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Irish Politics - Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin's problem with names is much more than mere wordplay

In recent times articles have been written concerning the attitude of the IRA to the legitimacy of the Irish State and its institutions.  Recently elected candidates have spoken about “breaking the southern state” while others have referred to the election result as signalling a rejection of the “Free State”.

If all that were in issue was the language used by some in Northern Ireland (and some of their supporters in this State) to describe the State established by the 1937 Constitution, it would be easy, and perhaps best, to dismiss such labels as nothing worse than political idiom. 

However, the use of such language by the Provisional movement is more significant than mere idiom or slang. 

Such use is part of an ideology that denies the legitimacy of the Irish State. 

Every person who became a member of the IRA was obliged, on induction, to accept that the only legitimate body entitled to exercise the powers of the Irish Republic was the Army Council of the IRA. 

The IRA itself claimed, and still claims, that its Army Council was given the legitimate authority of the Irish Republic in a strange and slightly ridiculous transfer of power by six surviving members of the Executive of the 2nd Dáil in 1938.  These diehard rejectionists claimed that neither the Irish Free State nor the Irish State established in 1937 were legitimate.  Both states, they claimed, and still claim, were illegal usurpations of the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and declared by Dáil Éireann in 1919 to be an independent sovereign State.

This ideology famously permitted every atrocity committed by the Provisional IRA to be described as ‘non-criminal’ provided that it was authorised by the IRA’s Army Council. 

Irish sovereign powers, in a bizarre ideological theory, were claimed to reside in the Army Council on foot of the 1938 hand over.

It was never explained precisely how any surviving members of the 2nd Dáil could possibly claim to be the receptacles of Irish sovereignty or to hold the keys of the Republic some 12 or 15 years after the expiry of the electoral mandate on foot of which they claimed to act. 

The Irish Constitution provides at Article 9.2 that ‘loyalty to the State’ is a fundamental political duty of all citizens. The Constitution provides at Articles 12, 16 and 18 that membership of the Oireachtas, whether as President, TD, or Senator, is confined to citizens of the Irish State.

It follows that those who, in their capacity as citizens of Ireland, seek election to the Oireachtas do so on foot of a fundamental duty of loyalty to the Irish state and its institutions. 

Anyone who invokes Irish citizenship to represent the people of Ireland does so on condition of acceptance of his or her duty of loyalty to the Irish State. 

Historians are aware that the 1916 Proclamation included an entirely new word ‘Poblacht’ to denote the term republic in Irish.

In February 1919, however, Dáil Éireann, composed of the victors of the 1918 General Election, ratified the 1916 Republic and declared its independence in a solemn declaration of independence promulgated in three languages, Irish, English and French.

In the Irish version of the Declaration of Independence, the Sinn Féin members of Dáil Éireann chose to describe the Irish Republic as ‘Saorstát Éireann’.

And when a majority in Dáil Éireann in 1921 voted to ratify the Treaty, the name of the independent Irish State (albeit a State within the Commonwealth having the same status as Canada) as Saorstát Éireann.

Collins, one of the architects of the Treaty, recognised that the freedom of Saor Stát Éireann was not the perfect freedom for which the Dáil and its army had fought, but amounted to ‘the freedom to achieve a perfect freedom’.

The Constitution drafted by Collins was as republican as he could make it within those parameters.  Saorstát Éireann had its own written constitution which asserted popular sovereignty and the Irish State thereby created had the tricolour as its flag, the power to conduct its own international relations and to maintain its own defence forces and to exercise full powers of government.

The 1937 Constitution followed De Valera’s transformation of the Free State constitution by removing the Oath and the office of Governor General. 

The terms of the Good Friday Agreement approved by the Irish people in separate referendums North and South, accept the existence of two jurisdictions on the island and assert that the right of the Irish nation to choose its own form of government and to bring about a united Ireland can be ‘brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of the majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island’.

Because Ireland is, and is declared by Article 5 of the Constitution to be a ‘sovereign, independent, democratic State’, it necessarily follows that its citizens, who owe it a fundamental duty of loyalty, must accept its legitimacy and cannot describe it merely as “a southern state” or the “Free State”.

Members of Dáil Éireann cannot have it both ways in respect of loyalty to the State.  Election to Dáil Éireann necessarily entails a rejection of the notion or claim that the Army Council was, or is, the legitimate successor to the organs of the Irish Republic.

Clarity that such a rejection is now part of Sinn Féin’s claim to be part of the government of Ireland would be a small step towards determining where their loyalties as citizens  and would-be ministers really lie.


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