In 1936, a constitutional crisis in the British Empire arose when King Edward VIII proposed to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who was divorced from her first husband and was pursuing a divorce of her second.
Police detectives following Simpson reported back that, while involved with Edward, she was also involved with a married car mechanic and salesman named Guy Trundle. This may well have been passed on to senior figures in the establishment, including members of the royal family. Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador, described her as a ‘tart’, and his wife, Rose, refused to dine with her.
The decision of King Edward VIII to marry the American divorcée, Wallis Simpson, caused a constitutional crisis for the British government and for the Commonwealth. He remains the only British monarch to have voluntarily renounced the throne since the Anglo-Saxon period.
The political and social convulsions which gripped the United Kingdom over the proposed marriage presented the Irish Free State with an opportunity to pursue their political agenda of continuing to dismantle the Anglo–Irish Treaty and removing the Crown from internal Irish politics.
In a letter to De Valera in December of 1936 the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph P. Walshe, wrote, ‘Just as the British have used political divisions here for their political advantage we are entitled and are bound to turn their present difficulty to our own account.’
Walshe summed up the difficulty the Statute presented the British government in dealing with the abdication by writing that, ‘in order to carry out its policy the British Cabinet must secure the assent of the Dominions, and possibly even their subsequent co-operation in legislative action.
––The Statute of Westminster of 1931 meant that each dominion had to approve the accession of a new monarch.
On the 6th of December, De Valera sent the following message to Edward VIII:
‘I have been informed that Your Majesty has under consideration the question of your voluntary abdication within the next few days. I should be glad to learn directly from Your Majesty for the information of my Government what Your Majesty’s intentions are in this matter since this step could not be effected, in so far as the Irish Free State is concerned, without the authority of the Parliament of the Irish Free State. I beg to advise Your Majesty accordingly.’
One of the reasons the Irish government was looking for a delay in the speed with which events were unfolding was that De Valera’s new constitution, that he intended to put before the people, was unfinished. Since assuming power in 1932, Fianna Fáil had begun to dismantle the Free State Constitution and remove, through legislation, contentious issues such as the Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and the role of Governor General.
On the 10th of December the abdication took place and the House of Commons met to discuss the necessary legislation. The view from Britain, and supported by Walshe, was that if there were an interval between the Commonwealth legislators and the Dáil in passing legislation affecting the Act of Settlement, that during that interval the Free State could be regarded as a completely separate monarchy with a different head of state to the rest of the Commonwealth.
Dáil Éireann was summoned on the 11th of December to deal with the issue. De Valera introduced legislation to give effect to the abdication, as far as the Saorstát was concerned; to delete from the Constitution all mention of the King and of the Representative of the Crown, whether under that title or under the title of Governor General; and to make provision by ordinary law for the exercise by the King of certain functions in external matters as and when so advised by the Irish cabinet.
The legislation was introduced as Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Bill, 1936 and Executive Authority (External Relations) Bill, 1936.
At one sweep and largely as a result of events outside of Ireland, the removal of the British monarchy from internal southern Irish politics, the goal of Irish republicans for many decades, had been achieved. Ninety-four years later, the Irish Free State’s political agenda of ‘continuing to dismantle the Anglo–Irish Treaty’ and ‘removing the Crown from internal Irish politics’ has still left the six counties as a constituent unit of the United Kingdom.