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Seán Lemass tapes: Britain sought to ‘destroy’ Common Market

Seán Lemass on . . . the British, colleagues, world leaders . . .

Harold MacMillan and the United Kingdom’s EEC membership

"I do not think that either MacMillan or any member of the British government ever fully understood that they could not be half in and half out of the EEC. They had to make up their minds whether Britain was to be a part of a united Europe and, if so, they would have to resign themselves to the fact that they could not have a special relationship with the US which would give them rights and privileges against their Common Market partners or try to maintain the Commonwealth preferences. MacMillan did not realise that indication of vacillation on Britain's part would discredits its application in the eyes of de Gaulle. As a result, I think he was surprised by the de Gaulle veto."

British attitudes to Europe

“I do not think they had any other idea initially in relation to the Common Market, except to destroy it. Even when they recognised they were not going to succeed in breaking it up, their application for membership was probably inspired by the idea that they could slow down its development in some way and perhaps change its character. It is the only in the last few years that the British have realised that they are not going to succeed in these policies. They have come around – if their public declarations are indicative of their attitude – to accepting the whole idea of European economic integration. Yet they still have the imperial frame of mind as shown by their Commonwealth prime ministers’ conferences. Of what real importance is the Commonwealth? I do not think it has any significance whatsoever, but it certainly has prevented the British from thinking of themselves as a completely European country.”

Ireland’s attitude on membership of the EEC, and military alliances

"I have always felt strongly that when Europe is integrated economically we cannot stay out and that once it develops political institutions it will be impossible to have common commercial policies without common political policies. Once we are in the area of common political policies, we must have a common defence policy. When I was taoiseach I said several times we were not neutral although we were not a member of any military alliance. In any conflict between east and west, we will always be on the side of the west. Ireland will side with democracy against any socialist or totalitarian system."

Neville Chamberlain

"I remember Chamberlain well. He was a dry sort of character, but he had a sense of humour, you could get a spark of humour out of him, even though he did not look like a man who had a sense of humour until you probed deeper. I will say there was a lot of unfair criticism of Chamberlain on the grounds that he tried to keep peace with Hitler and Mussolini and he probably was unwise to come back from Munich waving his bit of paper and saying, 'this means peace in our day'. But, in fact, Britain was not prepared for war at the time, neither physically nor morally and a lot of preparations for war and of this Munich agreement came from people on the Labour side in Britain who had been fiercely opposing the re-armament programme. He did gain them a year in which they were able to improve their armaments, particularly their air force, which made it possible for them to win the war."


Clement Atlee

“[He] was a peculiar type of person in that he rarely spoke but he had a capacity to listen and listen with every appearance of following every word you were saying intelligently and sympathetically. [He] asked me to call and see him at 10 Downing Street. He wanted to know how things were in Ireland and it took me an hour to list them. During this time he hardly spoke but I never had the feeling he was bored.”

Noel Browne

"[He] was the type of person who could never see anyone's opinion except his own. The party [Clann na Poblachta] broke up within a few weeks because of a disagreement between Browne and somebody else. It was a most unnatural and unusual combination. Nobody expected it to last. He was a queer fellow. He had ideas, but he bored everyone by talking far too much in the Dáil. Now every effort is being made to restore Browne's reputation by the leftists in RTÉ and people like that but he does not count and never will count."


án MacBride

"When Nato was formed in 1948, a letter was sent to the government here – to MacBride – asking did we want to be invited to become a member. McBride sent a letter saying that as long as partition existed, Ireland could not join. That letter, which was typical of him, was based on a very shallow view of our situation, but as a result of it, no invitation was issued and no invitation had ever come since. It was never suggested since that we should seek membership. His personality was such that he could not follow a consistent line and, no doubt, the weakness of his personality would, in time, have become more exposed and would eventually have lost support."

Paddy Smith (minister for agriculture who resigned from government in 1964 over Lemass’s relationship with trade unions)

“He was equally difficult with members of the party as he was with members of the government. They were always complaining at party meetings that when they went to talk to him on some matter he would abuse them. And at party meetings he was equally intolerant of criticism expressed by members of the party. He tried to browbeat any critic that would emerge in the party so that he certainly never played for popularity. And he certainly never succeeded in achieving it.”

Seán McEntee

“Most of the developments that we undertook involving public expenditure he strong opposed as minister for finance, because of his naturally conservative approach to these things, but very often he would make the most eloquent speech about the wisdom of the government concerning them without making any reference to the fact that he himself had not been in favour of them. He was very much a person who would be concerned to make the speech for the speech itself rather than to justify a decision which had been taken.”

Charles de Gaulle

"I could not get to know de Gaulle at all. De Gaulle was always on stage, always conscious of the fact that he was appearing before the television camera of history. I only met de Gaulle once. I had little difficulty in maintaining a conversation with him, no difficulty in understanding what he asked even though it came through an interpreter and he could understand my point of view. He obviously wanted to understand and had the capacity to understand it, which meant I had no problem with personal relations. There was no chemical reaction, it was quite the reverse."

António de Oliveira Salazar (Portuguese dictator 1932-1968)

"I met Salazar. I liked him as a man. He may chop heads off his opponents but it had certainly never been proven that he changed his policy because of world pressure or any such reason. He was a mild man, a quiet man who reasoned his case well. He spoke English very well and we had no problem with discussions. Salazar was a university professor but by the time I met him he had already been dictator in Portugal for 20 years. They did not have politics in our sense."

Dwight D Eisenhower

“The query in my mind about Eisenhower was not so much his unsuitability as a politician but his unsuitability as a great military commander, a tough army leader who would give clear decisive orders and stand no nonsense. He had not that type of personality. As a military commander he was very much more of a politician than a strategist.”


“I have a poor opinion of independents in the Dáil. They never influence the Dáil one way or the other. You do not know where they stand. Most of them rarely attend anyway. They are men who are elected to a job and are drawing a salary, but they will rarely take a political risk by expressing a view of any kind at all.”

Co Roscommon

“There used to be a story told about a politician in the early days trying to run a Communist scare at the elections, going down to a part of Co Roscommon and saying what would happen if the Communists came over taking your land from you, but leaving you managing it and paying you a weekly salary each week to manage it. The idea of being paid a salary to manage the land was so popular among the small farmers in the area that they were out looking for these Communists who were going to offer them a weekly salary for the managing of their lands.”


“The right approach for the deputy who wants to establish public confidence in himself is to be quite honest, quite straightforward and to tell them that they are wasting their time on that particular operation – to tell them that this cannot be got or that it is undesirable that he should seek it for them. This often produces an electoral reward which is astonishing. Some of the deputies I know who have consistently topped the poll were deputies who refused to have anything to do with humbug, who refused to mislead their constituents in any respect whatsoever.”

John Healy (‘Irish Times’ political journalist who wrote the Backbencher column and the book ‘No One Shouted Stop (The Death of an Irish Town)’, about the impact of emigration on his home town of Charlestown in Co Mayo)

"There has been a lot of nonsense talked about this by urban theorists. Our friend in The Irish Times talks a lot of bilge. I am told they resented his articles intensely in Charlestown. They did not think of themselves as a dying community. They do not want to see themselves or anybody else in this light. He does not go back to Charlestown, I gather, having painted this picture [In the transcripts, Lemass crosses this last sentence out]."

Lemass on himself

“I like everything in the right place and I suppose I’m a creature of habit too because when I go away for a holiday I like to go to a hotel which I’ve been to before – I don’t like going to new hotels. I like to do the things which I’m accustomed to doing and to do them even regularly. From time to time I used to have groups which I played cards with – I liked to have that fixed night every week so that you could organise your life on the assumption that you were not available for other things on that night. On the fishing trips, I go to the same hotel with the same people and I would dislike having to go off to some strange place.”