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Republic of Ireland: 1949

After sixteen years in power de Valera finally loses an election, in 1948. A man by now of great international prestige, he uses his leisure to tour the world proclaiming the need for full Irish independence and the end of partition.

In his absence the new prime minister (or taoiseach, the Gaelic word used in Ireland) steals his thunder, at least on the first part of this programme. John Costello is the leader of Fine Gael, the party of the 1921 treaty and traditionally more inclined to good relations with Britain. But now, in 1949, he introduces the Republic of Ireland bill - severing the last consitutional connection with the United Kingdom.

The bill, which passes in the Dáil in December 1949, announces the withdrawal of the twenty-six counties from the Commonwealth and transfers to the Irish president all the functions previously performed by the British crown. To emphasize the point, the official name of the nation is no longer to be Eire. It becomes the Republic of Ireland.

A unanimous feeling of goodwill towards Ireland is evident in the response of the Commonwealth. The British government declares that Irish citizens will not be treated as foreigners in Britain, whether in border controls, employment opportunities or rights of residence. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada confirm also that the Irish will continue to have the same rights as their own citizens.

De Valera expresses warm support, regretting only that the republic does not yet extend over the entire island. In this he puts his finger on the only fly in the otherwise surprisingly creamy ointment. The constitution of the new republic still retains the explicit claim of 1937 to the six counties. The parliament in northern Ireland protests vigorously to Westminster, and the Attlee government responds with its own Ireland bill - confirming that no part of northern Ireland will ever be ceded without the consent of the parliament in Stormont.

This democratic statement causes outrage and large meetings of protest throughout southern Ireland, because of the implication that partition will be permanent.

After de Valera: from1959

De Valera wins two more terms of office as taoiseach (1951-4, 1957-9), alternating with Costello, and he follows these with two successive seven-year terms as Ireland's president. When he finally retires to a nursing home, in 1973, he has been prominent in Irish republic politics for fifty-seven years - since his dramatic part in the Easter Rising of 1916.

This son of a Spanish artist and an Irish mother, raised in a poor background in county Limerick, de Valera has been unmistakably the outstanding figure of 20th-century Irish politics. But the pattern after his departure remains much the same.

Governments continue to be formed mainly by Fianna Fáil and rather less often by Fine Gael (1973-77, 1981-87, 1994-97), each of them often with the coalition support of the Labour party.

Central issues in the republic remain the relationship with northern Ireland and the activities of the IRA, which engages spasmodically in bouts of cross-border terrorist activity against partition. The years 1956 to 1962 see the first major renewal of this activity, prompting de Valera to take stringent measures against this splinter group from his own erstwhile revolutionary party. An internment camp is opened at Curragh in 1957 to hold more than 100 arrested activists, among them the entire national executive of Sinn Fein.

Irish willingness to find a peaceful solution to this intransigent problem is seen in the 1965 meetings between prime ministers from each side of the border (Lemass and O'Neill) - and, in the final two decades of the century, in the close involvement of Irish leaders (FitzGerald, Reynolds, Ahern) in successive stages of a prolonged peace process.

In the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 it is accepted that any change in the status of northern Ireland must depend on the will of the majority (in effect the very point which caused outrage in 1949). And in a referendum held in 1998 a massive majority in the republic (94%) votes to drop the clause in the Irish constitution laying claim to the six counties.

Economically the republic makes excellent use of its membership of the European Community, which it joins at the same time as Britain in 1973. By the 1990s Ireland is enjoying a greatly increased level of prosperity and a remarkably low inflation rate.

On the social front the issues of urgency derive from the power and influence of the Roman Catholic church. On three topics of passionate concern to ordinary families - divorce, contraception, abortion - there are continuing struggles between liberal and Catholic pressure groups.

On abortion, a referendum in 1983 confirms the existing policy of absolute prohibition; nine years later another referendum relaxes the ban in certain circumstances. On the availability of contraception Catholic opposition finally crumbles in 1985. A referendum on divorce in 1985 confirms that it is not to be available in the republic; subsequently, after a referendum in 1995, the ban is lifted.

In one specific context the last years of the century confirm dramatically the changing mood of Irish society. In 1990 the nation's first female president is elected - Mary Robinson, an immensely popular and influential figure. She is followed in 1997 by another woman, a Catholic lawyer from northern Ireland, Mary McAleese.

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