Friday 18 April 2014

Roaring Meg - Midwife of the Republic

I don't know about you, but I think that a monarchy is a Bad Thing.  You can have a Good King but the principle is the same - I don't want to have a Head of State whose only qualification is having half his/her genes in common with the previous incumbent.  But when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by Michael Collins and his team in Dec 1921 to end the War of Independence, they found that they had created a ni l'un ni l'autre kind of a nation called Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State. This entity was still a member of the Commonwealth and still acknowledged the British monarch as Head of State.  In 1937 Éamon de Valera and his wife Sinéad sat down at the kitchen table and drafted a new constitution which embodied their fantasy of what an ideal state should be but was sufficiently in touch with reality that it dealt quite effectively with the problems and solutions that arise when several million people from different political parties and religious beliefs come together to forge a nation. One of the de Valera fantasies was that there would be a new Head of State called Uachtarán na hÉireann or the President. This chap was to replace the Governor-General who, up till then, represented the United King in Ireland. In due course the following year Douglas Hyde was elected unopposed to be the first President.  It was a neat choice - Hyde was a well respected academic, a Protestant and noted scholar and booster of the Irish language - why you could even mangle his name into that tongue - Dubhghlas de hÍde.

But they forgot to tell the Brits. While the President was to "take precedence over all other persons in the State", he was not authorised to deal with external affairs: accreditation of diplomats and the signing of treaties with other countries was still formally vested in King George VI!  de Valera continued on and on in power not dealing with the issue until in 1948, when, although his party secured by far the greatest share of the vote in a general election, he was replaced as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) by John Costello. There was a strong sense of Anyone But Dev about the country or at least among the chattering classes. Therefore Fine Gael and a clatter of smaller parties agreed to bury their differences and cobble together a coalition government.  Normally the leader of the largest party in the coalition would become Taoiseach but Richard Mulcahy has 'done things' in the Civil War that Seán MacBride the leader of Clann na Poblachta wasn't about to forgive in this lifetime.  Poor Costello, a full time barrister and part-time politician, was appalled that the other penguins had pushed him over the edge of the ice-flow into cold and unknown water - probably thick with leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx Carnivora metaphorica) ready to chew his head off.  But he rose to the occasion and was twice the leader of his country before he retired.

Later that year, Costello went on an official visit to Canada.  The Governor-General there, was an Ulsterman and soldier called Harold Alexander. Costello was offended by the fact that, at an official dinner in Ottawa, a model of an old-fashioned cannon called Roaring Meg was placed on the table in front of him.  Roaring Meg was a potent symbol in Ulster Protestant history having been part of the battery that had defended the City of (London)Derry when it was besieged (starting on the 18th April 1689, 325 years ago today!) by the forces of  Catholic King James.  At the end of the dinner, despite a prior parity-of-esteem agreement, there was a toast to The King but not to the Head of State of the visiting dignitary.  Diplomatic faux pas!  Costello was still seething the following day when, in response to a question from a journalist, he asserted that his government was committed to declaring a Republic.  Diplomatic faux pas!  When he returned home, his cabinet of curiosities rowed in behind him despite the whole machinery of government and diplomacy having been wrong footed by Costello's unscripted proclamation.  The Republic of Ireland Act went through the Irish parliament and came into force on 18th April 1949; 65 years ago today.  Of all the anniversaries (1798, 1848, 1916, 1921, 1922, 1937) of the the transition to nationhood, this is the least noticed.

Things always come in threes, as my witchie-poo friends assert.  It turns out that today is also the 73rd birthday of the present, ninth, incumbent of the post of Uachtarán na hÉireann.  Michael D Higgins is a poet, peacenik, author and broadcaster and I think he is an asset to the country at home and abroad.  But then, I'm an intellectual so I would say that. At least nobody will say of him as they did of an American President "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time".  Dau.II works in a cafe in England and is often detected in her Irish accent.  She was lashing out the lunch last week when one of the customers, perhaps a wannabe Irishman said "Isn't Yer Man having a grand time visiting the Queen?" which caught D.II a bit on the back foot because she knew that lots of people visit with QEII, it being her job.  But the light came on when he continued ". . . he's well small, in't he?".  Oh ho, of course, she thought - he's talking about Michael D.'s state visit to London.  That was the first such official visit by the Irish Head of State to the Neighbours'.  He may be small because he grew up in desperately straitened circumstances in the 1940s and 50s.  When his father fell sick, Michael D and his younger brother were shipped out of Limerick to live with an aunt and uncle on the family farm in Co Clare, his older sisters being kept in the parental home.  Michael D. is a credit to the old-style Irish educational system: he got himself educated, went to University, went to America and eventually landed a Faculty position in Politics and Sociology back home at UCG.

Though he be but little, he is fierce 
in his defense of peace with justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment