One Irish statesman who led by example at home and abroad

ALTHOUGH it has become somewhat trendy to denigrate the leadership of Éamon de Valera, he led by magnificent example both at home and on the world stage in the 1930s.

His first act on coming to power in 1932 was to cut his own salary by 40% from £2,500 to £1,500, and all his ministers from £1,700 to £1,000. This was splendid leadership in comparison with the atrocious fumbling of recent years.

In assessing ‘Ireland’s Greatest’, RTÉ has overlooked de Valera. This fits into a trend in recent years of depicting him as morally indifferent to what was happening in the world as a result of his refusal to lead Ireland into the Second World War. It is a gross distortion because he was actually one of the most courageous and outspoken leaders of the 1930s.

Next Monday marks the 75th anniversary of an important radio broadcast from Dublin in which de Valera intimated that Ireland might go to war with Italy in defence of Ethiopia under the covenant of the League of Nations. Had his advice been heeded, Italy would have been compelled to back down or Ireland would, as part the league, have gone to war against it.

Three years earlier he took a similar stand in relation to Japan’s attack on China after his government had inherited a seat on the council of the League of Nations. When the league met in September 1932 to discuss the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, it was the Irish Free State’s turn to assume the revolving presidency.

As president of the council, de Valera delivered the opening address to the assembly. His speech, which was supportive of the league’s aims, caused an international sensation.

“No state should be permitted to jeopardise the common interest by selfish action contrary to the covenant,” de Valera declared. He was obviously alluding to Japan. When he finished, the assembly seemed dumbfounded. One news agency reported that he sat down to “a stony silence unbroken by a single note of applause,” but his speech was actually very well received by those present. After a brief silence, there was genuine applause.

“In the lobbies the speech received nothing but praise,” according to the correspondent of the London News Chronicle. “It was the most candid piece of criticism that within my recollection any league chairman has ever dared to utter. Yet the speech was moderate in tone, entirely without bitterness and, indeed, indicative of the speaker’s sympathy with the work and aims of the league.” The New York Times reported on its front page: “Rarely has Geneva heard such a speech. It is Mr de Valera’s personal work, and together with the way he presided over the council on Saturday, it unquestionably made him the outstanding personality of this session.”

The league failed to stand against Japan. In 1935, as Italian troops were massing to invade Ethiopia, Anthony Eden – Britain’s representative at the league and future prime minister – warned London that de Valera was a “firebrand” who wished to attack Italy.

“The final test of the league and all that it stands for has come,” de Valera told the assembly on September 16, 1935. “Our conduct in this crisis will determine whether it is better to let it lapse and disappear and be forgotten. Make no mistake, if on any pretext whatever we were to permit the sovereignty of even the weakest state amongst us to be unjustly taken away, the whole foundation of the league would crumble into dust. By our own choice and without compulsion we entered into the obligations of the covenant,” he said. “We shall fulfil these obligations in the letter and in the spirit. We have given our word and we shall keep it.”

Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, ignored his country’s obligations under the covenant. He had his troops invade Ethiopia on October 3, 1935.

Next day de Valera told the Irish people in a radio broadcast that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria had shaken the league to its foundation. “If a second similar successful violation takes place,” he warned, “the League of Nations must disappear as an effective safeguard for individual members.

The obligations of the covenant should be enforced. That was our position in the case of the Sino-Japanese conflict. That is our position in the present case.”

When Britain proposed economic sanctions against Italy, de Valera backed them but warned that military action should be taken if economic pressure failed. A declaration of war would have been a matter for the Oireachtas, but he warned his cabinet that it would “be contrary to the spirit of the covenant” to refuse to take part in any “collective military actions to be taken by the league.”

One long-standing critic wrote: “Whether or not one accepts Mr de Valera’s views on these grave issues, one must realise that he has approached them sincerely and in no petty spirit, and that he is prepared to carry his opinions to their logical conclusions.”

De Valera was making no apologies even when criticised from within Fianna Fáil for not trying to extract economic concessions from London before supporting Britain’s call for sanctions against Italy.

“If we want justice for ourselves, we ought to stand for justice for others,” de Valera told the Dáil. “As long as I have the honour of representing any government here outside, I stand on every occasion for what I think is just and right, thinking thereby I will help the cause of Ireland, and I will not bargain that for anything.”

However, the British and French, were more intent on appeasing Italy. “It would,” Winston Churchill declared publicly, “be a dangerous folly for the British people to underrate the enduring position in world history which Mussolini will hold; or the amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance which he exemplifies.”

IF Britain and France had been serious about helping Ethiopia, de Valera realised they would have closed the Suez Canal to the Italians, but they were only prepared to take half-measures that were doomed to fail. “There was never a better chance for the League of Nations to be successful against a great power as there was in this case,” de Valera said in June 1936. “If it failed in the case of Italy it was bound to fail in the case of other powers.

“Despite our judicial equality here, in matters such as European peace the small states are powerless,” he told the league’s assembly the following month. “Peace is dependent upon the will of great states. All the small states can do, if the statesmen of the greater states fail in their duty, is resolutely to determine that they will not become the tools of any great power and that they will resist with whatever strength they may possess every attempt to force them into a war against their will.”

This was the basis for staying out of the coming world war, but from the outset de Valera secretly assured the Allies of all possible Irish help short of war. Unlike Churchill’s appeasement of Mussolini, de Valera led from a principled position. His leadership should be a beacon for politicians today.

Ryle Dwyer’s Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality during World War II has just been published in paperback by Gill & Macmillan.

More in this section

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd