No. 617 NAI DFA 5/3
Dublin, 11 December 1931
A Saorstát Achievement
The Statute of Westminster
The Statute of Westminster has received the King's assent. A new epoch has begun in the relations between Great Britain and the other States of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Since the British Parliament renounced its right to legislate for the new United States of America nothing of equal importance has been done by that Assembly and if the event has passed almost without serious adverse comment the reason must be sought in the fundamental change which has taken place in the outlook of the British people during the past ten years.
Leaders of opinion in England have come to realize that the continuance of friendly co-operation amongst the Members of the Commonwealth group has no other solid basis than that precise degree of freedom which each Member wishes to have for itself. The Statute of Westminster tells in very few lines the exact position of each one of the States of the Commonwealth in so far as the powers of legislation by the British Parliament are concerned. The Irish Free State was established by the Treaty and according to the official Irish view our legal position was co-extensive with the constitutional position of the most advanced Dominion and no residue of legal control remained in the British Parliament. Nevertheless, as that view was disputed by British jurists it was wiser for the Irish Free State to place itself in the general position of the other States of the Commonwealth for the purpose of securing from the British Parliament a formal renunciation of the powers which it claimed. The renunciation would clear away all doubt from the minds of jurists within and without the Commonwealth and would leave the international position of the Saorstát free from all shadow of ambiguity. From the time that the Saorstát Government found themselves free to devote themselves to the task of getting all possible advantages out of the Treaty position they have worked unceasingly to secure the act of renunciation from the British Parliament. And it must be said that while very valuable help was received from Canada and South Africa the brunt of the task was admittedly borne by our Government.
What is the significance of the Statute of Westminster in relation to the Irish Free State?
It is a solemn declaration by the British people through their representatives in Parliament that the powers inherent in the Treaty position are what we have proclaimed them to be for the last ten years. It declares, in effect, that the Saorstát has powers to make whatsoever laws it desires, whether these laws purport to have internal or extra-territorial operation, whether they are repugnant or not to the law of England, whether they repeal old laws or enact new ones. In a word, it declares that the powers of the Saorstát Parliament are equal in all respects to those of the English Parliament. The Act of Renunciation in our regard is complete and absolute. Our relations henceforth in the British as well as in the Irish view are based on the Treaty and on the Treaty alone. No legal restraint whatsoever derived from the British Parliament has anything to do with our future relationship with Great Britain. The Churchill amendment which was defeated with the powerful aid of the President's letter would have made the observance of the Treaty a matter of British law. As the President said in his Rathluirc [Charleville] speech, it would have changed the Treaty from being a pledge of freedom to being a badge of inferiority, because it would have been equivalent to a solemn declaration that the powers of our Parliament derived and would continue to derive from a British Statute. While the acceptance of the amendment would not have shaken the Irish view of the Treaty, it would, nevertheless, have constituted such a challenge to our whole external and constitutional position that extreme measures would have had to be taken to reassert the true position.
Some of the States of the Commonwealth insisted that the British Parliament should retain the right to legislate for them if requested to do so. The Statute accordingly provides for the extension of an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament to any such State, but no Act can so extend 'unless it is expressly declared in that Act that that Dominion has requested, and consented to the enactment thereof'. The proviso makes the renunciation absolute in the case of those members of the Commonwealth who wish to regard it as such.
Canada, Australia and New Zealand have voluntarily asked the British Parliament to make reservations in their regard. It is quite clear that these reservations will disappear the moment these States express the desire, but at the present moment the Irish Free State and South Africa are the only two States of the Commonwealth, besides Great Britain, whose Parliaments can exercise an undisputed plenitude of powers. Their juridical equality with Great Britain is complete. In certain important respects however the Irish Free State is in advance of South Africa and both in constitutional and international attributes she is the first of the Commonwealth States to have attained a position of equality with Great Britain.
This result is due to the zeal and energy with which the Saorstát Government have pursued their purpose of utilising and developing all the powers implied in the Treaty.
The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.
The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
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