Speech of Dermot Ahern TD Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Launch of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume IV Iveagh House 9th November 2004 Part I
President of the Royal Irish Academy
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am delighted to welcome you here to Iveagh House this evening for the launch of the fourth volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, covering the period from 1932 – 1936.
I wish to acknowledge at the outset the huge efforts and meticulous research which went into its production.
In particular, I want to congratulate the editors, Michael Kennedy, Ronan Fanning, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O’Halpin and Catriona Crowe.
I also want to thank the National Archives and the Royal Irish Academy for their outstanding role, in the production of this work.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This publication includes a wide range of material.
The primary focus is the complex re-shaping of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, under Fianna Fáil in Government from 1932 to 1936.
As a politician, rather than a historian, I will confine myself to observing that these documents provide a fascinating insight into the political project undertaken by de Valera in this period.
The accession of Fianna Fáíl to Government in 1932 was a truly seismic event.
And these papers, beginning in the first days of de Valera’s new Government, underline the scrupulous neutrality of the Civil Service throughout the period of change, and in the subsequent implementation of de Valera’s programme.
Historians today – at the cold remove of seven decades - stress the continuity between de Valera’s Programme and that of the preceding Cumann na nGaedhal Government.
But that generation, barely nine years from civil war, did not operate at such a remove.
It is a tribute to the public service of the day – and to both Cosgrave and de Valera – that the transition occurred without violent disruption. Nonetheless, there were substantial differences between the new Government and the old.
Essentially, what separated Fianna Fáil from Cumann na nGaedhal, in terms of its dealings with Britain, was Fianna Fáil’s refusal to be bound by the limitations set down by the Treaty.
This change of policy is most clearly indicated in de Valera’s dispatch to the Colonial Secretary J.H. Thomas on the 5th of April 1932: ”Whether or not the Oath was, or was not ‘an integral part of the Treaty made ten years ago’ is not now the issue. The real issue is that the Oath is an intolerable burden to the people of this State and that they have declared in the most formal manner that they desire its instant removal.”
These papers show that within days officials in this Department had gone beyond the limitations of the Treaty.
They immediately moved on the implementation of de Valera’s radical programme to deliver the substance of sovereignty.
These documents provide ample evidence of the trust and latitude allowed to officials in carrying out policy, which was strategically controlled by de Valera.
They also indicate the enthusiastic response of officials to their new-found latitude.
Over the next five years de Valera legislated for the abolition of the oath.
He withheld land annuity payments.
And he began the process of drafting a new constitution and – leaving Northern Ireland to one side – of removing the remaining vestiges of the crown from Irish affairs.
This was an exceptional achievement on the part of Eamon de Valera and is one of his lasting legacies.
Indeed, in an article in this week’s Sunday Independent, Professor Ronan Fanning advances the view that, without Eamon de Valera, ‘we might never have achieved independence and we would certainly not have achieved it before the Second World War, the only international crisis that has so far threatened to engulf us.’
By 1936, de Valera had effected what the editors aptly describe as a “continuous and comprehensive redefinition of British-Irish relations”.
One of the striking features of these documents is the continuing validity of many of the observations contained in them.
One diplomat is recorded as suggesting to a British colleague in 1933, in language echoed today by that of the Good Friday Agreement, that ‘we must devise a new basis of relationship which assumes from the beginning a fundamental co-equality of rights.”
While the Anglo-Irish Agreements of 1938 were still two years away, much of the “vast complexity of envy and prejudice”, as one diplomat put it, between Ireland and Britain, had been addressed by the end of 1936.
The evolution of the legislation that would become known as the External Relations Act of December 1936 is revealed in this volume.
This meant that by the end of 1936, the key to a truly independent foreign policy was within our hands.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Although relations between Ireland and Britain were the most important aspect of Irish Foreign Policy in the 1930’s, our relationship with our nearest neighbour was not the sole concern of politicians or diplomats.
The outward looking approach which has marked our policy from its earliest days was also clearly evident in this period at the League of Nations.
Ireland was, then as now, a firm advocate of the multilateral approach to international affairs.
This was enhanced by our early joining of the League in 1923, immediately after achieving independence.
Today, it is evident in our commitment to the UN and our membership of the European Union.
During the 1930’s, the efforts of earlier years bore fruit as Ireland enjoyed a period of unparalleled involvement on the wider international stage.
Ireland was a member of the League Council from 1930-33, and president of the Council in 1932. This position consolidated our international profile and earned international respect.
When Eamon de Valera addressed the League Assembly as its President in 1932, he dispensed with the text provided by the League Secretariat in order to warn that the League had to maintain the letter of its covenant in order to be effective.
This constructive contribution, the text of which is included in the volume, was well-received at the Assembly and enhanced de Valera’s and Ireland’s international reputation.
Ireland’s international prestige was also increased by Seán Lester’s service as the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig and as mediator in many international disputes. Lester’s distinguished career continued with his term of office as the last Secretary General of the League.
On the economic front, the Department and the Government were also active and outward-looking.
The imposition of tariffs on Irish exports to Britain, following the retention of the annuity payments, led Irish officials to seek alternative international markets for the country’s exports.
The Bilateral Economic Relations Division of the Department is engaged in similar efforts today, although in a vastly changed, more globalised world.