Leaving the Commonwealth

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1998), News, News, Volume 6

Popular myth has it that the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, while in Canada in 1948, got drunk at a dinner and announced that Ireland was to leave the Commonwealth. A variation of the story is that Costello, while dining in the Governor General’s residence, was offended by a replica of the cannon ‘Roaring Meg’ being placed on his dinner table and declared a republic in a fit of pique. In reality the events and reasons leading up to his announcement are much more reasonable and complicated.
Costello made the surprise announcement of the repeal of the External Relations Act, at a press conference in Ottawa fifty years ago on Tuesday 7 September 1948. A month before the British Cabinet was informed that Anglo-Irish relations were friendlier than ever. Yet nine months later not only had Éire left the Commonwealth but Costello was threatening to hit the British Government in their ‘pride and in their prestige and in their pocket’.
The External Relations Act, passed by the Dáil following the abdication of King Edward VIII in December 1936, removed all mention of the Crown from the constitution and affairs of the state: the Crown was then re-introduced as a figurehead in relations with other states. As Labour Party leader William Norton put it, ‘the King [was] put out the front door and the back window was left open to bring him in again’. This limited recognition of the Crown was Éire’s last remaining link with the British Commonwealth. Éamon de Valera claimed that it provided an umbrella under which Anglo-Irish difficulties could be resolved, in particular that Northern Ireland could come ‘into association with Éire’.
In practice the Act meant that Éire’s senior diplomats had to be accredited to and by the British monarch. It led to an embarrassing situation whereby eEire’s ambassador to the Vatican had his letter of credence written in Irish, addressed to the pope, but signed by King George VI. In this instance the king diplomatically  deleted the title ‘defender of the faith’, bestowed by the Vatican upon a once faithful Henry VIII. By return the pope sent a diplomatic note of thanks to the king for appointing the envoy. In 1947, the Irish ambassador to the Vatican, Joseph Walshe, was kept waiting in Rome for three weeks to have his credentials signed by the king. De Valera was not amused. In late 1947 he instructed his attorney general, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh to draft a short bill to repeal the External Relations Act. Interestingly, it did not mention a republic. By January 1948, a new draft included a reference to the state as a ‘republic’.
cw 2However, de Valera did not include repeal of the External Relations Act in Fianna Fáil’s manifesto for the general election of February, 1948. Neither did Fine Gael who stood for retaining the link with the Commonwealth. Garret Fitzgerald, in his autobiography, remembers his wife and himself ‘reassuring the inhabitants of Waterloo Road on the point’. Clann na Poblachta was the only party to include breaking the link with the Commonwealth in their manifesto. Its leader, Seán MacBride,  agreed to place this policy in abeyance when he entered the coalition cabinet as Minister for External Affairs. However, his ideal had not gone away. Republican supporters in his party, including some former IRA members, were pressurising him to get some tangible movement on partition. MacBride saw his opportunity. Costello was in Canada where he was to deliver a speech to the Canadian Bar Association about the inaccuracies and infirmities of the link with the Commonwealth. He asked poetically, ‘Is it fruitful, with the mentality of the person who would peep and botanise upon his mother’s grave, to inquire too legalistically into the nature of that association’. In effect, he was saying that the External Relations Act was defunct and should be allowed to fade away. If Britain agreed then they would allow other states to follow the precedent set by President Peron of Argentina, who, at MacBride’s request, bypassed King George VI and appointed his minister to Éire, direct to the President of Ireland, Seán T. O’Kelly. Argentina was in conflict at the time with Britain over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and was happy to comply.
Unfortunately the British government was not as compliant in ignoring the External Relations Act as Costello and MacBride had assumed. Unbeknown to MacBride, the secretary to the British cabinet, Sir Norman Brook, was intent that the External Relations Act be honoured to the letter. He was preparing to censure Éire if she asked to leave the Commonwealth and was working away behind the scenes getting support from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Seán MacBride, in his capacity as Minister of External Affairs, issued a press release quoting selectively from Costello’s Canadian Bar Association speech. A banner headline—’EXTERNAL RELATIONS ACT TO GO’—appeared in the Sunday Independent.
As the Sunday Independent presses were rolling Costello, unaware of the headline, was having dinner in the Governor General’s residence in Canada. He had arranged to have a toast to the President of Ireland in return for a toast to the King. The toasts were printed on the official programme for the evening. If honoured it would have been recognition by Canada that Éire was separate from the Commonwealth. The toast to the President was reneged upon by the Governor General, Lord Alexander (an Ulsterman and former 1914 mutineer). Costello noted the snub and was upset but reserved his comments for a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Later that Saturday night MacBride spoke to Costello on the phone about a possible response to the Sunday Independent headline. According to a memorandum written by Costello there were four options—to say ‘no comment’, to deny it, to admit it or to say it would be dealt with when the Dáil re-assembled. Interestingly he never consulted other members of his government or civil service mandarins. Costello held a press conference in the Railway Committee Room of the  Ottawa parliament buildings. He was asked by the assembled world press if it was Éire’s intention to repeal the External Relations Act. He confirmed the speculation, but did not mention that Éire was to become a republic. In fact he mentioned the possibility of associate membership of the Commonwealth, a dual type of membership that the British government feared India might favour, but would ultimately dilute the Commonwealth. Costello’s answer appeared that evening on the inside pages of the Ottawa press. The following day it was front page news in the Irish dailies. This was indeed news to most members of his cabinet and the British government with whom there was an agreement that prior consultations would occur on matters of mutual interest. MacBride seized his chance and two days after Costello’s announcement, drafted a bill to repeal the External Relations Act. While no mention was made of a republic, this was the coup de grace to Éire’s membership of the Commonwealth. There was no turning back for Costello.
The British government made behind-the-scenes threats that Éire could lose trade and possibly citizenship benefits, hoping to persuade the Irish government to change its mind. The British even considered appealing over the heads of the Irish government to the people of Éire about losing the material benefits of Commonwealth membership.
A few days after his return to Dublin, Costello called a meeting of politicians at his home. According to Dr Noel Browne Costello offered his resignation, a move rejected by his cabinet. Instead, they approved retroactively ‘the action’ he took in Canada.
Tortuous diplomatic negotiations followed. With the support of the Commonwealth, in particular the Labour Party of Australia, the coalition government survived to enact a bill in Easter 1949 declaring the status of the state to be a republic. In retaliation, the British government, without consulting the Irish government, introduced the ‘Ireland Bill’ which contained a ‘guarantee’ to unionists on partition. Megaphone diplomacy followed. Éire further aggravated her neighbours on the international stage by refusing to join NATO. For the next fourteen years, Éire suffered economically and remained in the cold outside the court of Anglo-American relations. Finally, the Republic of Ireland was redeemed by the return of the Jungian hero, in the form of John F. Kennedy, to whom Seán Lemass offered up the sacrifice of Irish neutrality. A high price to pay?

Ian McCabe is author of A Diplomatic History of Ireland 1948-49: the Republic, the Commonwealth and NATO.


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