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Australian republicans' Ireland envy

  • 08 December 2008

When people as oddly matched as Bill Hayden and Barry Humphries suggested some years ago that the push for an Australian Republic was an Irish plot, they were probably guilty of slander on the Irish people.

However, it is a benign slander and one which most Irish would regard with a measure of contentment. The fact that it was not true would be only a minor irritation to our general satisfaction at causing disruption to the even tenor of comfortable colonialism.

After all, when Ireland declared itself a republic 60 years ago this month, it did so without the awkwardness of a referendum or even much of the grandstanding which such a popular measure might have afforded the politicians of the day.

Not only that, but the decision to declare a republic was first announced, not in Parliament, not even in Ireland, but at a press conference in Canada by the travelling Taoiseach (prime minister) of the day, John A Costello.

At the time, Ireland was still a reluctant and barely practising member of the Commonwealth, which explains why any person born in Ireland before 1949, including this writer, is entitled to carry a British passport.

King George VI was officially Irish Head of State, a situation prudently hidden from most of the world and one which caused only occasional discomfiture.

For example, when Ireland appointed an ambassador to the Vatican, the letter of appointment was written in flowery Irish by Taoiseach Eamon De Valera (pictured) and then sent to the king for his signature. Only after His Majesty had removed a careless reference to his inherited title as Defender of the Faith was the letter signed and the ambassador able to take up his position as Irish representative in Rome.

Similarly, ambassadors from overseas countries presented their credentials, not to the Irish President, but to the King.

You might wonder how Ireland could have a president if it was still part of the Commonwealth. It had something to do with Dev placing the poor governor-general of the day in a small semi-detached in a Dublin housing estate and then ignoring him, but that's another story.

The Irish president at the time was Sean T. O'Kelly, an inoffensive and reputedly parsimonious veteran of the War of Independence, with a fondness for good whiskey and good company, preferably female. He signed the Republic of Ireland Act in December 1948, but its formal