The deal that safeguarded Ireland’s neutrality

TODAY marks the anniversary of the Anglo-Irish agreements of Apr 25, 1938.

The British not only agreed to end the Economic War but also to hand over the three Irish ports and abrogate all rights to other facilities in the 26 counties.

The 1921 Treaty had accorded the British permanent control of bases at Cobh, Berehaven, and Lough Swilley, along with the right to “such harbour and other facilities” as they desired “in time of war or of strained relations with a foreign power.” No country at war with Britain was likely to respect Irish neutrality, if the British had the right to use whatever Irish facilities they desired.

By 1938 it was already clear the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, intended to try to keep Ireland out of the coming war. He had become thoroughly disillusioned with the League of Nations.

As Italy was preparing to invade Ethiopia in 1935, de Valera warned that the League of Nations was facing its ultimate test. “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,” he told the League’s Assembly.

After the Italians invaded Ethiopia on Oct 3, 1935, de Valera went on Irish radio (2RN) to warn that Japan’s earlier violation of the League’s Covenant had shaken the organisation to its foundations and if another violation were tolerated, the League of Nations would disappear as a safeguard for individual members.

He supported calls for economic sanctions against Italy, and even suggested military action, if the economic pressure failed. “It would be contrary to the spirit of the Covenant,” he warned his cabinet, if the government refused to take part in any “collective military actions to be taken by the League”.

“There was never a better chance for the League of Nations to be successful against a great power as there was in that case,” de Valera explained. “If it failed in the case of Italy it was bound to fail in the case of other powers.”

Thereafter he abandoned his support for collective resistance to aggression. “We have now to confess publicly that we must abandon the victim to his fate,” he told the League on Jul 2, 1936. “Despite our judicial equality here, in matters such as European peace the small states are powerless.”

“Peace is dependent upon the will of great states,” he added. “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.”

de Valera had clearly lost faith in the League of Nations.

Faced with the danger of a major war, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to settle outstanding difficulties with Dublin to secure Irish goodwill. He proposed settlement talks.

From the outset of these talks, which began in London on Jan 17, 1938, Chamberlain was ready to hand over the Irish ports and renounce Britain’s other rights under the 1921 treaty. He also indicated that Britain would drop her claim to land annuities, but he warned there could be no partition settlement, without the support of the majority in Northern Ireland.

All the British asked was that the Irish pay their uncontested debts and remove import duties on goods from Northern Ireland.

De Valera took a hard line with the British. He asked for financial concessions for being prepared to take the ports.

“I am lost in admiration of Mr de Valera’s skill in dialectics,” Chamberlain told colleagues. It might have been better “to spare Mr de Valera the embarrassment of having the ports offered to him”.

The taoiseach came in for opposition within his own delegation over his stand in relation to partition. “The Partition problem cannot be solved except with the consent of the majority of the Northern non-Catholic population,” finance minister Seán MacEntee wrote to de Valera on Feb 17, 1938. “It certainly cannot be solved by their coercion. Hitherto, we as the Government here have done nothing of our selves to secure a solution, but on the contrary have done and are doing certain things which have made a solution more difficult.”

“In regard to partition we have never had a considered policy,” MacEntee complained. “With our connivance every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay, is doing his damnedest here to keep them out…I believe that some of us are subordinating reason to prejudice.”

MacEntee emphasised his stand by offering his resignation.

Chamberlain was so anxious for an agreement that he dropped his demand for Irish trade concessions to Northern Ireland. The British abandoned their treaty rights and agreed to a lump sum Irish payment of £10m in place of previous claims for over £100m.

“There are no conditions,” de Valera told the Dáil. “There is no secret understanding, but there is a belief, I am certain — a belief which I have tried, over 20 years, to get into the minds of British governments and the British people, in so far as I could — that it is far better for Britain, far more advantageous for Britain, to have a free Ireland by its side than an Ireland would be unfriendly because of liberties which Britain denied.”

The agreements paved the way for Irish neutrality in the coming war.

“A more feckless act can hardly be imagined,” Winston Churchill later thundered.

Ryle Dwyer is the author of Behind the Green Curtain

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up