On its 80th anniversary, Ryle Dwyer assesses the importance of the 1938 Anglo-Irish agreements.
The three Anglo-Irish agreements signed on April 25, 1938 had a decisive impact on Irish political life. They removed the last objectionable vestiges of the 1921 Treaty, thereby paving the way for Ireland to stay out of the Second World War.
As a result, Fianna Fáil was rewarded with almost 10 more years in power. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 had conferred dominion status on Ireland, and the Statute of Westminster, 1931, formally accorded the dominions full legal freedom except in areas where they chose to remain subordinate to Britain.
The 1921 Treaty involved distinct concessions to the British on defence and finance. The Irish had agreed to assume responsibility for paying a share of the British national debt.
It is usually forgotten that the North was initially considered part of the Irish Free State under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The six counties were given the right to withdraw from the Free State, but in that event a Boundary Commission would redraw the border in line with the wishes of the local inhabitants.
This commission was widely expected to transfer large areas of the Six Counties to the Irish Free State. When the commission decided against the transfer of extensive areas in 1924, the British renounced all claims on the Free State contributing to the British national debt.
On coming to power in 1932, Éamon de Valera insisted that land annuity payments being made to Britain - arising out of Irish land purchases around the turn of the century - were not owed, as a result to the commission agreement.
The British countered that Irish Finance Minister Ernest Blythe agreed in 1926 to pay £5m annually to Britain in land annuity payments. The Dáil was never told about this, much less asked to ratify the agreement. Thus, de Valera insisted that Blythe’s agreement had no legal standing.
The Long Fellow offered to submit the issue to binding international arbitration, but Treasury Secretary Neville Chamberlain rejected the offer, fearing an arbitrator would find for de Valera. When the Dublin government withheld the annuity payments in 1932, Britain retaliated with the Economic War.
The British were being secretly encouraged to resist de Valera by Cumann na nGaedheal, which invoked the memories of Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins. If the British thought the pressure would hurt the de Valera government, however, they must have been sorely disappointed, because Fianna Fáil won an overall majority in a snap general election in January 1933.
With 77 of the 153 seats, it was only the slimmest of majorities, but it was the first overall majority any party got since before the Civil War. Fianna Fáil gained three further seats from Fine Gael in later elections during the Dáil term, but the party lost its overall majority by the slimmest of margins in the general election of July 1937 when it dropped to 69 of the 138 seats.
With tensions growing on the continent, de Valera used the international anxiety to bring the British to their senses on Ireland. As the British would need American help in the event of war, de Valera contended an Anglo-Irish settlement would greatly enhance Britain’s political standing in the US.
“Real, unqualified friendship with the United States would be vastly more valuable to Britain than satisfaction of a claim for a sum of money, or than our occupation of the three Irish ports against the will of almost the whole Southern Irish population,” de Valera emphasised, according to MacDonald.
Irish people might initially wish to remain neutral in the war that was threatening, but de Valera told MacDonald that they would likely come to Britain’s aid, if the outstanding difficulties were settled beforehand.
While there could be no formal commitment on what Ireland would do in the event of war, de Valera was prepared to give a formal assurance that Dublin would never allow Irish territory to be used as a base for an attack on Britain.
MacDonald had no doubt about de Valera’s sincerity. “I am convinced,” the Dominions Secretary assured his cabinet colleagues, “that he is really genuine in desiring whole-hearted friendship and co-operation between the Irish Free State and Great Britain.”
The only area of Irish policy that Britain could legitimately claim that the dominion government in Dublin was subservient to Britain was in the area of defence.
The 1921 Treaty gave Britain possession of three naval bases at Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly.
“In time of war or of strained relations with a Foreign Power,” the British had further rights “to such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require.”
The two governments agreed to initiate formal talks in London on January 17, 1938.
de Valera was accompanied by Seán Lemass, Seán MacEntee, and James Ryan. The talks centered on four areas of contention - partition, defence, trade, and finance.
British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was anxious to secure Irish goodwill. He promptly indicated that Britain would hand over the three ports and renounce her treaty rights to the other Irish facilities.
He also indicated Britain would abandon the duties on Irish imports introduced as part of the Economic War, but he said there could be no settlement of partition against the will of the majority in the North.
The only concessions the British were demanding were some payments on outstanding debts, exclusive of the land annuities, as well as the removal of Irish import duties on goods imported from Northern Ireland. But de Valera argued he could make no concessions unless partition were ended.
Nevertheless, Chamberlain was optimistic.
“I shall be grievously disappointed if we don’t get an all-round agreement on everything except partition,” he said
at the end of the first round of talks.
de Valera sought US President Franklin Roosevelt’s help in persuading the British that full Anglo-Irish “reconciliation would affect every country where the two races dwell together, knitting their national strength and presenting to the world a great block of democratic peoples interested in the preservation of peace.”
Roosevelt declined to intervene formally, but he agreed to instruct Joseph P. Kennedy, his new ambassador to Britain, to tell Chamberlain privately that Roosevelt was anxious for an Irish settlement.
During a second round of talks in February, Chamberlain offered to settle the financial claims of well over £100m, for £39m, while the Irish side initially offered just £2m.
Britain agreed to remove duties on Irish imports, while Dublin was only obliged to review its own import duties and to provide preferential treatment to some British imports. In addition, the British ended the Economic War for an Irish payment of £10m.
The British also surrendered the three Treaty ports and renounced all rights to other Irish bases.
If Britain had retained the right to any Irish facilities they required, it does not require much imagination to visualise how Churchill would have undermined not only Irish neutrality and Irish independence during the war that erupted in August 1939.