Irish head of state from 1936 to 1949
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During the period from December 1936 to April 1949 some commentators consider that it was unclear whether or not the Irish state was a republic or a form of constitutional monarchy and (from 1937) whether its head of state was the President of Ireland or the king of the Irish Free State and later Ireland, George VI. The exact constitutional status of the state during this period has been a matter of scholarly and political dispute. The monarch's role in the Irish Free State's constitution was removed on 11 December 1936, but the republic was not explicitly declared until 1949.
The state known today as Ireland is the successor-state to the Irish Free State which was established in 1922. The Free State was governed, until at least 1936, under a form of constitutional monarchy; the King had a number of nominal duties, including exercising the executive authority of the state, appointing the cabinet and promulgating the law. However, all of these were delegated to the Governor-General of the Irish Free State. In 1936, the Free State constitution was amended to remove all mention of the King and abolish the office of governor-general. The following day, a separate statute permitted the King to sign international treaties and to accredit diplomatic representatives, where authorised by the Irish government.
In 1937 a new constitution was adopted establishing the contemporary Irish state named simply 'Ireland' and entrenching the monarch's diminished role, transferring many of the functions performed by the King until 1936 to a new office of President of Ireland, who was declared to "take precedence over all other persons in the State". However, the 1937 constitution did not explicitly declare that the state was a republic, nor that the president was head of state, and it allowed the King to retain his role in foreign affairs. The state's ambiguous status ended in 1949, when the Republic of Ireland Act stripped the King of his role in foreign affairs and declared that the state was a republic.
The status of the Head of the Irish State from 1936 to 1949 was largely a matter of symbolism and had little practical significance. This was because the roles of both the King and the President of Ireland were merely ceremonial, being exercisable only "on the advice" of the Government (Cabinet). However, one practical implication of explicitly declaring the state to be a republic in 1949 was that it automatically led to the state's expulsion from membership of the then British Commonwealth, in accordance with the rules in operation at the time.
Constitutional and legal changes of 1936
As founded in 1922, the Irish Free State was headed by the monarch but most of his functions were performed on his behalf by the Governor-General. An amendment made to the Free State constitution in 1936 changed all this. The Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936 abolished the post of Governor-General in constitutional law and transferred most of the King's functions to other organs of government. Thus, for example, the executive power was transferred directly to the Executive Council, the right to appoint the President of the Executive Council (head of government) was explicitly vested in Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), and the power to promulgate legislation was transferred to the Ceann Comhairle (chairman) of the Dáil. However the constitutional amendment also provided, without mentioning the monarch specifically, that he might continue to represent the state abroad:
The nations referred to in Article 1 were the other members of the then British Commonwealth, who at that time all shared the British monarch as head of state. The External Relations Act, adopted shortly after the constitutional amendment, gave life to this provision by providing that:
Constitution of 1937
The Constitution of Ireland, adopted in 1937, filled the gap left by the abolition of the King's Governor-General by creating the post of a directly elected president. The President of Ireland was henceforth responsible for the ceremonial functions of dissolving the legislature, appointing the Government and promulgating the law. Unlike most heads of state in parliamentary systems, the President was not even the nominal chief executive. Instead, the role of exercising executive authority was explicitly granted to the Government – in practice, to the Taoiseach. The constitution also, like the 1922 constitution that preceded it, contained many provisions typical of those found in republican constitutions, stating, for example, that sovereignty resided in the people, and prohibiting the granting of titles of nobility.
Nonetheless the government of Éamon de Valera, despite its long-term goal of republicanising the Irish state, consciously chose not to declare a republic, and decided to name the state simply 'Ireland' or 'Éire', rather than the 'Republic of Ireland' or the 'Irish Republic'. Thus the new constitution did not explicitly declare that the President would be head of state, providing merely that he would "take precedence over all other persons in the State". Nor did the new document mention the word 'republic'. Most crucially, Article 29 of the new constitution mirrored Article 51 of its predecessor, by permitting the state to allow its external relations to the be exercised by the King. Article 29.4.2 provided that:
"For the purpose of the exercise of any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations, the Government may to such extent and subject to such conditions, if any, as may be determined by law, avail of or adopt any organ, instrument, or method of procedure used or adopted for the like purpose by the members of any group or league of nations with which the State is or becomes associated for the purpose of international co-operation in matters of common concern."
This provision meant that the External Relations Act continued to have the force of law until the legislature decided otherwise, and so the King, as head of the Commonwealth, continued to represent the state abroad.
Until the Republic of Ireland Act came into force in April 1949, the President of Ireland had no international role. Nonetheless from 1936 until 1949 the role of the King in the Irish state was invisible to most Irish people. The monarch never visited the state during that period and, due to the abolition of the office of Governor-General, had no official representative there. The president, on the other hand, played a key role in important public ceremonies. Due to his role in foreign relations, however, almost every state with which the state had diplomatic relations concluded that it was the King who was head of state.
Asked to explain the country's status in 1945, de Valera insisted that it was a republic. He told the Dáil that:
Referring to the External Relations Act he insisted that:
We are an independent republic, associated as a matter of our external policy with the States of the British Commonwealth.
Despite de Valera's views, many political scholars consider representing a nation abroad to be the key defining role of a head of state. This view was echoed by the Taoiseach John A. Costello in a debate in Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate) in December 1948, when he argued that the Republic of Ireland Bill he was introducing would make the President of Ireland the Irish head of state, the man who "ought to have been" but wasn't. Despite this conflict, de Valera's party, as the main opposition in the Dáil at the time, decided not to oppose Costello's bill.
Republic of Ireland Act
The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948, which came into force on 18 April 1949, was remarkable in that it purported to reform the state into a republic without making any change to the Constitution, the ambiguous provisions of which remained unaltered. The Republic of Ireland Act contained three major provisions; it declared that:
- The External Relations Act was repealed.
- The state was a republic.
- The external relations of the state would henceforth be exercised by the president.
The Act also had the effect of automatically terminating the state's membership of the Commonwealth. The fact that he was now clearly and unambiguously the Irish head of state was celebrated by President Seán T. O'Kelly by visits to the Holy See and France. A visit to meet George VI in Buckingham Palace was also provisionally planned, but timetabling problems with the President's schedule prevented the meeting.
In 1953 the title of the monarch within the United Kingdom and its dependent territories was changed from "[Queen] of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas..." to "[Queen] of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories...".
King's title in the Irish state
The King's title in the Irish Free State (1922–1937) and in Ireland (1937–1949) was exactly the same as it was elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, being:
- 1922–1927: By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India
- 1927–1948: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India
- 1948–1949: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith
The King's title during this period was never simply "King of Ireland".
Outside the Irish state, "Great Britain, Ireland" was not officially omitted in the royal title until 1953. Then, a distinct title in each Commonwealth realm was granted to Queen Elizabeth II and "Great Britain, Ireland" in the title used in the United Kingdom was replaced with "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
- McMahon, Deirdre (1984). Republicans and Imperialists: Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930's. p. 181. ISBN 0300030711.
- In the words of Mary E. Daly (January 2007). "The Irish Free State/Éire/Republic of Ireland/Ireland: "A Country by Any Other Name"?". Journal of British Studies 46 (1): 72–90. doi:10.1086/508399. JSTOR 10.1086/508399.: "After the enactment of the 1936 External Relations Act and the 1937 Constitution, Ireland's only remaining link with the crown had been the accreditation of diplomats. The president of Ireland was the head of state. When opposition deputies asked de Valera whether Ireland was a republic—a favorite pastime in the mid‐1940s—he tended to resort to dictionary definitions showing that Ireland had all the attributes of a republic."
- "Committee on Finance. – Vote 65—External Affairs.". Dáil Éireann debates. 17 July 1945. pp. Vol. 97 No. 23 p.22 cc2569–70. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
- "Committee on Finance. – Vote 65—External Affairs.". Dáil Éireann debates. 17 July 1945. pp. Vol. 97 No. 23 p.22 cc2573. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
- The London Gazette: . 22 June 1948.