Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Up the Republic

Scottish First Minister and independence champion Alex Salmond is grappling with an inverse Groucho Marx problem: he does want to be in clubs that wouldn't have him as a member. As part of his pushback yesterday against one of those clubs -- sterling -- he said the following:

For example on Thursday George Osborne peppered his speech with references to Scotland as a “foreign country”. Let me be clear. For Scots whether independent or not, the rest of the UK will never be “foreign”. Indeed the Government of Ireland Act of 1948, negotiated after infinitely more difficult circumstances than we have, specifically states that Ireland is not to be regarded as a “foreign country”.

There's just one problem.

There is no such legislation as the Government of Ireland Act 1948.

The last such titled act was 1920, and it never took effect in the 26 counties. There is an Ireland Act 1949, which has content similar to what Salmond describes,  but its context is hardly supportive of his point. From 1922, the Irish Free State had been whittling away at its UK dominion status, which required it to defer to London in matters of foreign affairs and defence along with acceptance of the British monarch as head of state and an associated status of Irish citizens as British subjects. Very little of this was left in practice by 1948 when -- in a decision attributed perhaps apocryphally to excessive consumption of alcohol at a state dinner in Canada -- the country formally declared itself a Republic.

With the fig leaf of Irish Dominion status now gone, the British government passed the above-referenced act to preserve the status of Irish people as non-foreign in the same way as other dominions (e.g. Australia), albeit no longer British subjects. The act also copperfastened Partition by making any change in status of Northern Ireland conditional on majority will in that entity, which was the de facto status anyway.

Thus Salmond's analogy is meaningless. Under the SNP proposal, the British monarch will remain the head of state. Thus there is no need to specify that citizens of a  new republic can retain their ties to Britain, as was the case for Ireland. And far from being negotiated, the 1949 act unilaterally imposed constraints on Ireland's political future, which is one of the risks of departure from the union structures.

Ireland has various lessons for Scottish independence scenarios, not all of them favourable. But a minimal requirement is that the legislative history be correctly understood.