'In Ottawa of all places...' the Sunday Independent scoop that shaped history
Journalism giant Hector Legge's story would become the greatest scoop of his long career, writes Brian Murphy
The Sunday Independent headline caused a sensation in Ireland and it reverberated around the world. It was arguably the biggest international news story to come out of Ireland since Eamon de Valera had extended condolences to the German diplomatic representative in Dublin upon the death of Hitler. The byline on the story that appeared on the front page of the Sunday Independent on September 5, 1948 read "By Our Political Correspondent" - but the undisputed author was Hector Legge.
Legge was a giant of Irish journalism. He had become editor of the Sunday Independent in August 1940, a few months prior to his 40th birthday. It was a position that he would thrive in for three decades. In the post-war period, he would transform the Sunday Independent into the nation's largest circulation newspaper. His style of journalism was crusading and campaigning. For the story that would become the greatest scoop of his long career, Legge chose a simple but dramatic banner headline - EXTERNAL RELATIONS ACT TO GO. Legge's headline deliberately left no room for a question mark and this increased the pressure on the Government to confirm the substance of the story.
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The External Relations Act was legislation rushed through the Oireachtas by Eamon de Valera in December 1936 to take advantage of the abdication crisis in Britain, which occurred when Edward VIII vacated the throne to marry an American divorcee. The King's abdication provided de Valera with what his authorised biographers described as an "unrivalled opportunity" to remove all references to the British Crown from the Irish Free State Constitution, a position that remained intact when de Valera introduced a new constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, the following year.
The External Relations Act downgraded the British monarch's position in Ireland to merely that of "a statutory agent" authorised to act solely in matters regarding the appointment of diplomatic and consular representatives on the advice of the Irish Government. The complexities and ambiguities tied up in this arrangement were deliberately so.
The External Relations Act allowed de Valera to signal to his republican base Fianna Fail's success in diluting the influence of British imperialism on Ireland's constitutional order. At the same time, the Act did not completely sever bonds with the Crown. Thus, de Valera could cryptically remark of the British Commonwealth that Ireland was "in it" but was not "of it". De Valera's acquiescence in maintaining a tenuous link with the Commonwealth was motivated by partition. The leader of Fianna Fail: The Republican Party was not prepared to unilaterally declare an Irish republic or wholly exit the British Commonwealth because, in de Valera's own words, he wanted to leave "a bridge" for the future, "in the hope that by it, it would be possible to bring about the unity of our country, [and] that we were going to meet the sentiment of the [Unionist] minority" on the island.
De Valera's political opponents in the Dail believed that the ambiguities of the External Relations Act undermined the status of the State. When Fianna Fail was surprisingly removed from office after the General Election in February 1948, the new Inter-Party Government contained a number of prominent figures who had made a parliamentary sport out of berating de Valera for the External Relations Act over many years.
As an opposition TD in June 1946, Patrick McGilligan, the Minister for Finance in the Inter-Party Government, had referred to the External Relations Act as a "living lie". In the same debate, the Labour leader Bill Norton described the workings of the External Relations Act as an "anachronism," while the Independent TD James Dillon said it was "a disgusting, fraudulent, dishonest attempt to blind our people". The change of Government in 1948 brought these vehement critics of the External Relations Act to the cabinet table, but it was in no way inevitable that the External Relations Act would actually go.
The Inter-Party Government agreed on very little ideologically or policy wise, except that they were anti-de Valera. The biggest component of the coalition, Fine Gael, had traditionally been labelled the Commonwealth Party in Irish politics. Indeed, the former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald wrote in his memoir about canvassing as a young man in the 1948 General Election on the basis that Fine Gael supported Commonwealth membership and he remembered "reassuring the inhabitants of Waterloo Road" on this point. In contrast, Clann na Poblachta's 1948 campaign had included a pledge to abolish the External Relations Act. The appointment of its party leader, Sean MacBride, a former IRA Chief of Staff, as Minister for External Affairs was to give momentum to Ireland's departure from the Commonwealth.
Clann na Poblachta saw itself as being in direct competition with Fianna Fail for mainstream republican votes. The publicity generated in Ireland in the summer of 1948 by an anti-partition world tour led by Eamon de Valera, in the aftermath of Fianna Fail losing its first general election in 16 years, may have given MacBride further incentive to begin the process of dismantling the External Relations Act. In July 1948, at MacBride's behest and with the consent of President Sean T O'Kelly, the procedures of the External Relations Act were deliberately bypassed during the course of the appointment of the Argentine Minister to Ireland, Jose Bessone, with his letter of diplomatic credence being addressed to the President of Ireland and not to King George VI.
Not surprisingly, diplomatic manoeuvrings surrounding the appointment of a representative of the Government of Argentina to Dublin hardly captured public attention. The Sunday Independent revelation in early September 1948 that the External Relations Act was to be repealed, thus, emerged as a bolt from the blue, especially as the Taoiseach, John A Costello, was abroad. Noel Browne, the Minister for Health, subsequently claimed that there had been no formal cabinet discussions on this matter prior to the Sunday Independent story, but this was hotly disputed by other Ministers in that administration.
Official cabinet records from this period are sketchy as Maurice Moynihan, the Secretary to the Government, was often excluded from cabinet meetings, as Sean MacBride did not trust him, arising from Moynihan's long-standing, prior working relationship with de Valera. The available evidence suggests that before Costello left for Canada, the cabinet had agreed, at least informally, to repeal the External Relations Act, but there was no question of any such announcement being made abroad.
The Sunday Independent story forced the Taoiseach's hand. Two days after it, in reply to a query at an Ottawa press conference, Costello confirmed that it was his Government's intention to "ditch" the External Relations Act.
That Costello had been bounced into this pronouncement by Legge's exclusive was clear from an explanatory letter he wrote to Norton, his Tanaiste, in which he referred to "Ottawa of all places". In the same letter, Costello noted: "It was really the article in the Sunday Independent that decided me."
The Taoiseach's Canadian confirmation that Ireland would depart the Commonwealth created shockwaves at home because, at the time, it appeared as if a major national decision had been taken in a haphazard manner thousands of miles away. As a result, President O'Kelly remonstrated with Costello privately (though he later indiscreetly shared accounts of this conversation with a number of foreign diplomats) that "whatever the merits of the decision might be, Canada was the wrong place to make the announcement".
Though Legge claimed that his story was the result of his own political intuition, Costello suspected a deliberate cabinet leak. The historian Eithne MacDermott has recorded that Costello maintained that "an article penned with such 'apparent authority' could not have been written on the basis of 'intelligent anticipation'," as the Sunday Independent editor had claimed.
Legge had a wide range of political contacts, but a livid Costello blamed James Dillon for the leak, given the latter's personal friendship with the Sunday Independent editor. In 1999, Louie O'Brien, Sean MacBride's secretary, confirmed that her boss was the source of the information. Taking advantage of the Taoiseach's absence, MacBride's strategic leak was designed to ensure that the Government would not backtrack on the decision to repeal the External Relations Act and that progress would be fast-tracked.
Costello gave a number of varying accounts for his decision to declare the Republic in the incongruous setting of Canada.
On his return home, he complained to a disapproving President O'Kelly that his decision had been influenced by Canadian slights. Costello felt that Lord Alexander of Tunis and Errigal, the Canadian Governor-General, had "cold-shouldered" him and the wife throughout their visit. Alexander came from a staunch Unionist family from Caledon, Co Tyrone.
Before attending a formal dinner hosted in his honour by Lord Alexander on September 4, Costello checked with John Hearne, the Irish High Commissioner in Ottawa, that the toast to the President of Ireland would be proposed in reply to the royal toast. The only toast made was "the King". Costello told O'Kelly that "this upset me".
Costello also told O'Kelly that he was upset that in a "very pointed way" a silver ornamental replica of Roaring Meg, the cannon used in 1689 against the forces of King James in the siege of Derry and a symbol of Unionist strength, was the chief table decoration. He told the President that he viewed this as a reminder of "the guns used against our people". Costello told O'Kelly that "there seemed to me to be no proper appreciation of our status. I was getting sore about things... I made the decision to cut through all this and I made the statement which brought on the repeal of the External Relations Act."
Nearly 20 years later, in an interview with The Irish Times, Costello denied that what he termed as the "ill-befitting behaviour" of his Canadian hosts had any influence on his action. Both he and his key adviser, Patrick Lynch, maintained the line in retirement that the reason for the Taoiseach's announcement was an anxiety to ensure the Government would not be seen to be reacting to a pending private members' motion from an Independent TD and had nothing to do with "real or imaginary Canadian affronts".
However, in a personal memorandum, Costello admitted that the Sunday Independent story was decisive. He wrote that after hearing of the headline, he was faced with a number of choices: "(1) to say no comment; (2) to deny the truth of the report; (3) to admit its accuracy; (4) to say the matter would be dealt with on the re-assembly of the Dail". Having deliberated on his options for two days, Costello decided it would not be proper to deny the report in his Ottawa press conference. Prior to this press conference, MacBride spoke to the Taoiseach on the telephone, encouraging him to confirm the story, which Costello ultimately did.
The Republic of Ireland Act, which gave legal basis to the new Republic, came into effect on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949. Fianna Fail believed that the Fine Gael-led Government's conversion to republicanism was motivated solely by a desire to steal their clothes. De Valera declined an invitation extended to him by Costello to attend the official ceremonies to mark the State's new status on the basis that the new Republic was not an all-Ireland entity. De Valera wrote: "Celebrations such as those now proposed ought to be reserved until the national task which we have set ourselves is accomplished. We still believe that public demonstrations and rejoicings are out of place and are likely to be misunderstood so long as that task remains uncompleted and our country partitioned."
Despite Fianna Fail's refusal to participate, on Easter Sunday 1949, the Sunday Independent previewed a day of ceremony that would encompass "nationwide rejoicing, with all the pomp and pageantry the country can muster", but the celebratory atmosphere did not last long.
On May 3, 1949, Prime Minister Clement Attlee introduced the Ireland Bill in the House of Commons, which included a strong guarantee of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. As John A Murphy has pointed out, this was seen in Ireland as "slamming the door on Irish unity and the reaction was a great deal of sound and fury". Fianna Fail was not slow to attribute blame to Costello and Lemass claimed that what had been lacking was the "wise leadership of de Valera". John A Costello said his decision to declare a republic would take the gun out of Irish politics, but it is hard to disagree with the assessment of his biographer, Dr David McCullagh, that his "actions had arguably helped plant the seeds for the [IRA] Border Campaign of the 1950s."
Dr Brian Murphy lectures in History at Technological University Dublin