Home Truths from Abroad – Frank McNally on a letter written in 1950 that still holds true today
Tom O’Higgins was in 1950 a young TD who was dispatched to Strasbourg with the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe
Mark FitzGerald, son of former taoiseach Garret, has forwarded a fascinating letter from the family archives that, despite being nearly 70 years old, helps explain the crisis currently gripping the UK. It was written by another illustrious relative: his father-in-law Tom O’Higgins, whose daughter Derval – Mark’s wife – found it at the bottom of a box of papers.
O’Higgins would later be a government minister, presidential candidate (twice), and chief justice. But at the time, August 1950, he was a 34-year-old newly elected TD, who for his sins had been dispatched to Strasbourg with the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe. Being also newly married, he found the experience trying.
On one level, it’s a forlorn love letter, addressed to “My Darling” and written during a meeting of the general assembly while he had “ear-phones on listening to a chap talking”. He makes the mission, due to last at least another week, sound like a prison sentence, “but I intend to fight hard to get out before the end”.
On the other hand, his letter also brings the scene to life in a way that, with letters in general, the mobile phone has since killed off. Thus we learn that Churchill (“he looks a fierce old warrior”) is sitting only a few seats away.
Also nearby is Paul Reynaud, the former French prime minister who refused to collaborate in 1940 and was jailed. Then there is the “small and very dapper” Georges Bidault, who led the Resistance during the German occupation, and indeed during the victory parade in Paris.
Most of the protagonists had been marked by the recent conflict, including the Ulster Unionist representative on the UK delegation, Sir Ronald Ross: an officer in both world wars, who for a period in between was famed as the only member – a “one-man regiment” – of the North Irish Horse. As depicted in the letter, Ross was far from the dour unionist of stereotype: “He is about 60, bluff and hearty [...] always salutes us as ‘a cara’ and thinks everything is a huge joke”.
One other amusing theme is O’Higgins’s worry at the price of alcohol. This was a professional concern. Lobbying at receptions was crucial to getting motions tabled, he explained. But the previous night he had stood a round – “4 beers and a cognac brandy (a cheap drink here)” – that cost 31 shillings: “Our allowance won’t go far.”
Amid all this colourful minutiae, however, the detail that hasn’t dated was his description of Britain’s ambivalence towards the postwar European structures the assembly was trying to build.
“The British here are in a difficulty as to whether to throw in their lot with Europe or side with America,” O’Higgins wrote. The immediate cause of their dilemma was the Schuman Plan, published months before, which was designed to rebuild Germany but, in so doing, to bind it into an economic union with France that would make another war impossible.
The UK approved this aim but had mixed feelings about the means. As O’Higgins summed up: “Britain has to decide whether to go in or to stay out dependent on America and the trouble with her is that she is [...] trying to achieve both.” So it would continue, for the next 68 years and counting.
As for Ireland, the delegation did secure speaking rights that week. And according to this newspaper’s reports, those were turbulent exchanges, dominated by partition. The then-tánaiste, Labour’s William Norton, complained of “naked aggression” in the “occupied six counties”, while taoiseach Éamon de Valera delivered a “vehement speech – in the course of which he swept the microphone from its stand onto the benches below”.
Ross’s capacity for humour, meanwhile, seemed to desert him temporarily. At one point, he “angrily rose and jabbed a finger” at a speaker from Ireland, asking why the latter was allowed the floor when he himself was refused.
The Schuman Plan led soon afterwards to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, which in time became the EEC, then the EU. And our delegation to Strasbourg aside, there may have been a more profound Irish influence on that process.
Only weeks before O’Higgins’s letter, in July 1950, the same Robert Schuman had attended a conference in nearby Luxeuil dedicated to another Irish envoy to Europe, also known for letter-writing. That was Columbanus, the sixth-century monk and serial monastery builder, whose 1,400th birthday they were marking. Schuman considered him an early role model and, speaking at the conference, declared him “patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe”.