Diarmaid Ferriter: Kenny must justify his lead role on Brexit

There is precedent for Taoiseach taking on foreign affairs challenge but he must bring coherence and planning

In 1922, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Joseph Walshe, who had worked during the War of Independence in Sinn Féin's Irish foreign service, became acting secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs after its secretary, Robert Brennan, resigned because of his opposition to the treaty. Divisions over the treaty provided only one of many challenges for Walshe. During that decade the independence of what was renamed the Department of External Affairs was under threat from what historian Michael Kennedy has described as a "predatory Department of the President of the Executive Council [later Department of the Taoiseach] which sought to incorporate External Affairs into its own structure, and from the Department of Finance, which sought to close External Affairs down".

By the end of the 1920s, however, Walshe, officially appointed secretary in 1927, had built what Kennedy describes as “a professional, apolitical, and impartial diplomatic service out of the ruins of the Dáil Éireann diplomatic service”.

The next big challenge was the change of power in 1932 when Fianna Fáil assumed office. Walshe feared de Valera, who assumed the ministry of external affairs, would remove him, but, on the contrary, they developed a close, strategic partnership, both working towards the same objective.

Walshe sought to define this goal in March 1932; a desire that “‘Ireland’ will be our name, and our international position will let the world and the people at home know that we are independent”.


At the heart of that assertion was a belief by that generation of politicians and civil servants that real foreign policy success was going to lie in complete independence from Britain and the declaration of neutrality, although Walshe’s optimism regarding partition (“I believe we can achieve the unity of this country in seven years”) was misplaced.

Irish influence

Irish diplomats also had to accept the need to be realistic about the lack of Irish influence in Washington. As Walshe put it in October 1932: “We must, therefore, frankly regard ourselves as definitely isolated from any support from America.”

Coinciding with all this, de Valera, in addressing the League of Nations when the Irish Free State held the presidency of the League Council, highlighted his disquiet about the larger powers dominating international organisations.

“Let us be frank with ourselves. There is on all sides complaint, criticism and suspicion. People are complaining that the league is devoting its activity to matters of secondary or very minor importance, while the vital international problems of the day, problems which touch the very existence of our peoples, are being shelved or postponed. People are saying the equality of the states does not apply in the things that matter, that the smaller states, whilst being given a voice, have little real influence.”

Being realistic about Ireland’s status and influence in relation to international politics and diplomacy whilst also having some sense of a realistic vision and ambition remained, and continues to remain, the challenge of Irish foreign policy.

Historian Desmond Williams suggested by the 1970s "two principal points arise for a small state: policy cannot be a single grand design and freedom of action is limited", emphasising the extent of interdependence and limitations. Yet this did not have to equate to helplessness; nor does it now.

At this critical juncture, especially given the complete lack of coherence on the British side in relation to Brexit – underlined this week by the resignation of Britain's ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers, and his pointed concern about "ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking"– there is a need for clarity about what the Irish position is.

Painstaking attention

One of the striking aspects of the annual State paper releases is how they lay bare the extent of the effort devoted to Anglo-Irish and European relations by politicians and civil servants over the decades and the painstaking attention to detail. The same is true of the documents on Irish foreign policy series, a project of the

Royal Irish Academy

, Department of Foreign Affairs and National Archives, of which 10 volumes have been published since 1997. Given the challenge Brexit poses, a similar effort is required now.

There has been criticism of Taoiseach Enda Kenny for not appointing a minister with responsibility for handling the implications of Brexit for Ireland; Kenny sees this job as his.

There is precedent for the head of government taking on the main foreign policy challenge – de Valera in the 1930s, and Garret FitzGerald in the 1980s – but the declaration of intent needs to be matched with coherence and concrete planning in order to continue a tradition, so clearly underlined in the archives, of competence and adroitness.

Rogers revealed “we do not yet know what the [British] government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit”.

In contrast, the Irish Government needs to know precisely what it will set as its negotiating objectives, and it requires an aggressive plan to attain them.