No. 142 UCDA P67/155

Draft letter from Seán MacEntee1 to Eamon de Valera

Dublin, 17 February 1938

Dear Taoiseach,
In view of the recent Cabinet discussions I feel bound to set out without reserve my personal position for your consideration. The net issue which has now emerged may be stated as follows:

Provided the British Government is prepared

  1. To abrogate Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty of 1921, thereby handing over to us the harbour defences of Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly and relinquishing all claim to such other facilities as in time of war or strained relations are reserved to them under these Articles;
  2. To conclude with us a Trade Treaty which would give our products free entry to and preferential treatment in the British Market in return for some lesser concessions from us in regard to their products; and
  3. To settle the financial dispute on the basis of (a) a complete waiver on their part of any claim to the Land Annuities, and (b) an agreement as to what might be paid by us in respect of other items in dispute having regard to (i) the fact that we have contested the validity of the British claims to certain of these items, and (ii) the increased expenditure which we shall be called upon to incur in providing henceforward for the defence of our own territory;

Shall we on our part (a) agree in some such as the following terms, viz. :The Government of Éire in the exercise of its own sovereignty will defend its territory against all aggressors; or (b) refuse to agree until the British Government shall have taken 'some substantial and effective (or is it 'evident'?) steps to end Partition'.

On the net issue which is thus raised I feel strongly that the Government of Éire ought to agree to defend its territory against all aggressors, for the following reasons:

  1. To defend its territory against all aggressors is in every circumstance2 the natural and unavoidable duty of the Government of Éire. It is not a rational thing, therefore, to refuse to agree to do so3.
  2. The proper defence of the twenty-six counties involves agreement, consultation, and co-operation in the defence of the thirty-two, even to the extent in the case of a European War it is almost inevitable that some part of our forces would be posted to the Six Counties. We should therefore be defending all the territory we claim, and to that extent not only should we have prevented the extension of Partition from the political to the strategic plane, but we should have transferred the practicalities of the problem to a milieu in which Great Britain would be as concerned as ourselves to find a solution for them.
    I have expressed this view on many occasions in writing and otherwise, e.g. my letter to you dated 20th January, 19374.
  3. The Government through you as its head and Minister for External Affairs has already stated its policy in this regard5 and it is ridiculous to pretend now that when you, who are not only Minister for External Affairs, but Taoiseach (or P.[resident]), leader of the Party, and President of the Organisation, spoke on these matters, you did not speak on behalf of the Government and with the authority of the Government behind you - has already when you5 declared that 'we are not going to allow our territory under any conditions whatever to be made use of .... as a base of attack against Britain. We give that assurance because we are determined not to be coerced even by Britain herself.' But the assurance given in these terms is of no practical value unless we are prepared to defend our own territory. If we are in fact5 so prepared why cannot we put our hand to a statement to that effect.
  4. It is imperative in the interests of the agricultural industry upon which our whole economic life depends that a settlement of the financial dispute with Great Britain should be made upon any terms which we can in honour accept. I regard the terms now in prospect as honourable and favourable terms. I think it unreasonable for any the Government to put the prospective settlement in jeopardy by refusing to agree to do its natural duty by its citizens5.
  5. It is likewise imperative that the Government should address itself seriously to the problem of national defence, and take such steps as it can to safeguard the lives and properties of our citizens and to defend our territories against such menace as a European war may bring. I feel that this is a matter which brooks no further delay. Our cities and towns are defenceless against any attack, whether by land, or from the sea or air, by gas or by bomb. The Shannon and Pigeon House Power-Stations and the whole electrical system upon which our industrial life depends are in the same condition. But we cannot deal with this expensive and difficult task unless we can secure an immediate relief in the budgetary burden. We are in fact in the relation of present services to present taxation facing a deficit next year of about £950,000. Where on top of this can we find the money for defence, while at the same time we carry on the Economic war.
  6. I feel that the Partition problem cannot be solved except with the consent of the majority of the Northern non-Catholic population. It certainly cannot be solved by their coercion. Hitherto we as the Government here have done nothing of ourselves to secure a solution, but on the contrary have done and are doing certain things which have made a solution more difficult. The demand which we make continuously that the British should compel the Craigavonites to come in with us, has only had the effect of stiffening them against us. Our only hope is to cultivate a better feeling in the North towards us, and we shall not do that by refusing to agree to defend ourselves unless Britain exerts either physical or economic compulsion upon Belfast and the contiguous areas. And if we are sincere in our conviction belief that the problem coercion cannot be used solved by that conviction must be adhered to with rigid consistency. We must resist temptation to invoke coercion directly or indirectly whenever the circumstances appear to us to favour it, as they do now, otherwise we shall only intensify the distrust of the people in the North whose confidence we wish to win5.
  7. I believe that the British Government alone cannot end Partition. No member of our Government was under any misapprehension as to this when the negotiations opened. I sent you on or about the tenth of last month a memorandum6, which was an attempt in its earlier part to redact the discussions and conclusions - possibly provisional conclusions - at which we arrived before we finally decided to meet the British. The memorandum supports my view that we5 felt then that we could not settle Partition, nor even as has been so often said 'get a budge out of' the British in regard to it. This was our position also on the Friday before we went. We did feel however that we could wipe out Articles 6 and 7 of the 1921 Treaty, end the Economic War, and secure a favourable Trade Agreement, and therefore we went. The three objectives which six weeks ago we thought practicable appear to be within our grasp. The question is whether we shall secure them now, or abandon them because we cannot get immediately what we all, with maybe the exception of yourself, feel5 is at the moment unobtainable.
  8. I believe a failure to settle the Economic War will be bad for the country and disastrous for the Government and the Party. Notwithstanding the admonitions of political amateurs, who will always demand that a Government should make bricks without straw and omelettes without eggs, the country is looking for a settlement, expects to get one, and does not regard Partition as more than a theoretical obstacle to a practical agreement. Indeed the fact which is now known of your several meetings with Mr. Eden and Mr. MacDonald, has led the general public to believe that the whole thing is already cut and dried and that these London discussions are mere theatre. If there is no agreement now because we have chosen to break on Partition the revulsion against us will be overwhelming. That this position would be likely to arise in the case of a break was so clear to me - as it must have been equally clear to whosoever went through the Treaty crises - that I would have opposed to the bitter end any question of negotiations on an issue about which we knew in advance, as we knew about Partition, there was bound to be a disagreement. We should not have been permitted to go, we should not have been sent, if we were compelled to break upon this issue regarding which I have never concealed the fact that I was not prepared to break - at least not in the circumstances in which it has now been raised. I for my part feel that the way in which we have been manoeuvred into this situation by those who do not want no a settlement of the Economic War upon the only basis which is practicable, and who are labouring to reverse the policy enunciated in your speech of May 1935, has destroyed the only basis upon [which] a Cabinet can last: that of agreement upon the essentials of policy and a pervading confidence that the policy having been stated it will be accepted by all. It is clear now that your speech of May 1935 has not been accepted by the Minister for Lands7 nor by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs8 as an authoritative statement of Government policy - though how in these circumstances the former could have remained in the Government and the latter have entered it after the speech was made passes my comprehension. In any event it is clear that these Ministers hold themselves free to undertake a filibuster against those of their colleagues who propose to think and speak and act upon the principle laid down by you in 1935. Even upon this issue alone I have no desire to remain in the Government, and therefore my resignation as Minister for Finance is at your disposal whenever you deem it advisable to accept it.
In dealing with the eighth reason for not breaking I have digressed into a consideration of a matter which is not strictly 'ad rem', and in any event is of narrow and personal application only. I presume therefore insofar as the main question as to whether we ought to break or not is concerned5 you will ignore it. On the main question I wish to must5 say that for the reasons which I have outlined I am convinced that it would not be in the national interest to break off the negotiations if by agreeing to defend our own territory against aggression we can secure:

(1) The abrogation of Articles 6 and 7 of the 1921 Treaty and the defensive control of our own ports and harbours and all that territory over which by Article 3 of the Constitution we proposed to exercise immediate jurisdiction; (2) A trade agreement which, in view of the preferential position which it would accord to them in the British market vis-á-vis their Danish and other competitors, our farmers might regard as their charter there; (3) A financial agreement which would wipe out the Land Annuities and by so reducing the payments to be made under other heads would enable us to improve our social services and to make reasonable provision for our own defence. I do not think it would be contrary, however, to the national interest to seek an agreement in regard to trade and finance only, provided that it is clear that our refusal to agree to defend ourselves does not operate to the grievous serious5 detriment of our farmers or our people in the making of these agreements. If therefore you consider it advisable at this stage to maintain the appearance of unanimity in regard to the new course which is now proposed, I am prepared to go to London and while there to do everything I can to help you to secure the new objective. I am prepared whether I go to London and remain in the Cabinet or not if the negotiations break down upon it to acquiesce in the new plan and not to express public dissent for so long as honourable silence is possible for a public [representative]9 I am willing to follow this equivocal course in regard to a plan in which I do not believe5 because I feel that in the position in which we now find ourselves to manifest open disagreement would be disastrous to whatever chance you have of bringing your plans to a successful issue. But beyond silent acquiescence in the plan I cannot go. I am not prepared to defend it for instance at a General Election and accordingly will not stand again for the Dáil if it still remains our policy. In fact I feel no conviction whatever, as to the wisdom of the course upon which we are now embarking, and embarking in my view without having any practical idea in our own minds as to what we should do here in Ireland to re-establish some contacts with the representatives of the Six County majority and so as to create that atmosphere in which we can begin to talk politics. We are relying on England's big stick and it will fail. In the meantime we are hurrying to disaster should a European War come and catch us defenceless, at variance with Great Britain, and uncertain as to what our policy is to be.

I have written at length because I feel bound in honour to let you know my whole mind on the present situation as it presents itself to me. In the light of all I have said it is for you now to consider whether I should go to London at all or whether I should resign from the Government either now or later. I am at your disposal for whatever course you think will serve the national interest best. I4 know you will understand why I had to write this letter. In our relations of more than twenty years there has not so far as I know been any reserve between us when we have been discussing matters affecting the nation. We have had differences of opinion as to the wisdom or unwisdom of a line of policy and I have always been prepared in the last resort to defer to your judgment. But I cannot concede that full deference now, because in regard to Partition we have never had a considered policy. It has always been an affair of hasty improvisations, a matter of fits and starts. We are giving it first place now in the practical business of Government. When did we do that before in regard to any of those activities by which [---]10 citizens are consolidating and intensifying Partition. Why we would not risk antagonising one Gaelic Leaguer or G.A.A. [---]10 in order to undo Partition - as it could be undone in sport and amusement. And yet we are prepared to subject our farmers and our people as a whole to further and intensified hardship in order to compel Great Britain to force the Northern non-Catholics to associate with us, when with our connivance every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay is doing his damnedest here to keep them out. Where is the reason in asking us to pursue two policies so utterly at variance with each other. It is because I believe that some of us are subordinating reason to prejudice, that prejudice which may be blameless in the heart of an individual, but should be banished from the minds of statesmen, in regard to this matter of defence, and are only raising the Partition issue now to coerce their colleagues to defer to their prejudices that I feel the essential unity and confidence of the Cabinet has been destroyed.

1 This draft letter of resignation is from MacEntee's personal papers and there is no indication that it was sent to de Valera. The editors have included it because the document shows MacEntee's strong feelings on policy towards Northern Ireland and his perception of the shortcomings of Irish defence policy.

2 The words in italic are handwritten by MacEntee.

3 This sentence is a handwritten insertion by MacEntee.

4 Not located. This sentence is handwritten by MacEntee.

5 Handwritten insertion by MacEntee.

6 Not located.

7 Gerald Boland (1885-1973), Minister for Lands (1936-9).

8 Oscar Traynor (1886-1963), Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (1936-9).

9 Handwritten insertion by MacEntee; word in brackets is not decipherable.

10 Word indecipherable.

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