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Republic revelations: how Ireland severed Commonwealth links

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Fifty years ago this Sunday, Ireland became a republic and left the Commonwealth after a Fine Gael taoiseach made the surprise announcement in Ottawa during a state visit to Canada.

The declaration by the head of the Interparty government, John A. Costello, that the country would sever links with Britain remains surrounded by controversy, with historians continuing to debate the possible reasons behind it.

The bizarre exit announcement and its timing has fathered its own myths and folklore. There are theories it was engineered by interparty machinations in the government or spurred by insults from the queen’s representative in Canada and a replica of the Derry canon "Roaring Meg" on the taoiseach’s dinner table.

Costello’s foreign policy demarche attracted huge international publicity because of the symbolism of the move.

Subsequent publication of Cabinet archives of the time show no record of any formal decision to declare a republic being taken before Costello’s announcement and have led critics to sa, among other things, that he "suffered a rush of blood to the head" and made an "awful gaffe."

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Institutionalized partition

While diplomacy smoothed ruffled feathers in relations between Ireland and Britain and ensured continued trade and citizenship benefits, the declaration of a republic further institutionalized partition on the island.

Today, with the peace process and a redefinition of relationships, rejoining the Commonwealth as the 55th member as a gesture to unionists is back for debate on the political agenda. Fianna Fail’s Galway TD, Eamon O Cuiv, a grandson of Eamon de Valera, is among those saying he would have no problem with such a move.

RTE Journalist David McCullough, who has researched the episode for a PhD thesis, book and TV program, believes many factors played a part in a complicated muddle of policy making that saw the legislation for a republic being rushed through in months.

Although the 1916 Rising was fought in the name of a republic, it was a Free State that emerged in 1921. After the Edward VIII abdication crisis in 1936, de Valera introduced the External Relations Act, which limited the role of the British crown and brought foreign affairs under the control of the government in Dublin.

In de Valera’s 1937 constitution, the Free State became Eire but membership in the Commonwealth continued.

It was against this background that Costello went to Canada in 1948 as the compromise choice as head of a coalition government that included a strong republican wing of dissident Fianna Fail members and the Clann na Phoblachta party led by former IRA chief of staff Sean MacBride.

Costello, himself a barrister, addressed the Canadian Bar Association on the External Relations Act and spoke of the inaccuracies and infirmities it contained.

According McCullough, the editor of the then Fine Gael-leaning Sunday Independent used parts of the speech, some Dail contributions and "what were almost certainly some nudgings from MacBride" to write a lead story headlined "External Relations Act to Go."


In the meantime, Costello had been entertained at a state banquet by the Government General Lord Alexander of Tunis, who had links to Castle Derg, Co. Tyrone.

Being a freeman of Derry, Alexander had been presented with a small silver replica of "Roaring Meg," one of the cannons used to defend the city against the Catholic King James II during the 1689 siege.

It was on the dinner table and was pointed out to the visiting taoiseach by Alexander.

"Costello was very put out by that and he spoke about it subsequently, saying he thought it was very rude," McCullough said. "It probably played a small part in why he decided to confirm the truth of the Sunday Independent story at the famous press conference two days after.

"He knew he was going to be asked if the story were true. He was advised by officials to kick for touch and not say anything.

"Costello’s attitude that if he said it were not true it would be a lie and if he said no comment everyone would know it was true. He decided honesty was the best policy and confirmed it.

"There has been one myth that the Roaring Meg incident alone led to us becoming a republic, but the other thing that happened at the dinner was that a promise to toast the king as well as the president of Ireland was reneged on.

"If there had been a toast to the president, it would have effectively recognized Ireland as a Republic and demonstrated it was no subservient to Britain. Dropping that toast also played a part in Costello’s think that the matter had to be sorted out once and for all.

"There were also stories that Costello was drunk at the state banquet, but they were completely untrue."

McCullough said there was evidence that the British government expected the declaration of a Republic. London had lobbied other Commonwealth governments to warn Dublin that this could mean citizens being declared aliens and loss of trade preferences.

"There is an argument Costello’s announcement pre-empted this," McCullough said. "Later, the other Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand would not support any heavy-handed treatment of Ireland. I think it was entirely accidental. I don’t think it played a part in Costello’s thinking at all."

The British reaction to the 90-word Republic of Ireland Act — one of the shortest pieces of legislation ever passed by the Oireachtas — was to bring in the 1949 Ireland Act.

It said the part of Ireland known as Eire had ceased to be part of His Majesty’s dominions and that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the UK without the consent of the Stormont parliament.

Since the Good Friday peace agreement, that principle of consent has changed from Stormont to the people of the North.

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