Current controversies about the place and role of Northern Ireland post-Brexit would be even more interesting if the participants were aware of a political initiative by Éamon de Valera about Irish unity, in a final gambit just before he left office as taoiseach, which remained secret at the time and the details of which were not, as far as I am aware, recorded in any official Irish government archives. While the intervening decades have consigned them firmly to history, they offer a fascinating insight into the Anglo-Irish relationships in a different era.
The events concerned were, however, recorded in the British archives. The fact that they involved meetings between de Valera and Aiken and top British civil servants – without any Irish civil servants present – underlines the fact that they were organised with total secrecy and on the unspoken assumption that if they were unsuccessful (as they were) de Valera’s reputation at home would remain undamaged.
de Valera said the British government should be persuaded to admit publicly that 'it was a British no less than an Irish interest to see Partition answered'
If there are Irish files detailing these discussions that took place in late 1957 and early 1958 in London, not long before de Valera handed over the reins of office to Sean Lemass, they have yet to attract any substantial attention. It is not difficult to see why: they would have been politically explosive at that time and even later, and would have raised issues for historians and perhaps also for politicians.
Part of the reason for this may well be because there seem to have been no Irish civil servants present at any of these meetings. However, the core material is contained in two UK archive files – DO35/7891 and DO35/5379 – which also identify what the British believed was a substantial contrast, not to say difference, between the views of de Valera and Seán Lemass on Northern Ireland.
The first of these British files details a number of meetings between British officials and Frank Aiken, then minister for external affairs, in 1957 and 1958. These disclose that shortly after Fianna Fáil won the 1957 general election, Aiken raised the issue of partition with the British ambassador in Dublin, Sir Alexander Clutterbuck, and, shortly afterwards, de Valera wrote to Lord Rugby, the UK diplomat who had been UK representative in Ireland from 1939 to 1948, suggesting that, as a first step, the British government should be persuaded to admit publicly that "it was a British no less than an Irish interest to see Partition answered".
The British declined, no doubt politely but forcefully, and their account of a meeting in London between both sides noted: “Mr de Valera seemed unhappy but resigned to it; Mr Aiken said he would be back in July and hoped that we would have changed our minds.”
A memorandum from the Commonwealth Relations Office on October 16th, 1957, to Lord Lansdowne. a senior UK diplomat, noted: "There are obvious arguments against the maintenance of two political systems in a country of some four million people which geographically is one unit, and which for many centuries was one unit historically and politically. But the division between North and South already had deep roots when self-government for Ireland first became an active issue. The situation is one that, without a real desire on both sides to reach an agreement, will be most difficult to remedy. It may be that through increased co-operation between the two governments on administrative matters lies the best hope of some better understanding between them in the future."
Less than a week later, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, who was born and educated in Dublin, was related to Ernie O'Malley and had served as ambassador to Dublin in 1950-51, recorded a conversation he had just had with Frank Aiken: "It seemed to me inconceivable that southern Ireland would be willing to accept allegiance to the queen. Mr Aiken confirmed that this was the case. I suggested that this might equally apply to them accepting Her Majesty as head of the commonwealth and rejoining the Commonwealth. I understood his answer to be the same."
Evidently part of the discussions that took place at around this time centred on who would make the first move. At the Fianna Fáil ardfheis in November 1957 de Valera condemned force and said that he would welcome a conference with the leaders of the British and Northern Ireland governments. In January 1958. In the course of a Seanad debate, he reaffirmed the Irish government’s desire for co-operation with Northern Ireland.
None of this cut much ice with the British authorities. Clutterbuck poured cold water on these initiatives in a letter to Laithwaite on January 30th, 1958. “It is extraordinary,” he noted, “that in spite of all these rebuffs he continues to think on these lines, ie a few words from us would clear up the whole situation.”
De Valera and Aiken proposed that Northern Ireland should surrender its direct allegiance to the queen in return for a united Republic of Ireland within the Commonwealth
Frank Aiken was sent in again to bat for the government on March 3rd,1958, when he told the British ambassador in Dublin that de Valera was “now at the end of his career and deeply anxious to find some line of advance before he left office”.
Later, in preparation for a visit by the then British Commonwealth secretary to Dublin the same year, a confidential internal British memo noted that in the same month – March – de Valera and Aiken had both already seen the Commonwealth secretary. A confidential note prepared for a British diplomat’s visit to Dublin gave an account of this meeting in terms that would have set off a political explosion in Dublin had its content been revealed at that time.
Allegiance to the queen
As recorded by the British side, de Valera and Aiken proposed that Northern Ireland should surrender its direct allegiance to the queen in return for a united Republic of Ireland within the Commonwealth, which would recognise the queen as its head. The UK, they added, should take the initiative towards such a solution of the problem.
The Commonwealth secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, according to the UK account of this conversation, "said first that we could not be expected to go to Northern Ireland and suggest that its people should be less loyal to the queen than they wish to be; and secondly, that if we were to believe the Irish press and took note of the teaching in the Irish schools, there could be no confidence that southern Ireland would in fact accept the queen as head of the Commonwealth".
However, De Valera – surprisingly as it may seem to some – had form in this matter. At a dinner with Churchill in London in September 1953 he told the British premier that had he been taoiseach in 1949 he would not have taken Ireland out of the Commonwealth, as Costello had done. However, by this date not only had the Atlee government guaranteed that Northern Ireland would never be forced to leave the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of its voters, but Churchill’s government was depending – like the later governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson – on the Westminster votes of Northern Ireland unionists. History repeats itself.
By the autumn of 1959, however, de Valera had resigned, his initiative on Northern Ireland rebuffed, and he had been succeeded by Lemass. Here, the British archives give a far more sharply delineated picture of the way Lemass approached the Northern Ireland issue, and indeed of the differences between his approach and that of his predecessor, unclouded by his long-standing admiration of, and respect for, the older man.
As Clutterbuck reported to London towards the end of his period as British ambassador in Dublin on September 1st, 1959: “Mr Lemass, when I have seen him recently, has not only shown himself full of energy and ideas but has seemed positively excited at the new opportunities now given to him to lead the country forward on more realistic lines. That he wishes to get away from the sterile slogans of the past, there can be no doubt. But in certain respects he will have to move cautiously. It is well known, for instance, that he has no sympathy with the campaign for the restoration of the Irish language; but with Mr de Valera watching him from Phoenix Park, and with so many of the ‘old guard’ still holding high office, he cannot afford too precipitate a change of policy.”
Lemass’s legendary bluntness was even more in evidence on this occasion, as was his anxiousness to make as much progress as possible in what he knew would be – because of his health issues – a necessarily limited period in office. Clutterbuck added: “His references in the Dáil to partition have been couched in notably moderate terms and he urged a quieter approach . . . Perhaps the most encouraging feature of his pronouncements . . . was the absence of any suggestion that it was in some way the fault of, and maintained by, Britain – he seems to recognise that it is a matter for agreement between Irishmen themselves. That, indeed, is an advance.”
Clutterbuck was succinct and positive in his judgment. "Mr Lemass...made clear the substitution of a new policy of goodwill and friendliness towards the North for the old attitude of hostility and abuse which has led merely to a widening of the gap. indeed, Mr L said quite frankly to me that he fully realised on looking back that a great number of mistakes had been made by the government here in relation to the North; these he would work to rectify. It was a totally wrong conception, for instance, that this country should seek to bring pressure on the North, whether direct or through Britain or the United Nations. Any such pressure would be self-defeating, as it would only serve to harden opinion in the North, instead of bringing the day of reunion nearer.
“Reunion, to be genuine and lasting, could only be effectively achieved through goodwill and he [Lemass] was determined to do all in his power to promote goodwill and get the country to turn its back finally on past antagonisms. It was unfortunately bound to take some time to bring about a new climate of opinion, but it would assuredly come and some day it would bring results, though whether these would materialise in our lifetime no one could predict. He fully understood Lord Brookeborough’s difficulties; they were the same as his own, only in reverse; but he could not believe that goodwill here would not be matched eventually by goodwill in the North.”
A handful of years later, after the end of the IRA Border campaign, and the Lemass O’Neill initiatives, the North exploded.