Leo Varadkar: ‘Ireland being a republic was once the stuff of dreams – we’ve come so far in 70 years’

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Leo Varadkar: ‘Ireland being a republic was once the stuff of dreams – we’ve come so far in 70 years’

This Thursday, we should all recognise this hugely significant moment in the development of our nation


JOY UNNCONFINED: O’Connell Bridge in Dublin on the night in April 1949 that the Republic of Ireland was declared. Look closely and you can see some intrepid young revellers perched in the trees along Burgh Quay
JOY UNNCONFINED: O’Connell Bridge in Dublin on the night in April 1949 that the Republic of Ireland was declared. Look closely and you can see some intrepid young revellers perched in the trees along Burgh Quay

This Thursday is the 70th anniversary of Ireland becoming a republic, an important stepping stone on the way to our country taking its place among the nations of the world. A republic had been declared in Ireland on multiple occasions, this was the only one recognised internationally.

It is not an anniversary that is remembered much now, partly, I think, because we celebrate our independence at Easter.

The events of 1916 rightly have an emotional and historical resonance in our country. The Easter Rising reignited the struggle for Irish freedom and helped make that dream a reality a few years later. However, the story of our journey to full independence has many staging posts. These include the meeting of the First Dail, which we commemorated in January; the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty; the creation of the new Irish State in 1922; our new Constitution in 1937; and the declaration of the Republic in 1948, which became a reality on Easter Monday 1949.

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Since then, we have worked to fulfil our destiny as a free, independent country, playing its part on the world stage, promoting democracy and freedom, and defending human rights. As a republic, we joined the United Nations in 1955, and our proud history of involvement in UN and EU peacekeeping missions around the world is testament to our global outlook and vision.

We became a member of the EEC in 1973, and Europe enabled us to develop economically, socially, culturally and politically, helping us to turn our dreams of freedom, peace and prosperity into a reality.

Ireland becoming a republic in 1949 is part of this story. It is no coincidence that April 18, 1949, the day the Republic came into effect, was Easter Monday. The inter-party government, led by Taoiseach John A Costello, chose the date precisely because it wanted to make explicit the link with the 1916 Rising. Despite the initial reluctance of some, the Republic of Ireland Act was supported by every party in the Dail, and it passed without difficulty. So, it’s an achievement that belongs to all of us, and not any one party.

Some of the changes it made were significant, including removing certain ambiguities about whether the president or the king was head of State.

Before 1949, the accreditation for new ambassadors to Ireland had to go through Buckingham Palace, and the king had to approve high-level Irish diplomatic appointments abroad.

This sometimes caused confusion and embarrassment, such as in 1939 when de Valera tried to send a new head of mission to Berlin. King George VI objected because of the war, so instead a lower-level appointment was made, and a charges d’affaires went in his place. Following 1949, there was no longer any confusion that the president was the Irish head of State.

For people in 1949, becoming a republic was more than a symbolic change, it was a significant statement about what we had achieved as a country and our aspirations for the future.

As such, it was greeted with huge enthusiasm by men, women and children in towns and cities all across the country, who marked it with parades, bonfires, readings of the 1916 Proclamation, and other events. In Castlebar, for example, we have reports of “scenes of joyous celebrations”; in Athlone there was a “weekend of celebration”; in Donegal, a bonfire blazed on The Diamond; and there was a huge parade in Drumshanbo and other towns. In Co Kerry, towns and villages held events to mark what one local newspaper described as “the dawn of a new era”. In Dublin, tens of thousands of people gathered in the city centre at midnight. The event was delayed by a few minutes because of the crowds, before a 21-gun salute was fired from O’Connell Street.

Cries of “Up the Republic” were shouted by the jubilant crowd. Searchlight batteries from across the city provided an incredible light display and it was reported that “O’Connell Street became a blaze of light”. Tar beacons were lit on hills across the city, providing further illumination. Open-air ceilis had been arranged in various parts of the city, and there was music and dancing until the early hours of the morning. The streets were so packed that many people fainted in the excitement, and the St John Ambulance staff had to provide medical aid.

For people across the country, the dream of an independent Irish Republic, which had inspired Tone and Emmet, and energised Davis and Pearse, had finally been achieved.

The Royal Irish Academy, supported by the Government, has organised a panel discussion on Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary, and start a discussion about the significance of this event. Chaired by David McCullagh, of RTE, who has written extensively about this period, the panel includes Senator Ivana Bacik, the historian Dr Ciara Meehan, and the author and film-maker, Maurice Fitzpatrick.

It was also, of course, 70 years ago that the new Irish Republic formally left the Commonwealth. Interestingly, both Taoiseach John A Costello and the leader of Fianna Fail, Eamon de Valera, believed that Ireland had actually stopped being a member of the Commonwealth back in 1936 following the passing of the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, although this interpretation was not accepted by all.

It was believed at the time that being a republic was incompatible with Commonwealth membership. Ten days after Ireland became a republic, there was a meeting of the heads of government of the other Commonwealth members and it was decided to remove any obstacle to this happening in future, enabling India to become a republic later that year and retain its Commonwealth status.

For some the occasion of Ireland becoming a republic in 1949 was a symbolic rather than a real change; for others, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Our history has shown that symbols matter, dreams matter. The achievement of 70 years ago was a significant moment in our development as a country, and on Thursday we should be proud to recognise this and salute the Republic.

Leo Varadkar TD is Taoiseach

Sunday Independent

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