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Eoghan Harris: ‘Examining the eerie echoes between 1949 and 2019’


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Contrary to what Marx says, history does not repeat itself, either as history or farce, but sometimes throws a shape that seems a bit like something we saw before.

Let’s compare and contrast 1949 with 2019.

On April 18, 1949, a Fine Gael Taoiseach, John A Costello, and his Tanaiste, Sean MacBride, declared a Republic – a move that had been opposed by Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fail who believed it broke down bridges to unionists.

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Then as now, a Fine Gael Taoiseach, with a precarious Dail majority, pulled hard on every patriotic lever.

Then as now, Northern Ireland loomed as large as it does today but only the Fianna Fail leader of the opposition seemed to care.

Then as now, a Fine Gael Taoiseach wrapped the green flag tightly around himself to pursue a popular anti-British policy.

Then as now, those who keep telling us that Fine Gael could never do business with Sinn Fein should remember that only 10 years before 1949, Sean MacBride had been the illegal IRA’s chief-of-staff.

In the 1970s, when I was producer of Feach, Sean MacBride was a regular guest of presenter Proinsias Mac Aonghusa who found him charismatic.

In contrast, I found his fluting French accent and dead eyes simply creepy.

Conor Cruise O’Brien caught him perfectly when he compared his face to “one of those death masks, of Tone or of Emmet, which are to be found in certain patriotic houses”.

As well as declaring a Republic, both Costello and MacBride had another thing in common: both bowed to the Catholic Church.

Michael McDowell’s chilling RTE programme Rome v Republic ran a clip of Costello declaring flatly that his fidelity to the Catholic Church came before his duty to his country.

Costello was being true to himself. But MacBride, who later won the Lenin Prize, liked to posture as a republican radical.

Hence, on taking up office, his private letter of servile submission to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid smacked of craven hypocrisy.

Another big similarity between 1949 and 2019 is how Leo Varadkar reprises the nationalist role of Costello, while Micheal Martin repeats the ‘reaching out to unionists’ role played by Eamon de Valera.

On Brexit, Martin was patriotically constricted by Leo Varadkar’s call to don the green jersey.

Likewise, De Valera was in difficulty once Costello announced his intention to repeal the External Relations Act in 1948.

Like Martin, De Valera’s priority was a potential union of minds and hearts between Protestant, Catholic and dissenter.

Like Martin later, this republican stance left him open to attack by tribal Hibernia nationalists.

Accordingly, Sean MacBride was able to give De Valera a torrid time in Dail Eireann.

He jeered at him for keeping the link to the British Crown in Bunreacht na hEireann 1937.

He mocked him for lining up with Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the Commonwealth.

He claimed De Valera’s earlier External Relations Act, in 1936, had effectively made the king of Britain the king of Ireland.

De Valera was vulnerable to such taunts. After all, he had been in power for the previous 16 years.

But in that long period, this avowed republican had failed to formally break with the Crown and had never authorised a clean break with the Commonwealth. Why?

The answer became clear as he dealt in a detailed and dignified way with each of MacBride’s insults.

He showed the Crown had been reduced to the status of a mere “organ” in Bunreacht na hEireann.

He explained that, in his day, Ireland was associated with, rather than an integral member of, the Commonwealth.

De Valera defended the Crown and Commonwealth as bridges between north and south as follows:

“There is in this country a large number of people who will not be satisfied with being out, and there is a large number of people who will not be satisfied with being in.”

Accordingly, he believed we had to walk with exactness along the edge between the two traditions.

“There is only one place, in such a set of circumstances, in which the two contestants could possibly be satisfied, and that is on the boundary.”

Accordingly, De Valera had retained the formal, diplomatic link with the Crown, not because he had missed some nationalist beat, but as an earnest of his future good intentions to Northern unionists.

This fudge allowed both nationalists and unionists to save face.

Nationalists could keep their distance from the monarchical mumbo-jumbo.

At the same time unionists could appreciate the gesture involved in allowing the Crown to accredit our ambassadors.

Finally, there is an eerie echo from 1949 in Leo Varadkar’s remarks about not abandoning Northern nationalists and Micheal Martin’s strong reservations about that speech.

Like De Valera before him, Martin takes a long view. The short-term satisfaction of waving a green flag is likely to end in long-time tears.

Certainly, Costello’s declaration of a Republic in 1949 ended in tears for Northern nationalists because it led directly to the Clement Attlee cabinet, in June 1949, passing a new Ireland Act.

The Attlee Act recognised that Ireland had left the Commonwealth – but made things worse for Northern nationalists by giving the gerrymandered NI parliament a veto over any moves towards unification.

Before 1949, Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was based ultimately on votes at Westminster.

After the Attlee Act, Stormont could block unity forever. The Costello-MacBride approach had precisely the opposite effect to what they sought.

Let’s not labour the potential for the backstop to backfire, too. But looking back and forward, three points are worth making.

First, John A Costello’s 1949 declaration that the 26-county state was the Republic of Ireland can certainly be defended as a recognition of reality.

But it also petrified partition. And, if anything, it added to the sense of abandonment by Northern nationalists.

Second, although De Valera was finally forced to vote for the Republic of Ireland Act – not wearing the green jersey would have been political suicide – his determination to keep the door open to Northern Protestants laid down a marker for Fianna Fail which Micheal Martin has faithfully followed.

Finally, De Valera, like Martin, was not afraid to declare his belief that Northern Protestants were Irish people to be cherished.

As he movingly put it: “If you are to use the word love, in reference to this community, one to the other, none has it in a higher degree than I have.”

These were the better angels of his nature speaking, at a time when Fianna Fail was large-minded enough to take the long republican view.

Time Fine Gael took the same long view by taking a second look at the backstop.

Time, too, the Irish ambassador to the UK stopped being such a MOPE about The Spectator poking fun at the political bromance between Leo Varadkar and Macron.

The ambassador has some neck in view of the never-ending Brit bashing in Irish media. Does he not take The Irish Times?

Sunday Independent

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