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THE Department of Foreign Affairs and Royal Irish Academy have just published the seventh volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, covering 1941 to 1945.

The book, which runs to over 600 pages, is unlikely to get the general publicity it deserves, because it does not provide a continuous story. Yet it does offer some fascinating insights into Ireland’s involvement in the troubled international scene.

Frank Aiken was sent to the United States to purchase arms, basically so that Ireland could defend itself against either a British or a German invasion. All the Congressmen that Aiken met indicated that if Britain invaded Ireland it would be greatly resented by Irish-Americans. President Franklin Roosevelt ridiculed the idea that Churchill would ever invade Ireland.

“It is absurd nonsense, ridiculous nonsense,” he said. “Churchill would never do anything of that kind.” If that were so, why would the British not say so? Aiken asked.

“I found it very difficult to outline the purpose of my missions and the attitude of our people in a connected way,” Aiken reported. “Indeed, in order to do so, I had to interrupt the President and keep talking against his attempt to interrupt me in what would be a boorish way in dealing with an ordinary individual.”

A presidential aide entered the Oval office, which was the prearranged signal to terminate the meeting. But Aiken had not come 3,000 miles to be brushed aside that easily. The aide placed a tablecloth with some cutlery on the President’s desk.

If the British had no intention of invading Ireland why would Churchill not say this? Aiken persisted. Roosevelt lost his temper and jerked the tablecloth from his desk, sending the cutlery flying and effectively ending the argument.

The book provides some interesting material on what some prominent statesmen thought of Winston Churchill. Irish High Commissioner John Dulanty reported from London that when somebody remarked to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies following his April 1941 visit to Ireland that he had “probably found us as mad as ever”, Menzies reportedly replied: “If Dublin were mad, Belfast was madder, and Whitehall was maddest of all.”

Lester Pearson, the future Prime Minister of Canada, who was a senior official at the Canadian Department of External Affairs at the time, told John Hearne, the Irish High Commissioner in Ottawa, that even though Churchill was vital to Britain at the time, “it will be a mercy if he is not at the Peace Table”.

“He has the most terrible ideas as to what to do with the Germans if the Russians and the Americans win the war for us,” Pearson added. “I often ask myself what the world will come to if we win, and men like Churchill write the Peace. He expressed the most outrageous views at war cabinet meetings which I attended while in London.”

Herbert Evatt, the Foreign Minister of Australia was equally suspicious. “He was sharply critical of the British Government,” Dulanty reported after a meeting with Evatt. “Churchill and Eden he thought were ‘little Englanders’. They don’t give a damn about the Dominions.”

“Twenty per cent of our people are your people,” Evatt added, “and I would like to help Mr de Valera whom I regard as one of the big men of our time.”

“You should tell your Government that we are fighting for our lives, and owing to the imprudence of Mr Chamberlain we are denied the use of ports that were given to you,” Churchill told Dulanty in May 1941 during the conscription crisis in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister clearly had no regard for de Valera. “I have no doubt that he will do us as much harm as he can,” Churchill added. He never gave the Taoiseach credit for his benevolence towards the Allies.

Joseph P Walshe, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of External Affairs believed that the Dublin government was effectively providing the Allies with all possible help. “We could not do more if we were in the war,” he wrote.

Walshe was part of a secret deal, approved by de Valera, to gather political intelligence from Berlin, Rome and Vichy for the American Office of Stategic Intelligence (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Walshe forwarded to Irish diplomats in Berlin, Rome and Vichy, questions that were formulated by the OSS. The Department of External Affairs in Dublin then forwarded the responses of the diplomats to the OSS. In effect, the Irish diplomats were being used as American spies, even though they did not know it.

On October 1, 1943, for instance, Walshe telegraphed William Warnock, the Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin: “Question of duration of war very important for us. Please cable your views taking as your background feeling in Germany and strength of individual leaders. Are the latter capable even at this stage of keeping people in the war with so many factors present to discourage any hope of military victory?”

Unfortunately the volume does not include Warnock’s reply. William J Donovan informed President Roosevelt about the extraordinary cooperation some months later. “So far the information contained in these reports has been of use primarily as confirmation of information from other sources,” Donovan wrote. “However the potentialities are important.”

There was some salacious reporting. Michael MacWhite, the Irish Minister in Rome, reported in February 1943 the Italian ambassador in Berlin “barely escape with his life from the German capital after having been involved in one of the nastiest diplomatic scandals of recent times”. A German General had returned home unexpectedly from the front to find his wife in their bed the Italian Ambassador.

“After some scuffling” Dino Alfieri escaped and went into hiding in his Embassy until Hitler ordered that he be permitted to return to Italy.

“An Order was promulgated throughout the Reich providing for the death penalty for adultery when members of the armed forces on active service were the victims,” according to MacWhite.

In view of the insights provided, no library should be without the seven volumes of this series.

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