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

Seán Lemass  with Capt WB Hill and Seán Leydon of  Aerlínte Éireann in 1958: “It is not possible to determine now what our attitude would be if Britain did not acquire membership,” Mr Lemass wrote of the EEC.

Seán Lemass with Capt WB Hill and Seán Leydon of Aerlínte Éireann in 1958: “It is not possible to determine now what our attitude would be if Britain did not acquire membership,” Mr Lemass wrote of the EEC.

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’”.

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