After the “Emergency”: Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol VIII, 1945-1948
The latest volume of an admirable series shows Ireland adapting to the postwar world
After the "Emergency": Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol VIII, 1945-48
Edited by Catriona Crowe, Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O'Halpin
Royal Irish Academy
O n September 11th, 1945, a three-day conference commenced in the department of external affairs to which all available senior figures in the diplomatic service had been summoned. Its purpose was to take stock of the emerging international situation and of the challenges and priorities, immediate and strategic, facing the State in the aftermath of the second World War.
Addressing the conference, Éamon de Valera, the taoiseach and minister for external affairs – he held both offices without interruption from 1932 to 1948 – impressed on the diplomats the presiding objectives of Irish foreign policy: “These two main considerations – the partition of our country and the struggle to maintain and enhance our national distinctiveness as a necessary means of maintaining our separate and State life – must form the background to our activities and must colour our relations with foreigners and foreign governments.”
Within this overarching mission, the Irish diplomatic service in autumn 1945 was faced with the task of shaping and conducting Ireland’s international relations in a world utterly transformed by the horrific impact of war and its aftermath. A rich sense of how the diplomats rose to this challenge is conveyed in After the “Emergency” , volume VIII of a series that began publication in 1998.
Scrupulously edited, with clear, concise introductory essays, the series is an exemplary collaborative project between the Royal Irish Academy, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Archives of Ireland.
This latest volume, presenting 488 documents covering the period August 18th, 1945, to February 18th, 1948, comes principally from the files of the department of external affairs (the Department of Foreign Affairs since 1971) and the Department of the Taoiseach.
The two dominant themes in the collection relate, firstly, to the response of the State to the new issues, structures and challenges emerging in the international order in the years immediately after the end of the war, and, secondly, to the exhausting raft of legacy issues, loose ends and diplomatic mines left over from the “Emergency” years.
These latter included the issue of German agents, assets and miscellaneous Axis personnel (on which the department proved stubbornly punctilious) and the question of granting entry to Ireland, even temporarily, to various categories of postwar refugees and displaced persons. (The bureaucratic response was cautiously sympathetic to Polish Catholic children, nervously tolerant of compromised Breton nationalists and decidedly unsympathetic to any Jews.)
So far as new directions are concerned, Ireland initially applied for membership of the UN with no great enthusiasm, strong doubts being expressed by several senior figures in the diplomatic service regarding the likely effectiveness of the UN as an institution for maintaining world peace, given the veto being conferred on the major powers enjoying a permanent seat on the Security Council.
When, therefore, in August 1946, Russia effectively vetoed Ireland’s application for membership (as she would continue to do until 1955), it cannot have come as a crushing blow at Iveagh House.
Nevertheless, every effort was made to ensure Irish participation – on terms that unequivocally respected its independent status – in a host of emerging international organisations and conferences in these postwar years. Multilateral and bilateral contacts were pursued purposefully, though with constant vigilance against military entanglements.
But if there were new horizons to scan in the postwar years, there were also important fences to mend, with powerful players who found Ireland’s neutrality in the war impossible to understand and difficult to forgive.
“Normalising” relations with Britain (under Attlee’s new Labour government) proved, on the whole, less difficult than might have been expected, though Dublin underestimated the political capital that participation in the war had earned for Northern unionists in London, not least among Labour ministers who had served in wartime cabinets. A Labour government would be no soft touch on partition.
Formal diplomatic relations between Ireland and the US continued to be poisoned by the attitude and actions of the American ambassador in Dublin, David Gray, who harboured an “irrational bias”, as one critic put it, against Ireland, and personally against the taoiseach. This blighted official Irish-American relations and forced exasperated Irish diplomats to find alternative routes for establishing useful contacts in the emerging superpower of the postwar era, until Gray departed in June 1947.
On the main direction of Irish foreign policy after 1945 – virulently anticommunist and firmly Atlanticist in ideological and strategic orientation – these documents offer no startlingly new revelations. However, there is less here than one might have expected, perhaps, on the convulsive end of British rule in India in 1947 and, more generally, on decolonisation.
A striking feature of this large body of documentation is the consistently high quality of the analysis and the impressive command of language evident throughout. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that it was generated by a relatively small team. Though staff numbers had grown modestly during the war years, by late 1945 the senior echelon of the Irish diplomatic service (exclusively male) consisted of a tight-knit cadre of sharply intelligent, resourceful and fundamentally patriotic diplomats, with a proper appreciation of their own worth and a pride in their work and in their country.
The postwar decade was a time of transition in the department. New missions were opened in Australia, Sweden and Argentina in 1946 and 1947. Some of the veterans (Robert Brennan in Washington, John Dulanty in London) were on their final furlong of service, and fresh appointments were moving into place; a younger cohort of career recruits, men and women, was beginning to make its mark.
The appointment of Frederick Boland as secretary of the department in May 1946 heralded a new energy and direction. Boland’s exceptional calibre began to register almost at once on the international stage, as evidenced by his prominence in the major preparatory conferences in 1947 for the launch of the US-financed European Recovery Programme (the Marshall Plan).
For the most senior – and, in certain respects, the most fascinating – of the veterans, Joseph P Walshe, his appointment in May 1946 as the first full Irish ambassador to the Vatican ought to have been a coveted reward for his long service as departmental secretary at Iveagh House.
A former Jesuit seminarian, deeply religious and strongly nationalist in sentiment, Walshe had an exceptional, almost filial regard for de Valera. The holy see was the centre of his world, and not only in a diplomatic sense.
And yet, while at one level revelling in the arcane world of Vatican diplomacy, there is more than a hint of the elegiac – of the “twilight of a mandarin” – in Walshe’s engrossing reports and correspondence in these years; the sense of melancholy as much a matter of tone as of content.
The documents in this volume conclude with de Valera’s short valedictory message of gratitude to his staff on February 18th, 1948. Earlier that month a turbulent general election brought to an end 16 years of Fianna Fáil government. In the first interparty government that followed, the external-affairs ministry went to the enigmatic Seán MacBride. What impact this restless new broom would have on policy and personal relations within the diplomatic service will, no doubt, become apparent in the next volume of this altogether admirable series.
Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh is professor emeritus in history at the National University of Ireland, Galway