The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 (No. 22 of 1948) is an Act of the Oireachtas (parliament) which declared Ireland to be a republic, and vested in the President of Ireland the power to exercise the executive authority of the state in its external relations, on the advice of the Government of Ireland. The Act was signed into law on 21 December 1948 and came into force on 18 April 1949.
The Act ended the remaining constitutional role of the British monarchy in relation to the state, by repealing the 1936 External Relations Act, which had vested in George VI and his successors those functions which the Act now transferred to the President.
The Republic of Ireland Act is itself quite short, running to just 5 brief sections, and is therefore set out in full as follows:
Number 22 of 1948The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948An Act to repeal the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, 1936, to declare that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland, and to enable the President to exercise the executive power or any executive function of the state in or in connection with its external relations. (21 December 1948)Be it enacted by the Oireachtas as follows:—
1.—The Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, 1936 (No. 58 of 1936), is hereby repealed.
2.—It is hereby declared that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland.
3.—The President, on the authority and on the advice of the Government, may exercise the executive power or any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations.
4.—This Act shall come into operation on such day as the Government may by order appoint.
5.—This Act may be cited as The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948.
— The Republic of Ireland Act
Section 1 of the Act repealed the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936. By doing so the Act abolished the last remaining functions of the King of Ireland, then George VI, in relation to the Irish state. These functions had related to the issuance and acceptance of letters of credence of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements. Section 3 provides that the President of Ireland may instead exercise these functions and any other functions in relation to the state's external (or foreign) relations. This effectively upgraded the President to a full head of state.
At the time the Act came into force, a requirement for a country's membership of the British Commonwealth was that the state be a Dominion, where the same monarch was shared as head of state in each country. Thus, after the Act, Ireland had definitively left the Commonwealth. Ireland had not participated actively in the Commonwealth for some years prior to the Act, but was regarded, at least by the other Commonwealth governments, as not having left the Commonwealth.
The London Declaration, which permitted republics to remain within the Commonwealth, was made shortly afterwards in response to India's desire to continue as a member once its new republican constitution was finalised. However, the Irish government opted not to reapply for membership of the Commonwealth, a decision that was criticised by then Leader of the Opposition Éamon de Valera, who considered applying for membership after being returned to power in the 1950s.
Section 2 of the Act quite simply provides:
It is hereby declared that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland.
Notably, the Act did not change the official name of the state. It merely provided the description for the State. The Constitution of Ireland provides that Ireland (or Éire in Irish) is the official name of the State and if the Act had purported to change the name, it would have been unconstitutional as it was not a constitutional amendment. The distinction between a description and a name has sometimes caused confusion. The Taoiseach, John A. Costello who introduced the Republic of Ireland Bill in the Oireachtas explained the difference in the following way:
If I say that my name is Costello and that my description is that of senior counsel, I think that will be clear to anybody who wants to know. If the Senator will look at Article 4 of the Constitution she will find that the name of the State is Éire. Section 2 of this Bill declares that “this State shall be described as the Republic of Ireland.” Its name in Irish is Éire and in the English language Ireland. Its description in the English language is “the Republic of Ireland.”.
The United Kingdom responded to the Republic of Ireland Act by enacting the Ireland Act 1949. This Act formally recognised that the Irish state had ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth, but provided that Irish citizens would not be treated as aliens under British nationality law. A provision which, in effect, granted them a status similar to the citizens of Commonwealth countries.
The Act also provided that "the part of Ireland heretofore known as Eire" could be referred to in future UK legislation as the "Republic of Ireland". Between the enactment of the Constitution of Ireland in 1937 and the enactment of the Ireland Act 1949, the United Kingdom had only formally acknowledged "Eire" [sic] as the name of the Irish state. The UK's continued aversion to using "Ireland" as the correct formal name for the state remained a source of diplomatic friction for several decades afterwards.
The UK's Ireland Act also gave a legislative guarantee that Northern Ireland would continue to remain a part of the United Kingdom unless the Parliament of Northern Ireland formally expressed a wish to join a United Ireland; this "unionist veto" proved to be controversial during the Act's passage through Westminster, as well as in the Irish state and amongst Northern Ireland's nationalist community. The guarantee was eventually replaced in 1973 by a new guarantee based on "the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland".
King George VI sent the following message to the President of Ireland, Seán T. O'Kelly, dated April 18, 1949:
I send you my sincere good wishes on this day, being well aware of the neighbourly links which hold the people of the Republic of Ireland in close association with my subjects of the United Kingdom. I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future. (Signed) GEORGE R.
The Act repealed the External Relations Act, 1936. Under that Act, King George VI as 'King of Ireland' (a king shared with the United Kingdom and other Dominions of the Commonwealth) acted as the Irish head of state in international relations. He accredited ambassadors and on the State's behalf accepted credentials appointing foreign ambassadors to the State. The Republic of Ireland Act removed this role (the last remaining role) from the King and vested it instead in the President of Ireland, making the then President of Ireland, Seán T. O'Kelly, unambiguously the Irish head of state.
In 1945, when asked if he planned to declare a Republic, the then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera had replied, "we are a republic", having refused to say so before for eight years. He also insisted that Ireland had no king, but simply used an external king as an organ in international affairs. However, that was not the view of constitutional lawyers including de Valera's Attorneys-General, whose disagreement with de Valera's interpretation only came to light when the state papers from the 1930s and 1940s were released to historians. Nor was it the view in the international arena, who believed that Ireland did have a king, George VI who had been proclaimed King of Ireland in December 1936, and to whom they accredited ambassadors to Ireland. King George, in turn, as "King of Ireland" accredited all Irish diplomats. All treaties signed by the Irish Taoiseach or Minister for External Affairs were signed in the name of King George.
De Valera had a history of making statements on constitutional matters that were legally questionable. His belief that the Governor-General's post had been abolished by a constitutional amendment in December 1936 was privately rejected by his own Attorney-General, James Geoghegan, Secretary to the Executive Council, by the Parliamentary Draftsman's Office (which drafted legislation) and other leading legal figures in the government. To sort out what was privately seen as a legal mess, de Valera had had to introduce a second enactment, the Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937, which was backdated as if effective from the original date of the supposed abolition in December 1936. In 1947, de Valera's new Attorney-General, began drafting a bill to grant to the President the powers in international affairs possessed by the King. Part of the debate in government revolved around whether a republic should be declared in the bill. The very existence of the debate is evidence that de Valera's latest attorney-general and part of his cabinet, maybe even de Valera himself, did not agree with de Valera's statement in 1945 that the Irish state was already a republic. In the end, the draft bill was never submitted to the Oireachtas for approval. Whether that is because it was simply abandoned or because de Valera planned to introduce it after the 1948 general election (which he unexpectedly lost) is unclear.
The bill to declare Ireland a republic was introduced in 1948 by the new Taoiseach, John A. Costello of the Fine Gael party. Costello made the announcement that the bill was to be introduced when he was in Ottawa, during an official visit to Canada. It has been suggested that it was a spur of the moment reaction to offence caused by the Governor-General of Canada, Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis who was of Northern Irish descent and who allegedly placed symbols of Northern Ireland, notably a replica of the famous Roaring Meg cannon used in the Siege of Derry, before an affronted Costello at a state dinner. What is certain is that the prior arrangement whereby toasts to the King (symbolising Canada) and the President (representing Ireland) were to be proposed, was broken.Only a toast to the King was proposed, to the fury of the Irish delegation. Shortly afterwards Costello announced the plan to declare the republic.
However, according to all but one of the ministers in Costello's cabinet, the decision to declare a republic had already been made prior to Costello's Canadian visit. Costello's revelation of the decision was because the Sunday Independent (an Irish newspaper) had discovered the fact and was about to "break" the story as an exclusive. Nevertheless one minister, the controversial Noel Browne, gave a different account in his autobiography, Against the Tide. He claimed Costello's announcement was done in a fit of anger of his treatment by the Governor-General and that when he returned, Costello, at an assembly of ministers in his home, offered to resign because of his manufacture of a major government policy initiative on the spot in Canada. Yet according to Browne, all the ministers agreed that they would refuse to accept the resignation and also agreed to manufacture the story of a prior cabinet decision.
The evidence of what really happened remains ambiguous. There is no record of a prior decision to declare a republic before Costello's Canadian trip, among cabinet papers for 1948, which supports Browne's claim. However, in what is generally regarded as one of its most ill-judged decisions, the Costello government refused to allow the Secretary to the Government, Maurice Moynihan, to attend cabinet meetings and take minutes, because they believed he was too close to the opposition leader, Éamon de Valera Rather than entrust the minute-taking to Moynihan, the cabinet entrusted it to a Parliamentary Secretary (junior minister), Liam Cosgrave. Given that Cosgrave had never kept minutes before, it is understandable that Cosgrave's minutes, at least early on in the government, proved less than a thorough record of government decisions. So whether the issue was never raised, was raised but undecided on, was subjected to a decision taken informally, or was subjected to a decision taken formally, remains obscure on the basis of the 1948 cabinet documentation.
In addition, Browne's own book, published in the 1980s, contains certain factual inaccuracies and thus is seen by some to be equally unreliable. The last two surviving ministers of that cabinet in the 1980s, former Minister for External Affairs Seán MacBride and Browne, publicly and trenchantly disagreed with one another as to the events that led to the declaration of the republic. What is certain is that one man's account is wrong. But it has proved impossible to determine which one is wrong.
At any rate, the Act was enacted with all parties voting for it. De Valera did suggest that it would have been better to reserve the declaration of the republic until Irish unity had been achieved, a comment hard to reconcile with his 1945 claim that the Irish state was already a republic. Speaking in Seanad Éireann Costello told senators that as a matter of law, the King was indeed "King of Ireland" and Irish head of state and the President of Ireland was in effect no more than first citizen and a local notable, until the new law came into force.
In 1996, the Constitution Review Group considered amending the Constitution to declare that Ireland is a republic. It decided against recommending such an amendment. This was the second time that such an amendment was considered by committee.
Éamon De Valera's grandson, Éamon Ó Cuív, while a government minister in the 1990s, advocated Irish membership of the Commonwealth.