Peace, trade and Border issues result of century of tireless diplomacy

Lemass used language eerily relevant to Brexit today to describe all-island free trade

After the end of the Great War 100 years ago, despite the service of perhaps a quarter-million Irish troops in the conflict, Ireland was excluded from the Versailles peace talks designed to agree the post-war settlement. In January 1919, the First Dáil issued a "Message to the Free Nations of the World" asserting Ireland's right to a seat at the table of international affairs and its commitment to a new global order based on "freedom and justice". Small nations could only be free if they had their own voice, and the creation of an independent and distinctive Irish foreign policy has been a painstaking process over the past century. The Brexit negotiations now present one of the greatest tests to that objective, making the release of the latest volume in the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series (covering 1957-61) particularly timely. Threads from that period form the background to the challenges of today.

Sixty years ago a fledgling Ireland only had resident missions to 15 countries (compared to over 70 today); the recognised Republic was barely a decade old, with UN membership only achieved in 1955. The official chief concern of Irish external affairs was what the State referred to as “the partition problem”. With frustrating customs checks and barriers to trade, the new government of Seán Lemass was keen to create a “free trade area” covering the whole island, but despite the obvious economic advantages on both sides of the Border, the northern government was frustratingly resistant. A 1961 department of external affairs memo lamented “the extraordinary persistence with which the Belfast administration refuses to envisage closer economic arrangements with us which do not apply to the United Kingdom as a whole”. In language eerily similar to today, Lemass summarised that northern unionists believed all-island free trade “would ‘draw a line round Northern Ireland goods, separating them from those made in Great Britain’, thus constituting ‘the first step in moving the Border to the Irish Sea’”.

Trade deal

Freer trade with Britain was also a key objective, and indeed in 1959 the department of industry and commerce had recommended “the greatest gesture possible be made” regarding tariffs on Northern Irish goods in order to encourage the UK to offer a better trade deal. Ambassador Brian Gallagher told the Dutch foreign minister in July 1961 that Ireland was of the firm view that “the eventual disappearance of the customs border between the North and the South would clearly be a step in the right direction”. Power over that Border, however, lay elsewhere: “so far as customs control is concerned”, the Revenue Commissioners wrote to the secretary general at the department of justice, “the remedy for the situation rests in the hands of the British authorities”. Only after three decades of violence and a torturous Peace Process would the Good Friday Agreement fundamentally change that dynamic.

Before the Troubles radically transformed British attitudes to Ireland – “friendliness to the Irish as a people but . . . indifference to Ireland as a problem” department of external affairs secretary general Con Cremin summarised in 1958 – British officials were privately pessimistic about the possibility of a softer border. Ambassador Hugh McCann recounted in May 1960 that HAF Rumbold of the Commonwealth Relations Office believed that “a lot of people would have to die off” before unionists would be willing to put their own “economic interests” above symbolic parity with the rest of the UK. Sir Frank Lee, joint permanent secretary of the treasury, told Cremin in 1960 that given unionist recalcitrance “the best hope of securing a rapprochement of the kind envisaged would be within the context of a wide European trade arrangement in which both we and Britain would participate”. That joint participation in the European project would remain a central objective of Irish policy towards Britain for decades.


Reliance on Britain

EEC membership seemed in Ireland’s vital interest, but the country’s economic reliance on Britain meant that joining without the UK (or indeed the UK joining alone) would be problematic. “It is not possible to determine now what our attitude would be if Britain did not acquire membership,” Lemass wrote. “We would wish to pursue our application if this was economically possible for us”, but as his adviser TK Whitaker noted, a government White Paper had determined “that our national interest would not be served by joining the EEC if the United Kingdom remained outside and we had to forgo our preferential advantages in that market”. The lack of economic independence limited Ireland’s political freedom.

At the United Nations, however, Ireland was developing a reputation for outspoken opposition to oppression. Already in 1957, FH Boland – Irish ambassador to the UN, and then president of the General Assembly – wrote to Conor Cruise O’Brien at the department of external affairs in Dublin that Irish support for the freedom of colonial nations was provoking “the disappointment of certain colonial countries”. “Our long struggle for freedom”, Cremin wrote in 1958, “has given us a moral stature, with the Afro-Asian countries especially, out of all proportion to our physical power”. “From the beginning”, Boland wrote to Cremin, “one of the leading features of our policy as a member of the United Nations has been our outspoken defence of the rights of small peoples against the efforts of more powerful countries to impose their will on them by superior force”. Boland reminded other UN members that Ireland stood up for Algeria, Congo, Tibet and others, and that on a recent trip to Dublin, Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah had noted that the freedom of Asian and African nations was one of the tenets of Charles Parnell’s National Movement.

Peace and neutrality

Ireland’s “right” course of action, Boland wrote, required acting both “consistently with her past history and present policies”. Irish commitments to peace and neutrality sent Irish peacekeepers to post-colonial Congo, where Pat Quinlan’s company faced an overwhelming siege at Jadotville in 1961 (not, the documents reveal, as a result of a “solo run” by Cruise O’Brien, but with the full knowledge of the UN). Ireland joined the most outspoken critics of the apartheid system in South Africa, and of the bloody ends to French, Portuguese and other European imperialism. “European countries”, declared a 1960 department of external affairs memo, “have a moral responsibility” to promote the development of the former colonies. A 1960 speech by Lemass indicating Irish support for the UN’s “Freedom from Hunger” campaign presaged a long period of Irish focus on famine issues underpinned by our own experiences of national starvation. The documents’ frequent references to staggering levels of emigration in the 1950s emphasise Ireland’s moral responsibility to be a voice for migrant nations today.

Joint participation in the European project would remain a central objective of Irish policy towards Britain for decades

Hundreds of thousands of those emigrants were streaming across the Irish Sea to Britain, emphasising the gaping holes in the young Republic’s independence. “Ireland would have considered membership or association with the EEC in the beginning but for the problem that Britain was not then seeking membership,” Lemass wrote in August 1961. The decades since have seen Ireland embrace European co-operation as the space in which full self-determination can be achieved. Now Brexit reframes Lemass’ dilemma. If peace and an open border can be secured, and economic progress maintained in a separate market to Britain, it will be testament to a century of tireless diplomacy.

Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian with the Royal Historical Society in London. Documents in Irish Foreign Policy vol. XI (1957-61) was published last month by the Royal Irish Academy