Sunday 20 January 2019

Commemoration of 'Republic Day'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA


The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has set out the Government's intention to bring the State's commemorative programme to a close in what he calls "an upbeat and optimistic note" by celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland coming into effect in 2024. In that regard he has charged the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations to handle what has the potential to be a sensitive event. However, this group has, to date, managed with great sensitivity, not to mention a certain elan, recent commemorations, not least the 1916 commemoration, and there is every reason to believe that this will continue up to and during the anniversary of the Republic, what Mr Varadkar with his penchant for the marketing of an event has described as "Republic Day".

There is a popular myth that the then Taoiseach, John A Costello, while in Canada in 1948, got drunk at a dinner and announced that Ireland was to leave the British Commonwealth. A variation on that story is that he took offence at the placement of a large siege canon replica on the dinner table while dining in the Governor General's residence and declared a Republic in a fit of pique. Undoubtedly, he was upset at his host's reneging on an arrangement to toast the President of Ireland. In reality, however, the events leading up to the announcement are more complicated, not to mention a little haphazard, involving newspaper headlines - notably in the Sunday Independent - behind the scenes threats and megaphone diplomacy. In the end, the Republic was born, in retaliation to which, the British government, without consultation, introduced the 'Ireland Bill' which contained a guarantee to unionists on partition of the island.

In some ways, it is tempting to suggest that a parallel to these events is being played out at the moment following the UK's decision to leave the European Union, similar in a fashion to Ireland's, or as it was then called, Eire's decision to leave the Commonwealth. It is for historians to parse and analyse such comparisons, if they exist at all. However, there is little doubt that there may be sensitivities at play at a time of heightened tensions between Ireland and the UK.

Mr Varadkar has also said that it will be important to talk to the leaders of the other political parties, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Labour, as well as the Independent Alliance and the other groupings and independents, to try and secure cross-party support for 'Republic Day'. That is also the correct course of action. However, it is important that these parties, and in particular Sinn Fein under the new leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, engage in this process in honourable fashion, and not to stage events designed to undermine those which the Expert Advisory Group will outline in due course.

That said, neither would it do for the State itself, nor either of the main parties, to seek to take advantage of the event, or indeed to present a commemoration at odds with a nation unrecognisable by the community of people who live here now. If recent successful commemorations are anything to go by, however, we can expect that not to be the case. As obvious as it may seem, Ireland is clearly a very different place now than that of April 18, 1949. In large part, a successful and modern Republic has been built, and that is a credit to all of those leaders who have gone before. The commemoration of the Republic is still six years away. To what further extent, for what good and for the good of whom, will the country have changed by then?

Sunday Independent

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