No. 190 UCDA P 150/1909

Extracts from a memorandum by Erskine Childers on defence issues


London, 7 November 1921

This Memo is an endeavour to focus the Defence questions and place them in perspective in relation to the general scheme.

I adhere to the opinion expressed in my original Memo circulated to the Delegates on arrival in London that the Defence provisions will in practice be the principal factor in determining our status and the general character of the settlement.

The other side seem to have acted on this view, their tactics being to force the Defence issue and if possible breach our whole position at that point. On the Crown (as regards 'allegiance') and on Trade and Ulster our position is still intact, but on Defence we have given ground in successive stages, while their demands, instead of diminishing, have increased.

[584 words deleted covering summaries of position papers on defence to date]

To sum up, the position is by no means clear, but the inference seems to be that at present they are claiming as a minimum :-
1. To prohibit Irish naval forces and naval aircraft.
2. To garrison Irish Ports and establish naval air bases on the Irish coast.
3. To limit the numbers of the Irish Army.
4. To retain recruiting facilities.

There is nothing verbally or in writing about Condition No.3 of the Proposals of July 20th so far as it includes facilities to them for military aircraft, nor about Condition 4a, a money contribution to Imperial Forces. Otherwise the Defence Conditions of their Proposals of July 20th appear to be maintained.

1. Ireland being an island, a denial or limitation of her right and duty to defend her coasts by maritime means, naval or aerial, to the best of her power, would be a grave detraction from her national status.

(No distinction, by the way, could be prescribed between naval and military types of aircraft. A naval limitation could only take the form of forbidding flying over the sea either from land or carriers.)

A limitation of the Irish Army to a size proportionate to the British Army would not in itself have the same kind of constitutional significance, though a prohibition of its aircraft arm would.

But it must be observed that responsibility for naval, military and air defence cannot be divided, especially in an island. In war there would have to be unity of authority and in peace there should be preparation for that unity in plans, staff-work and higher command. A complete strategic unity is requisite. Later in the negotiations we may be faced with awkward consequences on this point. A self-raised Irish Army will be a great practical asset to us, but while naval prohibitions lasted it could have little or no constitutional independence, even in theory.

The armed occupation of Irish coasts by the British Government would emphasise the inferiority of status, though the right so to occupy would be only consequential upon the prohibition against Irish defence forces.

2. Under the defence conditions proposed, it would be impossible to sustain the idea of external association with the Commonwealth, and difficult enough to sustain a mere 'recognition' of the king in any capacity. The Kingship in itself may be a mere symbol. But the King's Government is a concrete fact, and if the two islands are to be a self-contained strategic unit both in peace and war, - the object aimed at - with the British Navy solely responsible for its defence, then it is hard to see how the British Government, with the King at its head, can be kept out of Ireland. If British troops are occupying Irish Soil, as of right, it becomes still harder. There they are - with the implied consequential rights over the Army etc already alluded to.

Even regarded as the weaker member in a dual Monarchy Ireland's status could not be compared with that of Norway, for example, prior to 1905, where foreign relations were unified as between Sweden and Norway, but Armies and everything else were independent; nor with that of Hungary prior to 1918 where the two Kingdoms were jointly responsible for defence, though the defence forces were both under the command of the Hapsburg Monarch; least of all with that of Hanover (1714-1837) where the union with the English Crown was purely personal.

The point about the Anglo-Irish connection would be that Ireland would be definitely subordinate to England, still a 'domestic question', without an opening for international status.

3. The international status has already been won in practice by the British Dominions, but the defence conditions would, as long as they lasted, give Ireland a status lower than that of a Dominion. No Dominion would submit to a prohibition of naval forces or to an enforced occupation. The process there has been the opposite one, that of urging the Dominions to assume their own defence. Here it is a case of preventing us from having weapons which may (save the mark!) be a danger to England and of preserving intact the strategic unity of the two islands. The prospect held out in the alteration, suggested by them, to our letter No. 2 of November 2nd. of an 'agreement similar to that with the Dominions' has therefore little value.

In point of fact the agreement probably alluded to that with Canada - (they are now withholding the Simonstown agreement though they promised it three weeks ago) - does not concern 'coastal defence' proper, which has never been in question. It concerns the garrisons of two ports, Halifax and Esquimalt, where there were naval dockyards. In 1905 Canada spontaneously offered to relieve England of all responsibility for these ports and to substitute her own garrisons, and bear the whole expense. This was done. (The White Papers are available here.) The Sydney dockyard was handed over in 1914.

The other important agreement was with Canada and Australia in 1911. This put into writing the unwritten principle that Dominion naval forces are under exclusively Dominion control and can be withheld in the event of war - an implied right of neutrality which might or might not be recognized internationally.

4. The British claims on Ireland are in direct conflict with this principle. The vague suggestion has been made on the British side that all may come right when, after a few years, suspicion of Ireland has died away. At the best I don't think this would lead very far, but at the moment it seems more to the point to consider where the present strategic demands tend to in the immediate settlement, especially with a view to the demands of N.E. Ulster.

To judge by press indications there is to be a push to try and force us into a Home Rule settlement described as 'Dominion Status.' Even if we claimed such a status, which we do not, the naval defence conditions by themselves would nullify it, but they might also open the door to other limitations:

(a) Ireland could hardly claim the treaty rights the Dominions now have, that is (apart from commercial treaties of their own), the right to not be bound by British treaties they have not themselves ratified (for instance, the Anglo-French treaty of 1919), with the inference that they can be neutral in war, an inference fortified by the Naval Agreement of 1911.
(b) The implications as regards the Irish Army have already been suggested.
(c) Non-responsibility for naval defence would naturally imply a liability to contribute in money to the British Navy.
(d) It would also threaten our claim to control external trade (merchant shipping, etc.) and even Customs. No nation which is not de facto independent (reckoning the Dominions as that) controls external trade and customs, and these controls are in fact hardly compatible with anything short of virtual independence.
(e) Any or all of these limitations would logically involve representation in the British Parliament. Attendance at the Imperial Conference would not cover the relationship. Strategic unity by itself strictly involves Irish members at Westminster; a fortiori, a legal contribution or loss of fiscal and trade rights.

I hope it will not be supposed that I am raising these points in a spirit of undue pessimism. (e) could never arise, even remotely, without a break. It is only in an endeavour to show the possible effect of a wrong principle in undermining our position in detail, with so strong a factor as Ulster in the field. There may have to be make-shift terms in the treaty but, if humanly possible, it should rest on some principle clearly defined and strictly adhered to.

The British Dominions are safeguarded at all points by unwritten constitutional conventions and by distance.

We have certain written admissions of theirs to go on:-

(a) Par. 4 on Defence in their Memorandum of October 27 declaring that their proposals are 'purely defensive' and not intended 'to afford in the smallest degree either armed occupation or political control.'
(b) Par. 2 of the same Memorandum : 'not as a State subordinate to Great Britain, but as one of the nations of the Commonwealth.'
(c) Their Memo. on Dominion Status, which, though deliberately reticent on defence matters, at any rate says 'The Dominions either have or are free to have naval and military forces of their own.'

Though the question of allegiance makes the Dominion analogy perilous, we can stand out for a status at any rate not less than that of a Dominion. The questions involved are in any case not peculiar to the British Dominions. They are vital to all free States.

Having given up guaranteed neutrality or integrity, it seems necessary to get the principles underlying (a), (b) and (c) - above all (c), embodied as integral parts of the settlement. (a) should be converted from an intention into a fact - no occupation of Irish coasts.

As regards (b) and (c), the circumstances warrant some such declarations of principle as the following:-

'The principle is accepted that it is the duty of the Irish Government to provide to the best of its ability for the naval and military defence of Ireland.'
'The forces so provided to be exclusively under Irish control.'
'Their object is declared to be purely defensive.'
'In earnest of this intention the Irish Government undertakes, in respect of naval defence, subject to any future agreement with the British Government, to employ no submarines.'

The latter proviso, if it had to be inserted, would be useless, but it would meet the chief British nightmare. Submarines can be dispensed with for coast defence. They have the curious quality of not being able to fight one another and the fear of hostile submarines on Irish coasts is one of the two main points made by the other side.

Temporary 'facilities', to which in principle we are committed, should be a matter of free separate agreement as stipulated in our Memo. of October 29th.

Lastly: 'Ireland to be bound only by Treaties which the Irish Parliament has ratified.' (This is in strict accordance with modern Dominion precedent.)
6. This Memo. does not deal with their and our technical case on defence. This is outlined in our Defence Memo. of October 18. It should not be forgotten that we have a strong case, and they a weak one.

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