Remarks by Micheál Martin T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the launch of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume VI
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to welcome you to Iveagh House this evening to mark the launch of Volume VI of the series of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy.
This Volume covers the period from September 1939 to January 1941 - seventeen critical months from the outbreak of World War II, which constitute a vital period in the evolution of Irish neutrality.
After more than ten years of partnership on this project, I would like to thank the Royal Irish Academy and the National Archives for their collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs in the production of this series. May I take this opportunity to congratulate Professor Nicholas Canny on his recent appointment as President of the Royal Irish Academy.
I believe we have almost all the editorial team here this evening: Paddy Buckley, Catriona Crowe, Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh, and Eunan O’Halpin. I want to thank and congratulate each of you for your ongoing support for, and personal commitment, to this valuable project.
In particular, I want to thank Michael Kennedy, the Executive Editor, and the Assistant Editor, Kate O’Malley, for the high quality of this publication.
The documents assembled in this Volume shed a fascinating light on this critical period in our nation’s history: on the evolution of our policy of neutrality; on our relations with the main belligerents and, at a more human level, on the enormous personal challenges facing Irish diplomats working throughout wartime Europe.
As the world went to war in 1939, our young State entered a period of great peril and uncertainty. At a time when small nations faced threats to their very existence, our political leaders and the institutions of State sought to chart a safe course for our people through Europe’s darkest days.
Under the active and wise stewardship of the then Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs, Éamon de Valera, the Department of External Affairs and its diplomatic missions abroad were tasked with no less a challenge than helping prevent invasion, preserving neutrality and maintaining independence.
Reading through the papers, almost seventy years since they were written, I was struck by the clarity of thought and expression demonstrated by people working under the most difficult of circumstances. They certainly set a high standard for today’s diplomats. With scarce resources, and writing at times of great urgency and stress, these diplomats produced documents of considerable depth and perception.
It may not have been foremost in their minds at the time, but these officials have left an invaluable treasure trove for today’s historians. As a former history student myself, I sometimes wonder if the modern proliferation of e-mail communication will, paradoxically, deprive future historians of the sort of rich tapestry evident in this volume.
In preparing this volume, the editors have had to overcome the challenge presented by Mr de Valera’s undoubtedly reluctant decision to have a considerable number of records destroyed. On 25 May 1940, as the fall of France unfolded, the Taoiseach feared a similar fate could soon befall Ireland and ordered the destruction of a wide range of Departmental files which he deemed too sensitive to come into the possession of the Germans. Some, but by no means all, of the reports lost have been recovered from Mission copies or chance survivals in other files. The Editors have made great efforts to bridge the gaps, using material from other sources, such as the British Archives, in order to present a timeline of events in a coherent fashion.
The seventeen month period covered by this volume witnessed a critical test of Ireland’s neutrality. As multilateralism in the form of the League of Nations collapsed and Europe returned to the power politics of the preceding generation, Ireland – like so many other small states – was left exposed and vulnerable. Neutrality had to be made a reality in a context where invasion by Britain or Germany was seen as a very real possibility.
Most interestingly, a number of previously unknown documents published in this volume reveal much about the basis for neutrality, how the policy was developed and how the Government intended to execute it.
A small team of officials in Dublin worked very closely with Éamon de Valera in this. They included the Secretary of the Department, Joe Walsh, Assistant Secretary Freddie Boland and the Legal Adviser, Michael Rynne. The input of officials in London, Berlin, Washington and Ottawa were also important. There are some family members of those officials here tonight and I want to warmly welcome all of them to Iveagh House.
For Éamon de Valera and his officials, neutrality was more than a policy of expediency. In a memo to the Taoiseach in July 1940, for instance, Joe Walshe wrote that ‘Neutrality was not entered upon for the purpose of being used as a bargaining factor. It represented, and does represent, the fundamental attitude of the entire Irish people’.
The officials shared the Taoiseach’s conviction that the War was essentially a battle between the great powers of Europe and that the young Irish State had a duty to its people to protect their interests by staying out. Our Missions were specifically tasked with protecting Ireland’s sovereignty by emphasising our neutrality to the belligerents, while at the same time making clear that we would fight any attempted invasion.
Relations with Britain
The importance of the Anglo-Irish relationship, so evident in the earlier volumes, continues here, in particular the continuation of Éamon de Valera’s efforts to reshape the relationship between Ireland and Britain, against the backdrop of the War.
The appointment of the first British Diplomatic representative in Ireland, Sir John Maffey, in September 1939, marked a major move in the normalisation of Anglo-Irish relations. The Volume shows how closely London and Dublin co-operated during the War on a wide variety of practical matters, notwithstanding the tensions caused by Irish neutrality and our refusal to permit British use of the Treaty Ports.
The British offer, made by Malcolm MacDonald in June 1940, of Irish unity in return for Irish entry into the war is, understandably, of particular interest to historians. The decision of Mr de Valera, later backed unanimously by the Government, not to be tempted by this imprecise approach was a testament both to his unerring judgement and to his steadfast commitment to neutrality.
While the Taoiseach was preserving neutrality under pressure from Britain at the level of Head of State, these documents show how, at the same time, he was heavily involved in the detail of trade negotiations with Britain, even down to personally suggesting a compromise on the price of butter.
This Volume brings out clearly the intense level of involvement of the Taoiseach of the day in even the smallest details of Ireland’s State-to-State communications with Britain. He was constantly looking for ways, however small, to re-define and re-balance Ireland’s relationship with Britain.
That said, Mr de Valera never lost sight of the ultimate goal of Irish unity and of the central importance of a relationship built on equality and mutual respect. In a letter to the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on Chamberlain’s departure from office he wrote ‘I hope that you may still be able to work for... the realisation of our dream- to see our two peoples living side by side with a deep neighbourly sense of their value to one another’. I have no doubt that Éamon de Valera would today be proud of the close and growing relationship which exists between our two States.
Missions in time of war
Reading through the volume, I was struck time and again by the commitment and sense of duty of the officers who served the State at this time. Those based in Europe lived with the constant threat of bombing and violence. Through their professionalism and patriotism, they managed to successfully protect and promote Ireland’s national position and interests. It is fitting that we pay tribute to their service.
While a sense of gloom and foreboding are the dominant themes of this volume, many of the reports from our Missions also provide a fascinating insight into what life was like for ordinary Europeans and indeed for our officials posted abroad.
The collection also highlights some of the consular demands placed on Missions by Irish citizens living abroad at a time of unprecedented upheaval and violence. I am sure that today’s consular staff would welcome the sort of modest request made by one Mr. Samuel Beckett. In a letter to our Consul in Paris in 1941, Beckett states that “I should be glad if you could arrange for a telegram to be sent to my brother simply to the effect that I keep very well and want for nothing”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A striking aspect of this volume is the strong relationship between Éamon de Valera and his senior officials in this Department. Secretary Joe Walshe was regarded as de Valera’s éminence grise during his frequent missions to London. In fact, British officials sometimes thought that Walshe was the Minister for External Affairs.
While documents collected here are drawn from a unique period in history, there is much in the volume that resonates with the work of today’s Department of Foreign Affairs. The Irish Diplomatic service may operate in a world grappling with the challenges of the 21st Century, but it is infused with the same professionalism and remains as vital as ever to Ireland’s national development.
In conclusion, when the Department originally proposed this series to our partners in 1994, it was because we knew there were histories of events which hadn’t been told.
In order to ensure even wider public access to these important histories, a project to place the first Volume in the series on the Internet through the DIFP website was completed last year. People from 84 different countries have accessed Volume I to examine these primary documents for academic work, as well as for personal interest. Because of the success of this endeavour, we have decided to advance the project and place further Volumes online. Volume II and III will be available in February next year, with the remaining volumes becoming accessible by the end of 2009. This will enhance the accessibility of these primary sources to our citizens and help promote the growth of Irish Studies around the world
In recognition of the importance of this initiative, I am pleased to announce a grant of €30,000 towards this online project.
I thank you for your support and interest this evening and I am
delighted to declare that Volume VI of Documents on Irish Foreign
Policy will now take its place in this fine series.