No. 172 NAI DE 2/304/1

Memorandum by Erskine Childers replying to the British proposals of 18 October 1921

London, 20 October 1921


The Irish representatives have received and read with interest the Memorandum on Dominion Status prepared by Mr. Lionel Curtis at the request of the British Prime Minister.

As a document expressly put forward by the British representatives to aid the deliberations of the Conference, it seems to us to be open to the criticism that it does not throw sufficient light on those aspects of Dominion independence which are relevant to the special issues raised in our discussions.

On the other hand it does indirectly show the fundamental difference between the modern position of a Dominion and the position which Ireland would occupy under the Conditions laid down in the British Proposals.

The Dominions have been cited at the Conference in connection with Trade and Defence.

TRADE: As regards Trade much stress has been laid by the British representatives upon the necessity of an agreement for mutual free trade between the two countries as indicated in Condition 5 of the Proposals of July 20th.2 It has been argued by the Irish representatives that any such agreement was not only undesirable in itself but would in practical effect be a grave curtailment of the 'complete autonomy in taxation and finance' offered in the body of the Proposals, and reaffirmed at the beginning of Condition 5.

The Memorandum while stating on page 1 that 'control of the purse and fiscal autonomy' are complete in the Dominions and that they 'negotiate commercial treaties not only between themselves but with foreign states' remarks (apparently in indirect allusion to Condition 5) that they might make 'mutual arrangements' for free trade 'with each other or with Great Britain if it suited their interests', and that there is nothing 'to prevent their agreeing to put such arrangements upon a permanent basis.'

It would be more pertinent, we think, to point out that the Dominions have invariably refrained from making any such mutual arrangements even on a temporary basis, on the ground that it did not suit their interests so to fetter, even temporarily, their freedom of negotiation and their control over revenue. 'Arrangements upon a permanent basis' they would undoubtedly regard as a grave limitation of their political independence. Inter-Imperial Free Trade has been proposed to them by advocates of Imperial Federation and was aimed at by Mr. Joseph Chamberlain with that ultimate object; but Imperial Federation is a dead issue - dead because it implied the limitation of Dominion independence.

An earlier passage of the Memorandum that 'in no case have they (the Dominions) given a preference to foreign over British goods' is more relevant to the trade point discussed at the Conference. This has not been a matter of treaty. The Irish representatives would willingly make it the subject of a treaty. We may add that neither the Dominions nor Great Britain have ever been troubled by fear of 'ruinous trade wars', nor have any taken place.

DEFENCE: Dominion status has been referred to by the British representatives, both at the Conference and at the Naval and Air Defence Committee in connection with Condition No.1 of the British Proposals and with the specific demands put forward in the Admiralty Memorandum dated Oct. 15th3 and in the formula presented by Mr. Churchill on Oct. 17th.4

There seems to have been some misunderstanding on Mr. Churchill's part about the Simonstown agreement, but we take it that there can be no dispute on the following points :-

1. that the conditions laid down for the occupation of specific ports in Ireland in time of peace have no parallel in the British Dominions and are incompatible with modern Dominion rights.

All Dominion ports are now under exclusive Dominion control and there are no British forces in occupation of any part of Dominion territory.

2. that in war no Dominion port or ship, or any part of its territory or forces, would fall automatically under Imperial control, and that a fortiori the sweeping demands made in the last paragraph of the Admiralty Memorandum are not made and could never be made to a Dominion, namely that the British Admiralty should have power even 'during a period of strained relations', as well as in the event of war, to acquire buildings and sites anywhere in Ireland and to exercise undivided control in Irish waters.

3. That no Dominion would subscribe to Mr. Churchill's formula of Oct.
17th or submit to the restrictions laid down in Condition No.1 and the 'Explanatory Addition to it' supplied to us on Oct. 17th. These documents prohibit an Irish Navy altogether and ask us to repudiate all responsibility for the naval defence of Ireland, while the formula goes further than the Admiralty Memorandum in compelling us to place all our ports, coasts and inlets unreservedly at the disposal of the British Admiralty not only in war but in peace. Island nations, especially Australia and New Zealand, would vehemently resent any such conditions as reducing their status to that of subordinate provinces.

These points are not illuminated in the Memorandum submitted to us. Mr. Curtis says on page 11 that the Dominions 'have or are free to have naval and military forces of their own' and lays stress upon the efforts made by Britain in the past to induce the colonists to undertake their own defence, and dispense with Imperial help - an ironical parallel to the terrible history of Ireland. He makes no reference to the later efforts made to induce the Dominions to agree to a scheme for a single Imperial navy for common defence, to which they should contribute; their consistent refusal to entertain the idea on the ground that their independence would be impaired; and their unanimous and definite adoption now (for New Zealand and South Africa have come into line with Australia and Canada) of the principle of Dominion navies under Dominion control. He makes no allusion to the Naval Agreement of 1911 with Australia and Canada laying down in its preamble that 'the naval forces of the Dominions of Canada and Australia will be exclusively under the control of their respective Governments' and, in Section 16, that in time of war the naval Services of a Dominion should come under Admiralty control only when they had been 'placed at the disposal of the Imperial Government' - in other words that the Dominions might decline to participate in the war. It was presumably not considered necessary in this agreement to refer to naval ports. That the Imperial Government could occupy and utilise Dominion territory in war without the consent of the Dominion Governments is surely inconceivable.

There has been some incidental discussion at the Conference and Defence Committee as to the position of a Dominion if it did declare its non-participation or neutrality in a war in which Great Britain was engaged.

It was conceded by the British representatives at the Conference that it was impossible to 'hypothecate the resources' of an unwilling Dominion in war - a principle flagrantly departed from in the demands of the Admiralty Memorandum upon Ireland - but it was suggested that a declaration of neutrality would mean secession from the Commonwealth and that secession might be prevented by force.

Mr. Curtis ignores these specific points but the actual position is surely clear from the last pages of his Memorandum describing the equality of status of the Dominions and Great Britain, the internationally recognised position of the former, their right to vote as separate states and even to vote against one another at the League of Nations, their separate ratification of the Versailles peace treaty, and their right to have a voice not only in all foreign relations but in the declaration of wars (pp. 13-14).

The picture he draws is that of an alliance or partnership of free nations united by no bond of compulsion and subject to no compulsion if any of them should decide to leave the partnership. 'Each Government' writes Mr. Curtis 'is free to take any action it chooses but each is expected to consult the others before taking action which affects the unity of the Commonwealth as a whole. And if the Imperial Conference is of opinion that the action proposed would affect that unity, the Government opposing it would be expected to abstain.'

The right to secede without compulsion - contested by the British representatives at the Conference, appears to be here implicitly admitted, and it is strange that the explicit assertion of that right made in the most emphatic language, on behalf of the British Government in the House of Commons on March 30th, 1920, by Mr. Bonar Law is not alluded to by Mr. Curtis :- '? There is not a man in this House, and least of all my right Hon. Friend, who would not admit that the connection of the Dominions with the Empire depends upon themselves. If the self-governing Dominions, Australia, Canada, chose tomorrow to say "We will no longer make a part of the British Empire", we would not try to force them. Dominion Home Rule means the right to decide their own destinies ...'.

As to whether the neutrality of a Dominion would, in fact, involve secession and precisely how international law would regard such a neutrality, it is impossible to say positively; but as regards the latter point it would seem that as an individual member of the League of Nations, a Dominion could assert the full rights of a neutral and claim protection from the League against any forcible measures.

Mr. Curtis says on page 18 that 'he cannot formulate the relations in which these equal nations (that is the Dominions and Great Britain) stand to each other,' and quotes from Mr. Lloyd George's words explaining that the Imperial Conference had decided not to define these relations and why. Mr. Curtis might have stressed the simple reason for this decision, namely that there are no constitutional relations to define, the position being one of absolute freedom for all Members of the Commonwealth coupled with the most intimate and friendly co-operation, the last whisper of any scheme of Imperial Federation having disappeared.

Expressions of opinion by Dominion Statesmen as strong in effect as that of Mr. Bonar Law might have been quoted by Mr. Curtis in support of this view; for example, Sir H. Borden's claim for Canada of 'sovereignty' as 'complete' as that of other independent nations in the war (Canadian House, Sep. 2nd 1919), General Smuts' words 'We have received a position of absolute equality and freedom not only among the other States of the Empire but among the other nations of the world.' (Union House, Sept. 10th 1919), and Mr. Lloyd George's statement that South Africa 'controls its own national destiny in the fullest sense.'

1 A note by Childers covering this memorandum reads: Most of this Memo. was written with a view to its possibly having to be given to the other side - hence the form and language adopted. To save work it was continued in the same form after the decision not to give it to them.

2 No. 141 above.

3 Not printed.

4 Not printed.

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