Demonstration of independence

In the first of three articles on the history of the presidency, Ryle Dwyer highlights the early importance of the office. It was not the partition but the head of state issue that led to the Civil War.

WHEN the office of President was established in 1938 it was important as a demonstration of independence because the British had previously insisted that Irish Free State could not have an elected president as head of state.

Instead, the Head of State had to be the governor-general, a representative of the British Monarchy, nominated by the Dublin government and formally appointed by the British King.

The Treaty controversy that led to the Irish Civil War was not about partition, but over the denial of republican status to the Irish Free State. The whole issue was personified by the British insistence that Governor-General should represent the British Crown as Head of State.

In the 1930s as Éamon de Valera sought to dismantle the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, he clearly demonstrated that the post of Governor General was an extravagant anachronism. He wished to abolish the post and share the duties with the Chief Justice. The President of the US is both head of state and head of government, so there was no reason why the duties could not be shared in this country.

But the British were insisting otherwise. The 1921 Treaty stipulated the Irish Free State would have the same status as Canada in “law, practice and Constitutional usage”, which meant that the British King would be acting here on the instructions of the Dublin government, which would nominate the person to be appointed as Governor-General.

In opposing the Treaty, de Valera contended that Ireland was so close to Britain, that the British King would use his defunct right to veto Irish legislation. Michael Collins contended that this would be a violation of the Treaty. He contended the Governor-General was not really a representation of British dominion but an essentially meaningless symbol of monarchy.

The British feared that Collins might demean the whole process by making some kind of joke nomination as Governor-General. “Collins might appoint a charwoman,” Tom Jones, the British cabinet secretary warned. “I see no great objection if she’s a good one”, Jones added, “but others may take a different view of what is fitting”.

TM Healy was the first Governor General appointed on the recommendation of the Cumann na nGaedheal government in December 1922. He had been a particularly controversial figure since the days of Charles S Parnell over thirty years earlier. At a crucial meeting of the Irish Parliamentary Party following the eruption of the controversy over Parnell’s relationship with Mrs Kitty O’Shea, Parnell asked, “Who is the master of the party?”

“Aye”, Healy infamously retorted, “but who is the mistress of the party?” At that point they almost came to blows and had to be separated. The incident prompted the young James Joyce to write the poem, “Et tu Healy.”

Many people never forgave Tim Healy over his role in the Parnell split. He served as Governor-General until January 1928. He was replaced by James McNeill, a 58-year-old brother of Eoin Mac Neill, the founder of the Irish Volunteers.

James McNeill had served on the committee that drew up the Free State Constitution in 1922. He quickly caused controversy when it was disclosed that he had refused to attend traditional ceremonies at Trinity College, because the college refused to play Amhrán na bhFiann instead of God Save the King.

When de Valera was elected President of the Executive Council in 1932, McNeill graciously went to Leinster House to save the Long Fellow the indignity of going to the Vice Regal Lodge to receive his commission from the King’s representative.

But the Fianna Fáil government subsequently boycotted McNeill anyway. Members of the government refused to attend functions attended by the Governor-General, and the Army Band was not allowed to play at those functions.

Although there was no formal announcement of this policy, it became apparent when the Irish Press reported that Ministers Seán T O’Kelly and Frank Aiken walked out of a social function at the French Legation when the Governor-General arrived.

McNeill protested over the snub, and de Valera expressed regret. It would not happen again, he promised, if McNeill informed him of his “public social engagements” in advance.

McNeill refused to accept the expression of mere regret; he demanded a formal apology. When the apology was not forthcoming, the Governor-General sent an ultimatum to de Valera, threatening to publish all his correspondence in the matter “within three days unless I receive apologies here from you and the other Ministers who have sometimes openly and sometimes otherwise sought to behave with calculated discourtesies to the Governor-General from whom you accepted confirmation of your appointments.”

de Valera instructed McNeill not to publish their confidential correspondence, but the Governor-General carried out his threat when the deadline expired. de Valera then demanded McNeill’s removal.

The British asked for details of the dispute, but the de Valera refused to explain. He simply insisted his government was acting within its rights in demanding McNeill’s dismissal. McNeill duly tendered his resignation to the King on October 3, 1932.

The post of Governor-General had been exposed as an anachronistic facade, so de Valera asked the British to do away with the office. He proposed that the Chief Justice should act in the Governor General’s place, or he would take over the duties himself, but the British argued that this would be a violation of both the Treaty and the Free State Constitution.

Pursuing the matter further would have meant violating his election promise not to exceed his party’s requested mandate. de Valera therefore nominated as Governor General Donal Ó Buachalla, a 66-year old member of Fianna Fáil who had been defeated at the last general election.

Following the confirmation of his appointment, by King George V, O Buachalla did not move into the Vice-Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park, but took up residence in the Dublin suburbs instead. His only official function was to sign acts of the legislature. The £28,000 (€32,000) that McNeill got annually in salary and expenses was dramatically slashed to £2,000, but even that was more than de Valera’s salary.

Under the 1938 Constitution, ratified by a referendum of the electorate, an elected President replaced the Governor-General. This became an important symbol of our republicanism, with a distinct significance within the British Commonwealth.

The President, who was designated as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, was accorded certain limited powers, such as the right to have the Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of any legislation before its formal enactment. The President could also refuse to dissolve the Dáil on the recommendation of a Taoiseach who had lost the confidence of the Dáil.

Leading members of Fine Gael objected to the Presidential powers. They suggested the office was being created so that de Valera could become Commander-in-Chief of the army and establish himself as a military dictator. But de Valera insisted the office would be above politics, and he seemed to confirm this by securing all party agreement on the nomination of Douglas Hyde, 78, the founder of the Gaelic League, as the first President.

It was an imaginative move. Hyde was a Protestant who had not been involved in politics. He was elected by acclamation, but suffered a massive stroke in April 1940 and was greatly incapacitated for the remaining years of his seven-year term.

IN 1945 Seán T O’Kelly, 62, the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil, was elected President in a three way contest with Seán MacEoin of Fine Gael and Dr Patrick McCartan, an independent candidate. Opponents contended that Fianna Fáil was politicising the office by putting forward O’Kelly.

McCartan campaigned against the extravagant annual salary of £23,000 being paid to the President. He said that he would only take £5,000 a year if elected. But Fianna Fáil was at the height of its popularity, having successfully kept the country out of the second world war.

Throughout the campaign — which began only hours after de Valera’s famous reply to Winston Churchill at the end of the war — the press was replete with stories of the concentration camps in Europe. In a sense it was a constant and grim reminder of what the Irish people had been spared. O’Kelly won comfortably on the second count.

As President, O’Kelly remained above politics, playing a non-political role. Everybody referred to him as “Seán T”. This was not a mark of disrespect but of genuine affection. Although a founder member of Fianna Fáil, he had close family ties with Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy, as both men were married to sisters.

When President O’Kelly indicated he would nominate himself rather than run as a Fianna Fáil for re-election in 1952, the opposition put up no candidate against him. He was re-elected by acclamation, thereby strengthening the perception of the office as being above politics.

But there was no way that Fine Gael would give Éamon de Valera a free run for the office when he decided to stand for President in 1959. It was a particularly political election, because Fianna Fáil attempted to abolish Proportional Representation (PR) by holding a constitutional referendum in conjunction with the Presidential election.

Fine Gael again put up Seán MacEoin, but unlike 1945, there was no independent candidate in 1959. All other parties were opposed to the abolition of PR, so this had the potential of consolidating opposition to de Valera. Although the amendment was duly defeated, de Valera was elected President with a clear majority with 56% of the vote.

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