Foreign policy mandarin who gave Ireland a key role on world stage

CIVIL servants are often called the permanent government. They are the faceless men and women who implement policy and frequently formulate it, but political decorum requires that they keep a low profile rather than outshine their nominal masters.

Since independence a few civil servants stand out, such as TK Whitaker, Maurice Moynihan, and Joseph P Walshe.

Ken Whitaker was arguably the real father of the Celtic Tiger because he recognised the value of providing people with a proper education back in the 1950s. But, unlike the others, he received some recognition at the time. His economic plan was published under his own name.

Eamon de Valera blunted possible opposition to the plan by giving Dr Whitaker full credit for it. Yet the other leading servants have remained in the shadows.

The publication of Aengus Nolan’s book, Joseph Walshe: Irish Foreign Policy 1922-1946 is therefore ground-breaking because it throws new light on an obscure but vital player in our history. Walshe was secretary of the Department of External Affairs from 1922 until 1946.

He was a central player in our foreign policy at a time when this country punched well above its weight in the international arena.

Within the British Commonwealth, for instance, the Irish Free State was fundamental in blazing the trail towards full dominion independence at the commonwealth conferences of 1926 and 1930 and also in the formulation of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Walshe was largely responsible for building up the fledgling Department of External Affairs during those formative years when some very talented diplomats were recruited. It was a tremendously productive period.

The department had to work under great difficulties as it was initially considered little more than an adjunct of the Department of Finance, which treated it like an unwanted stepsister.

When the budgets of various departments were cut by an average of 3.5% in 1929, the Department of External Affairs was asked for a cut of 20% in comparison with a mere 1.5% for Finance, which already had a budget that was more than 45 times larger.

It was not until after playing a leading role at the commonwealth conference of 1926 that Walshe was formally appointed departmental secretary. Hitherto, he was merely acting secretary. He loyally served the governments of WT Cosgrave and

Eamon de Valera, thereby playing a crucial role in ensuring the civil service remained non-political. In the 1930s the Department of External Affairs played a major role in dismantling the Anglo-Irish Treaty and establishing precedents for dominion independence which culminated in demonstrating the country’s independence by staying out of the Second World War.

Walshe worked well with different ministers and was instrumental in recruiting people like Seán Lester who went on to serve in the secretariat of the League of Nations and become the second and last secretary general of that august international body. Another recruit was Frederick H Boland, who became president of the assembly of the United Nations during the U-2 crisis in 1960.

It was largely as a result of the work of such people that this country was elected to the council of the League of Nations and Eamon de Valera was afforded the opportunity to serve with enormous distinction as president of the council during the Manchurian crisis of 1932 and as president of the assembly of the League during the infamous Munich crisis of 1938.

There was no money for St Patrick’s Day junkets in those days; they distinguished themselves by their work. It was probably the most productive period for Irish foreign policy, but this had been largely obscured by a dearth of official documentation.

The release of state papers provided some light, but the opening of de Valera’s papers provides by far the best insights. Dr Nolan has used those papers to telling affect in filling an enormous void with his sober treatment and astute judgments.

All too often Walshe relied on convenient ambiguity in his dealings with foreign diplomats. He implemented the policy of avowed neutrality that deceived the Nazis during the Second World War, while he was instrumental in establishing and overseeing secret cooperation with the British and later with the Americans on security and intelligence matters that made a mockery of that supposed neutrality.

Yet those who were not privy to what was happening behind the scenes often wrongly suspected that Walshe was pro-German. This was especially true of the American minister David Gray who allowed his own prejudices to rule his judgment. Prior to America’s entry into the war, Gray was calling for Ireland to get into the conflict while the US — at the safety of thousands of miles — was proclaiming its determination to stay out. Walshe found Gray’s behaviour understandably tedious. “We are getting tired of America’s vicarious heroism at our expense,” he complained. Initially nobody trusted Gray with details of the secret Anglo-Irish cooperation, but even when he was told, he still preferred to think of Walshe as pro-German. He even sent President Roosevelt messages to that effect from the supposed ghost of Arthur

J Balfour who had lived in Gray’s Phoenix Park residence more than 50 years earlier.

Gray refused to accept that the Irish were secretly providing the Allies with all possible help behind a facade of supposed neutrality. Much was made of the importance of Irish bases, but both the British and US military eventually concluded Ireland would be a liability in the war.

Ervin Marlin, the man sent to head the American intelligence operations here, realised what was happening, but it never suited Gray to acknowledge that reality. This country was no more neutral in the Second World War than it was in the war between the US and Saddam’s Iraq.

WALSHE got on well with Sir John Maffey, the British representative, but work still needs to be done on Maffey’s role in inflaming Gray in order to serve British ends.

While Walshe naturally presented his government’s foreign policy in the best light for the various diplomats, Dr Nolan astutely recognises that Maffey was often unduly critical of Irish authorities in his reports. This was necessary because he had to pander to the prejudices of Churchill in order to influence London to adopt a realistic policy towards Ireland.

Walshe was certainly not pro-German, or pro-Allied either. He was pro-Irish. He helped to implement a policy of quiet but effective support of the democracies because — like de Valera — he believed this was in the best interest of the Irish people.

Although Walshe frequently left Irish foreign representatives to use their own initiative, he was precise in his reports to de Valera who was his own Minister for External Affairs from 1932 until 1948. Walshe had left for the Vatican in June 1946 to take up the position of Irish minister to the Holy See. The desired posting was his reward.

Mercier Press deserves credit for publishing this in-depth study with its timely and invaluable insights. They provide an intriguing look into an obscure but vital part or our real government.

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