No. 273 NAI DFA Minister's Office files (1924-25)

James McNeill to Desmond FitzGerald (Dublin) enclosing copy of a statement made to journalists

London, 26 September 19241

My dear Minister,

You may like to have a copy of my statement to the journalists. I made a few remarks of welcome & then said I would read what I had to say to them. I expect I shall see myself as others see me in an hour or two. The atmosphere seemed friendly. Steed2 worked3 off a reference to his own proposals after I had answered a few questions. I hope you will think that the mountain air was nutritious.

Yours sincerely
James McNeill

I enclose a spare copy for K. O'H, & one for the Pres[iden]t. The newspapers may report it at length, but you may like to have just what I said.

[text of statement]

It seems to me that this question, this very controversial question, is being treated in some quarters here rather as a party question than an international question. The question at issue is a question as to what is just and honourable between two nations. The principles which are applied to its settlement should be such as to deserve recognition in any international settlement.

When the Treaty was made in 1921 the Irish Free State was not forthwith limited to 26 counties. Ireland was the unit and our representatives negotiated as the representatives of Ireland. By article 12 of the Treaty it was agreed that the Government of Northern Ireland could object to the inclusion in the Irish Free State, not of six counties, but of the areas of which the population preferred British to Irish Government, subject to economical and geographical considerations.

The right to opt for British Government was not recognised by Irishmen as an absolute right of any Irish minority, but it was recognised by the great majority as the surest as well as the most peaceful means of attaining Irish unity and ending hostility between Ireland and Great Britain. The unity might be delayed but would come by agreement in due course. We still have no doubt about that. The recognition of the right of a minority to adhere to an external Government has not as far as I know been imposed on any other people of which the national rights have been recognised by the League of Nations, and the resolutions of the Assembly of the League of Nations, which the representatives of Great Britain and the Dominions helped to frame, regard minorities as deserving of protection but not of segregation from the national unit. We in Ireland are, however, content that the minority should be segregated as the Treaty provides, because we are convinced that both sentiment and interest will lead to re-union. There is no doubt of the fact that some Irishmen now prefer to be governed from Westminster. It may seem to you to be stupid, but I think all will prefer hereafter to assist in governing Ireland. So the divergence from League of Nations ideals in the case of Ireland need not now be stressed.

The meaning of Article 12 of the Treaty seemed to us to be quite clear. We understood the words in their plain sense and in the sense in which the identical words were used in treaties made and carried into effect on the continent at the same time. We did not think and do not think that their meaning was to be gathered from the Berlin treaty which was, I think, made in Germany some time before the new world was called in to redress the balance of the old. We understood that the wishes of the people directly concerned were, as the words stated, of primary importance in this treaty as in the others. We did not think that the meaning of the words was to be ascertained by the perusal of subsequent correspondence between party politicians, which was doubtless for good reason marked 'Secret'. Was it the British people who could not be trusted to understand this secret doctrine in its fullness? Is there any other article of the Treaty of which the secret meaning is yet to be revealed? With all deference I request you British journalists to have this made clear. We shall have other agreements to enter into with British Governments and we should like to know all the secret interpretations of this first agreement. In any case there is nothing immoral, nothing offensive to modern political thought, in asking that when a country is being divided to satisfy a small minority of its citizens that human beings will not be treated like cattle. We are not looking outside our country for territory to rule. We are asking that areas in Ireland adjoining the Free State shall not be excluded from the Free State against the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of those areas and be compelled to accept British Government against their will.

We have not asked that the principles recognised internationally in recent continental settlements should be applied in full to Ireland. We do ask that they should not be flouted, and we expect something else than threats of murder from your legislators in return for our moderation. So much for our interpretation of the Treaty. That interpretation needs no secret commentary to reconcile it with the text or with the principles which the League of Nations, of which Great Britain and the Dominions are members, has undertaken to maintain.

It has been urged as an obstacle to this interpretation that what was granted to 'Ulster' cannot be withdrawn. May I point out that the people placed under the Government of Northern Ireland are therefore under the Government of Great Britain, and that the fundamental issue is whether the British or Irish Governments should govern Irishmen in areas adjoining the Irish Free State who want to be governed by the Government of the Irish Free State. What is called the grant of territory to the subordinate Government of Northern Ireland cannot justify the inequitable segregation of Irishmen from the Irish Free State. As to the alleged grant of territory, no Irish member of Parliament voted for it, and more than three fourths of the Irish people were opposed to it. They regarded the arbitrary division as a hostile act. Its palpable injustice impelled large numbers of Irishmen to approve of active resistance to the British Government in Ireland.

It also stated that a pledge was given to 'Ulster' and that this induced Ulster to accept the 1920 Act. What does 'Ulster' mean in that connection? It certainly is not the people of the Nine Counties of the Irish province of Ulster, nor before 1920 could it be the Government of the Six Counties. 'Ulster' was obviously the Ulster Unionist Association, which accepted the political creed of British Unionists, and received financial support from that political association. Can such a party pledge or promise be regarded as a ground for casting aside a treaty?

English Unionists and 15 or 16 Irish Unionist members of the British Parliament agreed as to the division of Ireland for purposes of local self-Government. The Irish people were not consulted. That agreement, we are told, is to govern all the subsequent relations of Great Britain and Ireland. By labelling half of the Irish representatives of the Irish province of Ulster as Ulster, an internal party pledge is to override the terms of a treaty. This theory may satisfy those who are looking for reasons to justify a decision otherwise acceptable. It will satisfy no-one else in Ireland, in Great Britain or in any other country.

It has also been said that if the people were allowed to exercise a choice the area under the Government of Northern Ireland would be too small for practical administration by a subordinate Government. That cannot be taken seriously as a reason for breaking a treaty or forcing large numbers of Irishmen under the Government of Westminster. Nor is it a reason for preventing Irishmen who so desire from supporting an Irish Government, which is alleged to be in financial straits, compelling them to pay taxes to enable the English Government to reduce income tax in Great Britain.

I know that many other objections are alleged, including the objection that Irishmen in the border counties really prefer to escape Irish Government. Why then prevent the expression of their views directly by ballot? Under the Irish Government it has been shown that votes can be given freely. Under the British Government of the Six Counties is voting likely to be restricted while the gerrymandering of constituencies is unrestricted?

We are, however, willing, as the Treaty showed, that the Government of Northern Ireland should continue undisturbed within the Irish Free State. They would have the present population[,] area and jurisdiction, not as a matter of right but as a matter of good faith and good will. We recognise them as what they are, Irish, and we wish them both to prosper and to feel secure. The people who now wish to be governed by the Irish Free State, and not by the British Government would not then be compulsorily denationalised.

I am sorry to see that at least one member of the British House of Commons is already discussing the sending of armed men across the sea to resist violently any transfer of population of which the Government of Northern Ireland disapproves, even if the superior Government of Gt. Britain approves. Simultaneously we are asked by his colleagues to arrive at a settlement by consent. We have always been willing to discuss the terms of a friendly settlement and have assented to the postponement of arbitration in order that the possibilities of a friendly settlement should be examined. The arbitration procedure does not prevent a friendly settlement, and might expedite such a settlement. Threats of violence by British members of Parliament are not helpful. We are not appealing to force or violence but to reason and justice, and we ask that the settlement of the boundary be entrusted to an impartial arbitrator, to whom we offer no advice. What we want the British Government and the British people to do in this matter is simply to do as they would be done by. We assent to the temporary division of our country for the sake of peace. We think now as in 1919-1920, that the division should not have been made and we ask that, if a minority of Irishmen is to be withdrawn from the Government of the Free State and governed by Great Britain, that minority should not include a very large number who object to their forcible expatriation.

Those of us who have adhered to the Treaty and assented to the killing of our friends to maintain the Treaty, or even of our relatives, naturally regard with disfavour the visits of British legislators who threaten that we may expect more of our friends and relatives to be killed, as I think murdered, with their active assistance if we ask that Article 12 of the Treaty be interpreted honestly and put in force. I again repeat that the British people have to determine whether they will deny to large numbers of Irishmen living in areas adjoining the Free State the right of being included in the Free State. Are these people to be governed from Westminster against their will or from Dublin with their consent? I have always deprecated the unfairness of judging the British people by the utterances of extreme political partisans or of attributing to them a full and clear understanding of what was done in Ireland in their name. I have done so not merely because I have liked and respected many of your countrymen with whom I was thrown in contact, but because I believe the English people generally shrink from practising palpable injustice in cold blood. I believe the British people do not want to do dishonourable things, but I know they can be misled into doing things which they themselves regret. I ask you now to urge your countrymen to think seriously before they decide that the language of English treaties cannot be properly understood unless secret documents between party politicians are disclosed and read to the accompaniment of threats of the organised murder of dissenters. What the English people have to decide now is whether they are going to carry out the Treaty honourably or not, and if they decide to carry it out whether one of the British parties is or is not to be allowed to preach and practice murder in Ireland in order to deprive Irishmen of rights which they hold from God and which the British Government and people recognise.

I have expressed my views frankly. Like the rest of my countrymen I wish to end all disputes between Ireland and Great Britain, and to live in honourable friendship with the English people. If they stand honourably by the provisions of the treaty that simple act of good faith will not be forgotten.

Most Englishmen are weary of having to concern themselves with Irish affairs. If they honourably carry out the Treaty they will not only keep their good faith unsullied, but Irish political controversies will fade from the British political landscape. An arbitrary and inequitable division of Ireland must produce ill-will between our countries.

1 This statement was occasioned by Lord Balfour publishing a 'secret' letter on 8 September 1924 sent to him by Lord Birkenhead on 3 March 1922 which interpreted Article XII as requiring the Boundary Commission merely to 'rectify' the Border. Lloyd George spoke publicly in the same sense a few days later and, on 26 September, The Times reported a speech by a third British signatory to the Treaty, Winston Churchill, claiming that Article XII intended only 'minor readjustments of boundary' - see Frank Gallagher, The Indivisible Island: the History of the Partition of Ireland (New York: The Citadel Press, 1937), pp 171-4.

2 Wickham Steed, editor of The Times (1919-22), editor of Review of Reviews (1923-30).

3 The word is difficult to read but may be 'worked' or 'cranked'.

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