The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 is an Act of the Oireachtas which declares that Ireland may be officially described as the Republic of Ireland, and vests 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 is signed into law on December 21, 1948 and comes into force on April 18, 1949, Easter Monday, the 33rd anniversary of the beginning of the Easter Rising.
The Act repeals the External Relations Act 1936. Under that Act, King George VI acts as the Irish head of state in international relations by accredited ambassadors and on the State’s behalf accepts credentials appointing foreign ambassadors to the State. The Republic of Ireland Act removes this last remaining practical role from the King and vests 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 plans to declare a Republic, the then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera replies, “we are a republic.” He also insists that Ireland has no king, but simply uses an external king as an organ in international affairs. However, that is not the view of constitutional lawyers including de Valera’s Attorneys General, whose disagreement with de Valera’s interpretation only come to light when the state papers from the 1930s and 1940s are released to historians. Nor is it the view in the international arena, who believe that Ireland does have a king, George VI, who had been proclaimed King of Ireland in December 1936, and to whom they accredit ambassadors to Ireland. King George, in turn, as “King of Ireland” accredits all Irish diplomats. All treaties signed by the Irish Taoiseach or Minister for External Affairs are signed in the name of King George.
In October 1947, de Valera asks his Attorney General, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, to draft a bill to repeal the External Relations Act. By 1948 a draft of the bill includes a reference to the state as being a republic. In the end, the draft bill is never submitted to the Oireachtas for approval.
The bill to declare Ireland a republic is introduced in 1948 by the new Taoiseach, John A. Costello of the Fine Gael party. Costello makes the announcement that the bill is to be introduced when he is in Ottawa, during an official visit to Canada. David McCullagh suggests that it is a spur of the moment reaction to offence caused by the Governor General of Canada, Lord Alexander, who is of Northern Irish descent, who allegedly places loyalist symbols before an affronted Costello at a state dinner. What is certain is that an agreement that there be separate toasts for the King and for the President of Ireland is broken. The Irish position is that a toast to the King, instead of representing both countries, would not include Ireland. Only a toast to the King is proposed, to the fury of the Irish delegation. Shortly afterwards Costello announces 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 before Costello’s Canadian visit. Costello’s revelation of the decision is because the Sunday Independent had discovered the fact and was about to “break” the story as an exclusive. The evidence of what really happens remains ambiguous. There is no record of a prior decision to declare a republic before Costello’s Canadian trip.
At any rate, the Act is enacted with all parties voting for it. De Valera does 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 tells senators that as a matter of law, the King is indeed “King of Ireland” and Irish head of state and the President of Ireland is in effect no more than first citizen and a local notable, until the new law comes into force.
The United Kingdom responds to the Republic of Ireland Act by enacting the Ireland Act 1949. This Act formally asserts that the Irish state had, when the Republic of Ireland Act came into force, ceased “to be part of His Majesty’s dominions” and accordingly is no longer within the Commonwealth. Nonetheless the United Kingdom statute provides that Irish citizens will not be treated as aliens under British nationality law. This, in effect, grants them a status similar to the citizens of Commonwealth countries.