No. 363 NAI 2003/17/181

Letter from John W. Dulanty to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(No. 76) (Secret)

London, 17 September 1936

After the Secretary of the Department had informed me over the telephone yesterday that the President wished me to say to Mr. MacDonald that he was afraid from the Warren Fisher letter of 14th September the British had not begun to realise what the problem of the relations between the two countries really was,1 I tried to get Mr. MacDonald on the telephone but he was not in his office.

He telephoned to me shortly after and before I had the opportunity to convey the President's message he began the conversation by saying that he would like to see me towards the end of the day. I arranged to see him at 6.30 p.m. last night. He was thinking of sending a personal private unofficial note to the President2 emphasising what he had said to me the day before about the desirability of a visit to London by certain of our officers en route for Geneva. If he decided to write such a letter did I see any objection to forwarding it in the diplomatic pouch, and did I think such a letter would in any way embarrass the President? I said I would forward any communication which he might wish to make: I did not think a letter which was wholly private and unofficial would be regarded by the President as an embarrassment.

I conveyed to him the President's message, his reply being that that was rather a cold douche on his hopes and aspirations.

When we met in his room in the evening Mr. MacDonald began by saying that his recollection was that when he spoke to the President about the proposed exploration by officials he thought the President had approved. My rejoinder to that was that I did not remember the President giving any approval. I did remember his warning to Mr. MacDonald not to think that by making a few surface modifications in the present relations a satisfactory permanent settlement could be reached. Throughout the two conversations the President had had with Mr. MacDonald at the Grosvenor Hotel he had stated again and again his conviction that the questions between us did not admit of this kind of treatment and that a solution could only be found by dealing with the fundamentals, particularly of the political question.

Mr. MacDonald accepted all this, but added, (without pressing the point since it was merely a question of recollection) that he still thought the President had agreed generally with the proposal, recalling how both the President and himself had agreed that it would be worse than useless for Ministers to come together unless and until substantial prior agreement had been reached. Nobody wanted a repetition of the meetings of the British and Irish Ministers in Whitehall Gardens in October 1932.3 It did seem to him that if we took the Fisher note as the bare limit of what they felt disposed to put into writing at this stage and experts from both sides explored the possibilities of agreement, keeping close touch and reporting back to their respective Governments, there was a good chance of Ministers subsequently meeting and agreeing upon a solution of some if not all of the questions referred to in the Fisher note.

He said again he was rather disappointed at the President's view that they had not begun to realise what the problem was. Did not that make it all the more desirable, all the more necessary, that these conversations should proceed, when we could tell them fully and unreservedly what we thought the problem was and when they could see what approach they could make to our position?

He understood, he said, and thoroughly appreciated the President's difficulty about sending certain of his Advisers from Dublin to London. He saw how impossible it would be to keep such movements out of the Press, but Mr. MacDonald said again that he thought Geneva offered a convenient way out of that difficulty. After all, was there not a precedent for these conversations in the coal-cattle pact? I said the procedure on the coal-cattle pact, at its inception at any rate, was different from that which Mr. MacDonald was now proposing. In that case I had dealt not with officials but directly with four Ministers of their Cabinet, and it was only in the second year when certain technical variations - in no way affecting the principle of the pact - had to be arranged that the Government sent over Mr. Twomey and Mr. Leydon to talk to certain British officials.

The responsibility of decision, I continued, in matters of principle or detail was obviously not for officials but for the Governments concerned. Why then could not the British Government, since they were taking the initiative, set out fully what their proposals were? The President, as they well knew, was prepared at any time to give careful consideration to such proposals. The confidential character of any proposal would of course be scrupulously regarded. Mr. MacDonald said he doubted whether any two parties to negotiations, Government or otherwise, would consider it wise or expedient, to set down right at the start the whole of their proposals. The Fisher note could be regarded merely as a beginning.

Again, in the interests of both sides, he thought it was essential that he should be able to say in the House of Commons negotiations were not proceeding. He wished to mention negotiations only if and when they had been satisfactorily concluded or there was almost a certainty of such a conclusion.

It was hardly necessary, he said, for him to stress the importance of experts. He would certainly not dream of conferring with the President on say constitutional or defence questions, or indeed any other, without the assistance and advice of the experts. That was why he would have been glad if our constitutional and defence people could have had conversations with theirs. I referred to Mr. MacDonald's frequent statements that he would like these conversations to cover the whole ground, to be unlimited in scope and unfettered in expression. I said I was at a loss to see what good even archangels, much less officials, could achieve by sitting round a table and discussing, for example, the question of the Six Counties. There was not a British Minister in Whitehall today who did not know what the Irish Government's attitude on this question was. I assumed that what the British officials would say at such a conference would be what had already been said by their political chiefs, namely that whilst they had no wish or intention of trying to preserve a kind of Gibraltar for themselves in Ireland they were under public pledges to the Six Counties Government which they could not break: further that it seemed to them that it was for the Saorstát to attract the Six Counties into a complete merger - a euphemism of theirs for saying that having created the mess they, with Olympian condescension, thought we should clear it up! How could that question be resolved by talks between officials? Mr. MacDonald said that he thought that even on so difficult a subject as the Six Counties something might be done. I asked whether he could indicate what that something might be. He said that was scarcely possible until the whole matter had been thoroughly sifted, but he would certainly not press for a conference nor would he wish to go into one if he felt, as I apparently did, that nothing could come out of a discussion even on the Six Counties. This was a question on which he and others of his generation had had no say thus far. We were not to suppose that he regarded it as absolute and unalterable.

I had referred to the baldness of the note by Fisher and the ampler, more generous, character of his conversation. Mr. MacDonald admitted this disparity but assured me that it was not merely personal to Fisher. It was because Fisher knew the mind of his political chiefs that he had spoken to me in the rather freer and fuller sense that he had.

Mr. MacDonald said that after this talk with me he was rather doubtful about whether he would write the personal note to the President. He thought he would like ?to sleep on it' and see me again on Thursday.

Whilst it is clear that the decision on the question of this minute will turn upon considerations wholly outside my province I conceive it nevertheless to be incumbent upon me to state what I think is the atmosphere on this side. In the case of Mr. MacDonald I do not doubt that he is absolutely sincere in his wish to find a solution, and I am not being cynical when I observe that such a solution would materially assist his own personal ambition in the world of politics. He assured me that there are several important members of the Cabinet who are anxious to go a long way to reach a settlement with us. They are not prepared for a settlement at any price but he thinks that they are ready just now to go much farther than they were a year ago.

He said that on Saturday next he was about to go to Geneva but if there were any development on this question he would fly back here immediately. He regarded Geneva as a long way secondary to the question of Ireland.

I do not think anyone listening to Mr. MacDonald could leave him without feeling that the British are anxious to find a solution. Subject as I said earlier to considerations which are not properly my business, I would, with great respect, suggest that on the principle of getting what we can when we can we should not let slip an opportunity which offers just now apparently of getting something from the British. The fact that that something is a part only and less than the whole of our requirement may be no conclusive reason for our not taking it, always provided of course that there are not losses to offset the gain.

[signed] J.W. Dulanty
High Commissioner

Purchase Volumes Online

Purchase Volumes Online



The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.

Free Download

International Counterparts

The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
Read more ....

Website design and developed by FUSIO