David McCullagh is a journalist and author. A graduate of University College Dublin where he studied history and politics – McCullagh has a PhD in politics – he was RTÉ News Political Correspondent for 12 years before being appointed presenter of Prime Time in 2013. McCullagh has written two books – The Reluctant Taoiseach, a biography of John A. Costello (Gill and MacMillan, 2010) and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first Inter-Party Government (IPA, 1998) and he recently returned to UCD to record a 6-part podcast series on the life and career of John A. Costello specially for History Hub.
The series will be released episodically over the coming months. Subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes or become a follower of our Soundcloud page to receive new episodes as they are made available.
Episode 4 – Declaring the Republic (Ep 4/6)
Transcript: Declaring the Republic (Ep 4/6)
There have been very few foreign policy initiatives in Irish history that have generated as much controversy as Jack Costello’s declaration of the Republic.
The then Taoiseach was accused of making a major decision on Ireland’s constitutional status on a whim, as a result of a personal insult, in Canada. Some versions of the accusation even suggest he did so while drunk, a most unlikely suggestion about a relatively abstemious man.
So, what was it all about, and what really happened?
To understand the story, we need to go back to 1936, and the Abdication Crisis caused by King Edward the Eighth’s decision to leave the throne in order to marry his divorced American girlfriend.
This caused a constitutional kerfuffle in England – and offered Eamon de Valera an opportunity which he seized with both hands. Because the Irish Free State was still technically a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, the Dáil’s approval was needed for the appointment of Edward’s successor, his brother George.
This gave de Valera the leverage to get away with some constitutional creativity. He introduced legislation which removed all mention of the King from the Irish Free State constitution – paving the way for his own Constitution, introduced the following year, which in effect made the 26 Counties a Republic.
But he also introduced another law, the External Relations Act, which stated that Ireland could nominate the King to carry out certain diplomatic functions – signing letters of credence for diplomats, formally ratifying treaties, and so on.
This meant that Ireland could claim to be an independent, sovereign nation, while Britain could pretend that Ireland was still part of the Commonwealth, and therefore could continue to allow Irish citizens to enter Britain without passports and continue to treat Irish imports as being from the Commonwealth.
This diplomatic sleight of hand suited both sides, and de Valera hoped it could serve as a bridge to Ulster Unionists – a bridge the Unionists never showed the slightest interest in using, it would have to be said.
So, everyone was happy, right? Wrong. The main opposition party was not happy. Fine Gael viewed the new arrangement as a betrayal of the Treaty – over which a civil war had been fought 15 years before. And Jack Costello, in particular, had no time for its subtleties. He told the Dáil he didn’t care what the constitutional position was going to be, as long as they knew where they stood. He said he could understand Ireland being a full member of the Commonwealth; and he could understand a declaration of a Republic. But he couldn’t understand what he called “the indecency which is being perpetrated on this country by this Bill”.
Dev was great at constructive ambiguity; Costello despised it.
While the External Relations Act seemed like a brilliant wheeze at the time, it soon became a problem. During the Second World War, for instance, neutral Ireland couldn’t replace its representative in Berlin, because the letter of credence would have to be signed by King George the Sixth – which really wasn’t very likely.
Shortly before he lost the 1948 election, de Valera had come to the view that it was time to get rid of the External Relations Act – his Attorney General, Cearbhall O Dalaigh, had prepared legislation to do so, but while he had warned the British representative in Dublin, Lord Rugby, he didn’t get an opportunity to actually do it.
And so we come to the change of Government. Costello, an opponent of the Act, is Taoiseach; Labour leader Bill Norton, another opponent, is Tanaiste; and Clann na Poblachta leader Sean MacBride, the most vociferous critic of the Act, is Minister for External Affairs.
Foreign diplomats in Dublin – British, Canadian, American – all report home that the Act will be repealed sooner rather than later; and while MacBride didn’t make it a condition for joining the Inter-Party Government, developments over the summer brought the issue to a head.
There were awkward questions in the Dáil – in answer to one discussion, Bill Norton said it would be a good thing if the Act went, and de Valera told him to go ahead, he would get no opposition from Fianna Fáil. And there were rumours that Peadar Cowan, a former Clann na Poblachta TD, might introduce a private members bill to get rid of it, thereby causing a serious problem for the Government. De Valera was also considering a private members bill to get rid of the Act – which would have caused even more of a problem for the Government.
There was also an invitation to attend the Commonwealth Conference in London in October. The Government finally decided to say they would attend if there were issues of interest to be discussed – as long as it was understood that Ireland was not a member of the Commonwealth.
And there was the question of official toasts – Costello was disturbed when in London for economic talks when there was a toast to the King, but not to the President of Ireland – which implied that the King was Ireland’s head of state too.
All of this encouraged the Government to think about clarifying Ireland’s constitutional status. Costello himself was clear – he believed Ireland had left the Commonwealth years before, after she stopped attending Commonwealth Conferences; MacBride thought the 1937 Constitution made Ireland in effect a Republic. Nobody around the Cabinet table seemed to think the External Relations Act was of any further value.
Here we come to a major difficulty. Costello later claimed that the Government had come to a decision to do away with the Act. Such a decision would not be surprising – the only problem is there is no record of it in the Government files.
But Costello, rightly or wrongly, appears to have been under the impression that a decision was taken – which would explain what happened next.
Costello went to North America in September 1948 as the guest of the Canadian Bar Association. He delivered a speech to the Association which mentioned the External Relations Act – he referred to the “inaccuracies and infirmities” of its provisions, a strong hint that it was to go. But he then went on to ask whether it was fruitful to enquire too legalistically into the nature of Ireland’s association with the Commonwealth – which implied he wasn’t about to do much about it.
And then came Roaring Meg.
The Governor General of Canada at the time was Lord Harold Alexander, a famous, if rather inept, British General who had accumulated considerable undeserved honours during the Second World War. He was also closely related to Ulster Unionism – and shortly before had been made a Freeman of the city of Derry – sorry, Londonderry. As a memento, he was presented with a silver replica of Roaring Meg, a canon used in the defence of the city against Jacobites in 1689. At a State dinner for Costello, this was the centre piece for the table – as was apparently standard practice at the time.
While Costello didn’t say anything, for fear of offending Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King, who was sitting beside him, he was furious. He was also annoyed by the failure to offer a toast to the President of Ireland, and by Alexander’s manner, which he thought was rude.
However, that would have been the end of matters, if it wasn’t for the Sunday Independent.
A couple of days after the Roaring Meg incident, it led with a story claiming that the External Relations Act was to be repealed. In Canada, Costello came to the conclusion that a member of Cabinet – probably MacBride – had leaked the story.
He was due to face a press conference on the Tuesday, and knew he would be asked about the story. He had four choices – he could deny the story, which would be a lie; he could refuse to comment, which would be taken as a confirmation; he could say the issue would be dealt with when the Dáil returned, which would also be taken as an implied confirmation; or he could just confirm the story. Costello decided that, as the report was true, “there was nothing in honesty and decency open to me but to admit the truth”.
An interesting approach to politics and diplomacy – answering journalists’ questions fully, truthfully and accurately, has unfortunately not caught on.
But, Costello didn’t just confirm the External Relations Act was going to be repealed. That much was relatively uncontroversial and wouldn’t have been news to London. He was also asked did that mean Ireland was leaving the Commonwealth. And he said – unequivocally – yes!
That was what caused the problem. Costello believed Ireland was no longer in the Commonwealth, so he didn’t feel he had said anything significant. But if he hadn’t been so frank, Britain could – and most likely would – have continued to pretend that nothing had changed. As it was, London now felt it had to do something.
Clement Attlee’s government threatened all sorts of retaliation – treating Irish people in the UK as aliens, denying access to Irish goods, and so on – but was stopped by the other Commonwealth governments, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who insisted nothing should change.
Faced with this pressure, London accepted Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth calmly, passing legislation to ensure that the change would make no difference to how Irish people and exports were treated.
But the Ireland Act also included a sop to Unionists, saying that the status of Northern Ireland would not change without the agreement of its parliament. London saw this is a statement of the obvious – Dublin saw it as copper fastening partition, and protested long and loud about it.
But that was the reality, the same reality that had faced Irish nationalists since the Home Rule crisis of 1886 – they could have independence, or they could have unity: they couldn’t have both. And the further they moved towards one goal, the further away they moved from the other.
It was a painful lesson. And far from taking the gun out of Irish politics, as Costello hoped, the declaration of the republic, by provoking the British guarantee to the North, arguably laid the ground for the IRA’s Border Campaign a decade later.
What began with a replica of a canon would end up with real guns.