State Papers1992-2002

Ireland, Éire or the Republic? Official files show debate over name of the State

Constitution gives the name of the State as Éire or in the English language, Ireland

What’s in a name? Discussion over the correct descriptor for the State resulted in correspondence 30 years ago within government seeking to clarify the matter once and for all.

The State had been known by different names starting off in 1922 with the Irish Free State, then most commonly Éire during the second World War, then Ireland afterwards, and informally the Republic of Ireland or “the Republic” following the declaration of a republic in 1948.

A collection of files from 1992, just released by the National Archives, includes a memorandum issued by the Department of the Taoiseach almost 40 years earlier on the matter. The 1953 document pointed to Article 4 of the Constitution – which gives the name of the State as Éire, or in the English language, Ireland – and said all references to the State on the international stage should use the term Ireland.

A caveat was that in reference to matters relating only to the 26 counties, for example, employment or export statistics, then the style was to use an asterisk – Ireland* – with the footnote “exclusive of the six counties”.


The memo pointed out that the term Republic of Ireland is the “description” and not the name of the State and that in no circumstances was the term Republic of Ireland to be used for the State.

The issue arose in 1990 in the case of Dessie Ellis who became the first person to be extradited from the Republic to the United Kingdom under the 1987 Extradition Act.

Mr Ellis’s solicitors appealed the original District Court order for his extradition to the Supreme Court. Though he was ultimately unsuccessful, the three-judge Supreme Court called attention to the use of the phrase “Republic of Ireland” in the arrest warrants issued by the British authorities.

The attorney general John Murray intervened and said that any warrants using that name for the State should not be acted upon. The issue was raised with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew who said the use of the term “Ireland” to mean the State, and not the whole island, was a source of dispute in Northern Ireland.

Mr Murray came up with a compromise which he said would be legally valid. All legal documents emanating from England, Scotland or Wales should use the term Ireland in the address – eg, 20 Ringsend Road, Dublin 4, Ireland – but all legal documents emanating from the North should omit the name of the State completely.

While leaving out the name of the State could be seen as problematic, Mr Murray believed it could be easily overcome at judicial level when it could be demonstrated that British (as opposed to Northern Ireland) officials were using the proper name of the State in all correspondence.

The name of the State also surfaced in a diplomatic incident in 1982 when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher used the term “Irish Free State” in Brussels, the files show. The issue was raised by the Irish ambassador to London, Edward Kennedy, with British foreign office official Patrick Eyers.

Mr Kennedy said the term was not only “archaic but also offensive”.

Mr Eyers said the use of the term Irish Free State had been a “verbal aberration” after a long day in Brussels. While Mrs Thatcher could be “very firm she was invariably courteous” and that the incident was no more than a “slip of the tongue”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times