No. 1 NAI DFA Legal Adviser's Papers

Memorandum entitled 'Ireland's Neutrality in Practice'
from Michael Rynne to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Dublin, 1 September 1939

'Ireland's Neutrality in Practice'

  • 1. The neutrality policy of the Government will have to be put into practice should the present crisis develop into a general war. It seems desirable, therefore, to set down some clear propositions with regard to our practical duties and rights as
  • 2. Undoubtedly the enforcement of the Government's policy of absolute neutrality cannot be achieved without severe inconvenience and even financial loss to many interests in this country, but, in practice, we may nevertheless be pleasantly surprised to find that a certain measure of 'business as usual' will be possible and permissible. In any case, it is clear that the policy must be rigorously administered by every branch of the State service in order to avoid at any cost the civil disorder and tragic consequences to our future as a nation of a slip into belligerency on either side.
  • 3. The first aspect of the matter to call for our attention must, therefore, be that which relates to the duties of a neutral.

    These are chiefly three:

    (1) to oppose any act of hostility which one belligerent may attempt against another on our neutral territory (including the territorial sea);

    (2) to refrain from any act of such a kind as to interfere with the military

    operations of one of the belligerents against another outside our territory;


    (3) to maintain the most complete impartiality in our relations with the two belligerents, abstaining from any action which might amount to auxiliary aid to one of the combatants.

  • 4. The foregoing are only general principles. We must endeavour to work out their practical application.

    In the first place, the Irish Government will be expected by the warring Powers to oppose the performance of any acts here in Ireland, whether on land or sea (3 mile limit), which would constitute the preparation, accomplishment or continuation of a warlike operation of one of the belligerents against another.

  • 5. Without going into all the examples of such warlike, neutrality-contravening acts, we may note at this point:

    (1) that the international law governing such examples consists of a number of rules that have been almost as honoured in the breach as in the observance,

    (2) that a neutral State is only expected to oppose breaches of its neutrality under those rules by all the means in its power.

    That is to say, that while we may in practice find that a number of the rules under the first principle of neutrality laid down in paragraph 3 above may be broken freely in our case, we may, on the other hand be able to oppose their breach in an adequate manner without the use of force.

  • 6. One of the strict rules under the first principle of neutrality which would be most likely to give the Government trouble, should it be infringed by the British forces, is the rule that a neutral State must not permit its ports, harbours or coastal waters to be used as bases of the ships of a belligerent State.

    This means that, in general, we would have to resist, by protest, boycott or

    otherwise, the occupation of our ports by the British in wartime. We could not, and would not, of course, allow them to take on munitions at an Irish port. We would protest against (if we could not actually prevent) the British or other fleets from sheltering behind one of our islands or headlands in order to ambush their enemy's shipping or battleships.

    If the fact of having depots of petrol, etc. at certain points on our coast appeared to be leading to breaches of our neutrality, the Government would have to close down such depots, failing any other means of asserting the State's neutrality at those points.

    According to Articles 10 and 26 of the Hague Convention of 1907, which contain principles still almost universally recognised, any step that the Government might take in order to prevent a clear breach of Ireland's neutrality would have to be regarded as a lawful act by all the belligerents and not as an act of war. In other words, we could not be accused of being a belligerent simply because we used all our forces to assert our status of a neutral.

  • 7. Another rule of law which our Government will almost certainly be expected to enforce will be that whereby a neutral must not permit a belligerent to recruit troops on its territory. This will mean in our case that (i) we ought to forbid our citizens to join the British Army, (ii) prevent our ships from being used to bring large numbers of British subjects back to their military units.

    The law even on these points has been so infringed in the past that it is not

    altogether clear. But, at least, it would be safer to confine ourselves for a start to a policy of facilitating the quick return of reservists (of all nations) at an early stage of the hostilities and at no stage to knowingly permit Irish citizens to leave the country for service abroad. Our eventual attitude to these matters may be stricter or laxer depending on the reactions of the belligerents. On the main issue, namely, the question of foreign recruiting here, the Government will, of course, continue to be adamant.

  • 8. A third rule of neutrality which may give rise to difficulties in Ireland in view of the very divergent outlook of the people on our political relations with Great Britain, is the rule that a neutral State must not allow any preference for one belligerent rather than for another to appear officially and must endeavour to keep the expression of any such preferences among the public within the bounds of international courtesy. In practice, this will no doubt entail the curbing, if not the censorship, of all Irish newspapers and published matter and a strict control of the rights of free speech and public meeting. The official aspect of the matter will be best met by a strict censorship of our wireless stations.
  • 9. With regard to the nationals of belligerent States who may find themselves here, after the outbreak of hostilities, the Government will have the duty of seeing that they do nothing to endanger the country's neutrality. Nationals of belligerent States who reside in Ireland must not be allowed to do acts liable to imperil our status any more than Irish nationals or foreigners belonging to other neutral States will be allowed to do them. This does not, of course, mean that we must lock up all foreigners (i.e. 'belligerent' foreigners), but we must not favour them unduly. We are bound to keep them all under observation and control, or take the consequences of their misconduct.
  • 10. Besides the rules affecting the ships, troops and nationals of belligerents, there is a generally accepted rule about aeroplanes to the effect that a neutral State ought not to permit the military aircraft of a belligerent to overfly or land on its territory.

    Whether this will mean that we will be bound to have recourse to force against belligerent planes which overfly Ireland and refuse to descend after signals, is a matter than can be left in abeyance, as the law is not very clear on it (although Holland shot down planes during the last war); but we must make it known that we propose to intern military planes which land on our territory until the war comes to an end.

    The matter of the publicly-owned planes of belligerents is one that may also be left in abeyance for the present, even if we should express our desire that foreign planes of all descriptions avoid Ireland after a war has broken out.

  • 11. The duties of a neutral State necessarily connote duties on the part of its subjects or citizens to conduct themselves 'neutrally'. If an Irish citizen voluntarily joins one of the belligerent armies he cannot plead his citizenship against the enemy belligerents. For that reason, the Government might do well to warn Irish citizens on the outbreak of war that they must forfeit their right to the protection of the Irish State once they become members of any belligerent force.
  • 12. Citizens of Ireland who propose to continue to deal commercially with the belligerent States, or their citizens, should likewise be warned not to overstep the bounds set to such commercial dealings by international law.

    The position is briefly this:

    (1) Citizens of neutral States are free to trade with the belligerents, to whom they may sell anything (even arms and munitions - which a neutral Government may not sell) on their own territory,

    (2) but it must be remembered that the belligerent State opposed to the State which buys from the neutral State, or its citizens, may impose the sanction of contraband at any time and on almost any kind of merchandise, and

    (3) citizens of a neutral State are compromising their country's neutrality once they endeavour to run a blockade. Hence the Government will not have to forbid trade with any belligerent whose ports are not effectively blockaded by the enemy, but they may have to warn Irish citizens to insist on sales for cash so that they will not be at a loss should their cargoes be sunk or otherwise treated as contraband. These are matters which may not call for attention unless and until the seas over which Irish trade is principally carried become dangerous for shipping.

  • 13. Finally, among our duties as a neutral will be that of seeing to it that this country is not used by either belligerent as a centre of espionage. This may entail a number of precautions of a preventive kind, directed not only against belligerent aliens here but also against our own nationals and those of neutral States.
  • 14. The foregoing paragraphs give some idea of the duties which will fall on us in wartime. Ireland's rights as a neutral may now be considered equally briefly. In the first place, however, we must observe that even our neutral rights are affected by our duties as a neutral, so that it would be incorrect to imagine that on assuming the status of a neutral in wartime we will be able to carry over all our peacetime rights.

    Certainly, we will continue to preserve our full rights of sovereignty throughout the territory which is under our own jurisdiction, and as a result of that we may afford as much hospitality as we like to the nationals of belligerent states. But not to their troops. We will also have a right to forbid the belligerent States to recruit here, simply because we have a duty not to allow our citizens to be recruited for service abroad.

    We will have, for example, the right to refuse to recognise the capture by a belligerent war vessel of an enemy vessel should that capture take place in our waters, merely because we are bound by our neutral status to refuse any belligerent the right to conduct war operations on our territory.

  • 15. Nearly all the rights of neutrality are corollary to duties and proceed from a theory of national sovereignty which is recognised to justify strong measures. That is to say, we will be expected to be firm in the enforcement of our neutral rights and we will be legally entitled to be as drastic as circumstances demand.
  • 16. In time of war, just as in peace-time, we will be entitled to exercise our sovereign rights to admit, or refuse admission to foreign war-vessels which desire to use our harbours. Our duty will be to exercise that right impartially. We will not be required to refuse admission (as did, e.g., Holland in 1914) to all foreign war vessels, but if we concede the right of entry to ships of one belligerent we must not deny it to the ships of the other. If we do decide to admit such ships at all, we must permit them only to purchase necessary provisions or make essential repairs: we must not let them embark arms or munitions of war.
  • 17. Another right which we may have some difficulty in enforcing against one or other of the belligerents will be the right to correspond freely with our diplomatic representatives abroad. A natural complement to this right is that which we will possess of forbidding the official representatives of any of the belligerents from interfering with our neutrality here. The Government must not of course interfere with the normal activities of diplomats accredited to Ireland by belligerent states and still expect to enjoy the right to freely correspond with their own representatives abroad, but they will have to see to it that those activities do not overstep the limits of ordinary diplomatic representation. At the beginning of hostilities no action is likely to be called for under this head except that of providing sufficient police protection for the foreign Legations and Consulates in Dublin and elsewhere in the country and making sure that our communications to the Irish offices abroad are not being hindered unlawfully.
  • 18. In a general resumé of this sort it is scarcely necessary to attempt an examination of all the possible states of fact which if they were to materialise would give us special rights to protest or claim compensation against one or other belligerent. Enough has been said to give a general indication of our position and, it is submitted, to demonstrate that it is neither a difficult position to attain nor to maintain. Undoubtedly, in practice, Irish ships may be sunk and even Irish territory invaded or attacked. But unless we should fail to take the normal action by way of protest or otherwise, our position of neutrality will not have been sacrificed in principle. The main consideration must, therefore, be to take all the essential steps at an early opportunity after the outbreak of a war to define beyond any possible doubt a position of strict neutrality. Exceptions, to that general declaration if any are to be permitted, might be carefully considered during the course of the hostilities and when possible and desirable admitted in practice.

    Such exceptions should not be defined in words at the beginning of a war when all the belligerents as well as all Irish people will expect to be presented with the fait accompli of Irish neutrality in accordance with the publicly stated policy of the Government.

[initialled] M.R.

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