1948, during a speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Costello criticized the External Relations Act and hinted that it would be removed. On 5 September 1948 the Irish Sunday Independent reported that the External Relations Act was to be repealed and that Ireland would leave the Commonwealth. There was general surprise among the members of Costello's cabinet, and there is evidence that the story, written by Hector Legge, the newspaper's editor, was encouraged by MacBride in the hope of forcing Costello's hand. On 7 September, at a press conference in Ottawa, Costello confirmed the story that the External Relations Act was to go and that Ireland would leave the Commonwealth.

The rationale for Costello's action has been debated since 1948. Some have argued that Costello acted on impulse after being snubbed at a banquet given by the prounionist governor general of Canada, Lord Alexander, when a replica of "Roaring Meg," a cannon used in the siege of Derry, was placed on the table in front of Costello. Others have said that coalition partners, such as Sean MacBride, forced Costello's hand, or that Costello was countering Eamon de Valera's worldwide antipartition campaign of 1948 and 1949. Fine Gael had always been seen as a pro-Commonwealth party, and the declaration of a republic by a Fine Gael taoiseach was regarded by some as an attempt to steal Fianna Fáil's republicanism is the wake of de Valera's world tour. Another theory is that the government was trying to avoid embarrassment over questions about Ireland's international status that had been asked in the Dáil by independent Teachta Dála (Dáil Deputy) Peadar Cowan. Costello may have felt that it was better for the government to take the initiative in repealing the External Relations Act than to be forced into repealing the act by a backbencher such as Cowan introducing a private member's bill in the Dáil. (A backbencher is a Teachta Dála who is not a member of the government or of the opposition front bench, or shadow cabinet. A certain amount of time is allotted in each Dáil sitting for private-member bills to be introduced. They are bills that are not part of the government programme and are introduced into the Dáil for consideration by individual backbench Teachta Dálas.)

Curiously, there is no mention in the 1948 cabinet minutes of a decision to declare a republic and repeal the External Relations Act. Interparty government Minister for Health Noël Browne later suggested that no such official government decision had been made. However, under the interparty government, informal ad hoc cabinet meetings took place, and its nonappearance in the written minutes does not necessarily mean that the government did not make the decision. There appears to have been a general agreement among government members that the act should be repealed. This was also the view in the Department of External Affairs, and the British representative in Ireland, Lord Rugby, had informed London before Costello's statement in Canada that the External Relations Act would be repealed before the end of 1948. London was infuriated by Costello's announcement and threatened through Lord Rugby that Ireland might lose access to valuable British markets if it left the Commonwealth. After Costello's death, Noël Browne suggested that because of this pressure from London, Costello considered resigning (though this story has little foundation). But the Irish government refused to back down, and it was supported by Commonwealth prime ministers.

The Republic of Ireland Bill was passed by the Dáil and signed into law in December 1948 by President Seán T. O'Kelly. The act came into effect on Easter Monday, 19 April 1949, the thirty-third anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. There was a parade to mark the occasion in Dublin, and smaller parades occurred nationwide. Costello's unorthodox declaration did at least have popular support in the new Republic.

It has been suggested, notably by Dennis Kennedy in The Widening Gulf (1988), that the declaration of the Republic of Ireland further increased the gulf between North and South in Ireland. Northern Irish prime minister Sir Basil Brooke (later Viscount Brookeborough) used the occasion to call a general election in which his Unionist Party was returned with an increased majority. The British Ireland Act of May 1949, which recognized the Republic of Ireland, guaranteed northern unionists that the union with Britain would not be broken without the consent of the Northern Ireland parliament. The British act came as a shock to Dublin, but ironically the years between 1950 and 1955 saw unprecedented cooperation between Dublin and Belfast over such issues as electricity generation, the running of the Dublin-to-Belfast railway, and the establishment of the cross-border Foyle Fisheries Commission.

The declaration of the Republic of Ireland enhanced Ireland's international status: Irish ambassadors now had their credentials signed by the president of Ireland, and the independence of the Republic was clearly defined. Ireland was now a fully sovereign independent state. However, some problems persisted; for example, a dispute raged from 1955 to 1964 between Ireland and Australia about whether to refer to the Irish state as "Ireland" (insisted upon by Dublin) or "Republic of Ireland" (insisted upon by the pro-unionist governor general in Australia). As a result of the dispute, Ireland had no ambassadorial representation in Canberra from 1956, when Ambassador Brian Gallagher was withdrawn in protest, until 1964.

The declaration of the Republic of Ireland ended the saga of Ireland's international and national status that began with the 1921 treaty. From 1949 onward, economic development, not the question of sovereignty, would be the key theme in Irish politics.

SEE ALSO Brooke, Basil Stanlake, First Viscount Brookeborough; Commonwealth; Constitution; de Valera, Eamon; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969; Primary Documents: On the Republic of Ireland Bill (24 November 1948); From the 1937 Constitution


Kennedy, Dennis. The Widening Gulf: Northern Attitudes to the Independent Irish State, 1919–1949. 1988.

Kennedy, Michael. Division and Consensus: The Politics of Cross-Border Relations in Ireland, 1922–1969. 2000.

McCabe, Ian. A Diplomatic History of Ireland, 1948–49: The Republic, the Commonwealth, and NATO. 1991.

McCullagh, David. A Makeshift Majority: The First Inter-Party Government, 1948–1951. 1998.

Michael Kennedy

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Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act

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Declaration of a Republic and the 1949 Ireland Act