Australian republicans' Ireland envy


Eamon De ValeraWhen 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 enactment was held over until a more significant day in April the year following: Easter Monday, the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

De Valera and his Fianna Fail colleagues absented themselves from the celebrations, except for the Solemn High Mass at the Pro Cathedral. Going off in a political huff was all well and good, but one has to have an eye to eternal priorities.

Meanwhile in London, the Labour Government of Clement Attlee bowed to Unionist pressure to introduce the Ireland Act, the ultimate veto on any change in the status of Northern Ireland and an unpardonable act of betrayal of a minority group of citizens.

'It is hereby affirmed ... that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of ... the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.' Did ever an act of parliament store up such misery for its subjects or such future problems for its originators?

Unlike India, which became a republic in 1949, Ireland decided to sever all links with the Commonwealth. There were moves in some quarters to punish what was perceived — indeed, rightly — as an act of ingratitude by taking it to its logical conclusion and declaring Ireland a 'foreign country' and any Irish people living in Britain 'aliens'.

The efforts of Australia's Deputy Prime Minister H V Evatt and the New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser were crucial in hosing down these moves and obtaining for Ireland the status of most-favoured trading nation and retaining for its citizens the preferential treatment which they had long enjoyed.

And now as our leaders exercise their brains to think of a decent excuse to raise the question of a republic, and a suitable referendum likely to win national approval, they must occasionally cast an envious glance at the Irish experience, in which a little old-fashioned pedantry obviated the need for any referendum at all.

The Australian Republican Movement

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in March.


Topic tags: frank o'shea, ireland, republic, australia, uk, king george vi, Taoiseach Eamon De Valera, John A. Costello



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Existing comments

Although a staunch monarchist, I think this is beautifully expressed and makes a very interesting point.
damian hockney | 08 December 2008

Could someone explain how O'Kelly could be "the Irish president" prior to the signing of the Republic of Ireland Act? Is there a lesson for Australian republicans in how it came about?
Michael Grounds | 08 December 2008

The problem with the Humphries-Hayden Irish conspiracy theory and O'Shea's defence of Irish republicans is that both assume that all Australian Irish must be republicans. But they are not. As an Australian of Irish ethnicity and Catholic religion, I dread the prospect of the loss of the monarchy in this country.

The combination of constitutional monarch and parliamentary democracy is the highest form of the state yet devised. A republic will trash the consitution, vandalise our heritage, attack the largest ethnic minority group in Australia (the English) and further entrench the hold of the left-liberal new-class establishment on the politics of this country. In other words, there is no "decent excuse" to revive the issue of the monarchy.

Less than ten years ago the Australian people, for whatever reason, voted resoundingly to retain the present constitutional arrangements. Our political masters are obviously determined to send us back to vote again and again until we get it "right".
Christopher O'Dowda | 08 December 2008

how do I join this Republican movement?
Ken Thomson | 08 December 2008

As an Australian of Irish ethnicity whose forebears landed in Australia in 1851 I write to commend every sentence of Christopher O'Dowda's comment in support of our constitutional monarchy. I would only add that for me an additional reason to support a constitutional monarchy is that it offers some protection against the perfidious policy of Multiculturalism properly understood as tribalism or balkanisation.

Many years ago FDR gave thumbs down to the idea of a hyphenated American. He said we are all Americans. Most Australians would say, I believe,we are all Australians...multicultural yes but multiculturalism NO! For only special reasons(clarification,as here) would I describe myself as an ethno Irish Australian. I am an Australian full stop.

Multiculturalism all over the world is on the skids and now recognised as a failed experiment. This view is given support by the Equality and Human Rights Commissioner in the UK,West Indian Trevor Phillips, born in London but schooled in Guyana. Initially Phillips supported multiculturalism but has now become one of its strongest critics. Another famous critic is Christopher Hitchens who has called for the end of one-way multiculturalism and the cultural masochism that goes with it.
Tom Brownlow | 08 December 2008

Oh dear Christopher! Frank has really touched a sensitive point. But can you explain to me precisely why a (presumably hereditary) constitutional monarch is a necessary part of 'the highest form of the state so far devised'? Or would you accept an elected monarch?
Warwick | 09 December 2008

It is unclear what Frank is advocating in his final paragraph. Australia is not Ireland. And his account of events requires some guesswork. Did King George really have to OK ambassadors or was it the suburban GG? I suggest a referendum is an entirely appropriate way, legally and politically, of settling these matters. Did Mr Costello's (unilateral?) act play any part in the genesis of the Northern Ireland conflict later? Of course the real sting in Frank's piece is the charge against Australia of colonialism. Perhaps as a society though we owe more to (English?) empiricism and compromise than do the Irish, whose relationship to the UK seems to me to be very ambivalent.
Big question: What will the next referendum ask? What will the new constitution say? Will it simply replace all references to the GG with referneces to "the president"? How will we choose "the president"?
Brian Dethridge | 10 December 2008

Yes, constitutional monarchy does work; but why not our own monarch? Aboriginal. obviously.
JV | 10 December 2008

Tom, the original 'multiculturals' in this country were the Irish and for a century of more they held fast to their culture and 'tribalism'. They even 'balkanised' the education system. For good or ill?
Warwick | 11 December 2008

I strongly support Christopher O’Dowd’s argument. I, too, am of the Irish Catholic persuasion and yet am strongly attached to the monarchy, Her Majesty, Defender of the Faith. The true monarchy of Britain, the Stuarts, were Catholics. Like many Irish Catholics (mother’s name was O’Neill), my ancestors fought in the British Army and found their attachment to their Faith to be no hindrance, indeed it was an assistance in promotion and advancement. Sadly a number of professional Fenians and the like are stupidly anti-British, when the British themselves do not really care, and keep going a silly, childish struggle. It is unworthy of the Irish.
David Webb | 11 December 2008

The chief advantage of monarchy is that it withdraws a symbolic, if nonetheless real, territory of the state from politicians.

The Headship of State is removed from politicking. It is well known that politicians represent, not the people, but parties.

The problem with elected monarchy, even though that has been practised in numerous traditional societies, is that it is likely to drift into the political process. An elected presidency, whether popular or legislative, is subject to the same reservations.

A hereditary monarchy, random as it is, obviates all these problems.

It doesn't really matter what the royal family is like. They might be cretinous, but the main issue constitutionally is the monarchy itself as an institution of the state, not the individuals who are associated with it. The main thing is the principle of monarchy itself.

This principle is of particular advantage to Australia. We have a royal family but it doesn't live here. They do what they like or are as mad as they like in the UK but it has absolutely no bearing on Australia. We benefit from all of the advantages of having a theoretical monarchy while having none of the disadvantages of a resident royal family, including the cost of up-keep.

I have no objection to the idea of a home-grown Australian hereditary royal family. And an aboriginal family would be just perfect. But we would lose some of the advantages of having the royal family living on the other side of the globe.
Christopher O'Dowda | 12 December 2008

Thanks for responding Christopher. I think I understand what you mean by separating the state from the government and I've some sympathy with that view. But I still question why the head of state needs to be an hereditary position. If you are prepared to live with the randomness of a hereditary monarchy, why not choose the monarch or head of state by drawing lots? After all, a lottery is at the core of the way we choose juries.

On another tack, is the (British) monarchy really above politics and politicians? The English Restoration in 1660 was surely a political act. The Monarchy owes its present existence to the actions of politicians at that time. Politicians were responsible for the abdication of Edward VIII. Politicians are responsible for the laws that determine rules of succession and place limitations on the religion of the monarch.
Warwick | 13 December 2008

Warwick - I think the monarchy needs to be hereditary because that is the best way of quaranting the headship of state from politics. I would agree to a process of drawing lots, or something like it, if it were the only way of saving the Australian monarchy, but I fear it would be liable to manipulation, the stakes being so high. Who would decide which names go into the hat? Politicians, of course! What would be the criteria? Ideological ones! It would also be easy to remove a monarch chosen by such a process, rendering the whole system unstable. With an hereditary monarch, there is absolutely no doubt as to who is, or is going to be, the head of state and his or her position is guaranteed. I concede that this would be a disadvantage if the monarch had any real powers but this is not the case with the Australian/British monarchy which has been defamged by the so-called Glorious Revoltion of 1688 and subsequent constitional developments. The British monarchy was certainly not above politics before then, as you point out, but has been more and more ejected from the political process thereafter. I take your point about politicians making decisions about the monarchy in the past. I am not suggesting that the monarchy can be absolutely, hermetically sealed off from politics. That would be impossible. But hereditary constitutional monarchy is the most effective method of making the distance as great and as secure as possible. One of my main worries about an elected presidency is that the process would be hopelessly politicised and the kind of person we would almost certainly end up with would be a member of the new-class establishment - a Paul Keating or, horror of horrors, a Malcolm Fraser. Even the Windsors are to be preferred.
Christopher O'Dowda | 15 December 2008

Thanks again Christopher for the reasoned discussion - it's a lot more than one gets in the Murdoch tabloids, or even The Australian for that matter.

And I think I understand why you want the institution of 'The State' to be insulated from day to day politics. (The same might be said about the judiciary - heaven help us if we ever get to the stage of electing judges or magistrates as is done in some parts of the US or if judges and/or magistrates hold office only at the pleasure of the government of the day.)

But there are many forms of republic and I don't think every form leads to a politicising of the position of head of state. If the President is both Head of State and Head of Government (as in the US), then it is obviously politicised. Likewise, if the Monarch is both King and Head of Government (as in Saudi Arabia), then it is also obviously 'politicised'.

But there are other forms where the roles of Head of State and Head of Government are separated that are worth considering. In most of those cases, the appointment of the Head of State is for a fixed term by some indirect method, as in Eire for example, which seems to me to be a healthy process. It's also important that the Head of State, once appointed, has on the one hand security of tenure and on the other no 'political' power other than to dissolve parliament and call elections. (It could be argued that with our present Governors and Governor General appointed (in effect) by the Prime Minister we are almost there.)

Now that sort of republic would be hardly likely to 'trash the constitution, vandalise our heritage, attack the largest ethnic minority... [or] further entrench the hold of the left-liberal new-class establishment...' any more than the current arrangements might. Is that a reasonable position to take?
Warwick | 15 December 2008

I do seem to have stirred things up.

On the question of hereditary succession, there is a delightful poem by a 19th century English poet named Robert Barnabas Brough. You will find it here.

I love the final verse:

My Lord Tomnoddy is thirty-four;
The Earl can last but a few years more.
My Lord in the Peers will take his place:
Her Majesty’s councils his words will grace.
Office he’ll hold, and patronage sway;
Fortunes and lives he will vote away;
And what are his qualifications?—ONE!
He’s the Earl of Fitzdotterel’s eldest son.
Frank O'Shea | 18 December 2008

I'm an English Protestant who has lived in both Ireland and Australia. I've met lots of Aussies who are pro-monarchy (and against Britain joining the euro). When I tell them that Ireland works very well as a Republic and being in the eurozone, they get all uncomfortable!
Bill Tegner | 31 August 2010


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