Irish head of state from 1936 to 1949

Irish head of state from 1936 to 1949

During the period of 1936 to 1949 it was unclear whether or not the Irish state was a republic or a form of constitutional monarchy and (from 1937) whether its head of state was the President of Ireland or the King of Ireland, George VI. The exact constitutional status of the state during this period has been a matter of scholarly and political dispute.


The state known today as Ireland was founded in 1922 as the Irish Free State. The Free State was governed, until at least 1936, under a form of constitutional monarchy; the King had a number of important duties, including exercising the executive authority of the state, appointing the cabinet and promulgating the law. However, in 1936, the Free State constitution was amended to remove all of the functions performed by the King except one, that of representing the state abroad. The outcome of the constitutional change made in 1936 was that, while he was mentioned nowhere explicitly in the constitution, Irish ministers continued to sign international treaties in the King of Ireland's name, and the King continued to accredit Irish ambassadors, and receive the letters of credence of foreign diplomats.

In 1937 a new constitution was adopted which renamed the state to simply 'Ireland' and entrenched the monarch's diminished role, transferring many of the functions performed by the King until 1936 to a new office of President of Ireland. However the 1937 constitution did not explicitly declare that the state was a republic, or that the president was head of state, and it allowed the King to retain his role in foreign affairs. The state's ambiguous status ended in 1949, when the Republic of Ireland Act stripped the King of his role in foreign affairs and declared that the state was a republic.

The status of the Head of the Irish State from 1936 to 1949 was largely a matter of symbolism and had little practical significance. This was because the roles of both the King and the President of Ireland were merely ceremonial, being exercisable only "on the advice" of the Government (cabinet). However one practical implication of declaring a republic in 1949 was that it automatically terminated the state's membership of the British Commonwealth, in accordance with the rules in operation at the time.

Constitutional and legal changes of 1936

As founded in 1922, the Irish Free State was headed by the monarch but most of his functions were performed on his behalf by the Governor-General. An amendment made to the Free State constitution in 1936 changed all this. The Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act abolished the post of Governor-General in constitutional law and transferred most of the King's functions to other organs of government. Thus, for example, the executive power was transferred directly to the Executive Council, the right to appoint the President of the Executive Council (head of government) was explicitly vested in Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), and the power to promulgate legislation was transferred to the Ceann Comhairle (chairman) of the Dáil. However the constitutional amendment also provided, without mentioning the monarch specifically, that he might continue to represent the state abroad:

Quotation1 shall be lawful for the Executive Council, to the extent and subject to any conditions which may be determined by law to avail, for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular agents and the conclusion of international agreements of any organ used as a constitutional organ for the like purposes by any of the nations referred to in Article 1 of this Constitution.

The nations referred to in Article 1 were the other members of the then British Commonwealth, who at that time all shared the British monarch as head of state. The External Relations Act, adopted shortly after the constitutional amendment, gave life to this provision by providing that:

Quotation1 long as [the Irish Free State] is associated with the following nations, that is to say, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa, and so long as the king recognised by those nations as the symbol of their co-operation continues to act on behalf of each of those nations (on the advice of the several Governments thereof) for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements, the king so recognised may ..act on behalf of [the Irish Free State] for the like purposes as and when advised by the Executive Council so to do.

Constitution of 1937

The Constitution of Ireland, adopted in 1937, filled the gap left by the abolition of the King's Governor-General by creating the post of a directly elected president. The President of Ireland was hence-forth responsible for the ceremonial functions of dissolving the legislature, appointing the Government and promulgating the law. The role of exercising executive authority, often vested in a head of state, was instead granted to the Government. The constitution also, like the 1922 constitution that preceded it, contained many provisions typical of those found in republican constitutions, stating, for example, that sovereignty resided in the people, and prohibiting the granting of titles of nobility.

Nonetheless the government of Éamon de Valera, which drafted and introduced the constitution consciously chose not to declare a republic, and decided to name the state simply 'Ireland' or 'Éire', rather than the 'Republic of Ireland' or the 'Irish Republic'.

Thus the new constitution did not explicitly declare that the president would be head of state, providing, merely, that he would "take precedence over all other persons in the State". Nor did the new document mention the word 'republic'. Most crucially, Article 28 or the new constitution mirrored Article 51 of its predecessor, by permitting the state to allow its external relations to the be exercised by the King. Article 28.2 provided that:

"For the purpose of the exercise of any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations, the Government may to such extent and subject to such conditions, if any, as may be determined by law, avail of or adopt any organ, instrument, or method of procedure used or adopted for the like purpose by the members of any group or league of nations with which the State is or becomes associated for the purpose of international co-operation in matters of common concern."

This provision meant that the External Relations Act continued to have the force of law until the legislature decided otherwise, and so the King of Ireland, as head of the Commonwealth, continued to represent the state abroad.


Until the Republic of Ireland Act came into force in April 1949, the President of Ireland had no international role, and so never set foot outside the state. Nonetheless from 1936 until 1949 the role of the King in the Irish state was invisible to most Irish people. The monarch never visited the state during that period and, due to the abolition of the office of Governor-General, had no official representative there. The president, on the other hand, played a key role in important public ceremonies. Due to his role in foreign relations, however, almost every state with which the state had diplomatic relations concluded that it was the King of Ireland who was head of state.

Asked to explain the status of state in 1945, de Valera insisted that it was republic. He told the Dáil that:

:The State ..demonstrably a republic. Let us look up any standard text on political theory ..and judge whether our State does not possess every characteristic mark by which a republic can be distinguished or recognised. We are a democracy with the ultimate sovereign power resting with the people—a representative democracy with the various organs of State functioning under a written Constitution, with the executive authority controlled by Parliament, with an independent judiciary functioning under the Constitution and the law, and with a Head of State directly elected by the people for a definite term of office.

Referring to the External Relations Act he insisted that:Quotation1
:We are an independent republic, associated as a matter of our external policy with the States of the British Commonwealth.

Despite de Valera's views many political scholars consider representing a nation abroad to be the key defining role of a head of state. This view was echoed by the Taoiseach John A. Costello in a debate in Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate) in December 1948, when he argued that the Republic of Ireland Bill he was introducing would make the Irish head of state the man who "ought to have been", but wasn't, the President of Ireland. In the event de Valera's party, as the main opposition in the Dáil at the time, decided not to oppose Costello's bill.

Republic of Ireland Act

The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948, which came into force on 18 April 1949, was remarkable in that it purported to reform the state into a republic without making any change to the constitution, the ambiguous provisions of which remained unaltered. The Republic of Ireland Act contained three major provisions; it declared that:

*The External Relations Act was repealed.
*The state was a republic.
*The external relations of the state would henceforth be exercised by the president.

The act also had the effect of automatically terminating the state's membership of the Commonwealth. The fact that he was now clearly and unambiguously the Irish head of state was celebrated by President Seán T. O'Kelly by visits to the Holy See and France. A visit to meet George VI in Buckingham Palace was also provisionally planned, but timetabling problems with the president's schedule prevented the meeting.

In 1952 the title, within the United Kingdom, of the monarch was changed from " [Queen] of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas..." to " [Queen] of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories...". Thus the title of "King" or "Queen of Ireland" was completely abolished.

ee also

*Politics of the Republic of Ireland
*History of the Republic of Ireland

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