No. 125 NAI DFA Legal Adviser's Papers

Memorandum by Michael Rynne (Dublin)

Dublin, 7 February 1940

Some Queries and Theories on the Present Situation (7th February, 1940)

1. The first query which it seems well to set down for reply is this: Why did the British Government return the Irish ports in 1938?

In view of the indisputable fact that in British minds, Admiralty and otherwise, the ports of Southern Ireland have always ranked as vital factors in British offensive and defensive naval strategy, the reply cannot be that the relevant treaty provisions were surrendered because the ports to which they referred had lost all importance for Great Britain. In 1938 the British Admiralty was preparing for a new offensive on the European trade-routes.

Following from this we may discount the theory that the ports were given back to us for 'keeps'. The question, therefore, resolves itself to 'why were the ports lent to us?'

There was no irresistible moral pressure brought to bear by the Irish Government in the matter and there was no adequate quid pro quo offered or accepted.

Nevertheless, one cannot be sure that the British action was simply 'a gesture of appeasement', 'a free gift to a free people'.

Even if we admit that some of the above elements entered into the decision of the British Government, we cannot pretend that their cumulative effect outweighed, in British minds, the vital interests of the British Empire.

It is submitted therefore, that the reasons why Ireland was allowed to become tenant-at-will of the treaty ports were as follows:

(a) the Treaty of 1921 had been all but repudiated by the Fianna Fáil Government. They could not have been trusted to honour their outworn 'obligations' to the extent of actually protecting British troops in their enjoyment of the ports in wartime. Yet, it was more than probable that those troops at such a time would be harried by disaffected Irish persons;

(b) In order to carry out their own protective measures with success, it would certainly be necessary for British garrisons at the ports to push into the hinterland to some extent.

Any such encroachments, to which even the doubtful treaty made no reference, express or implied, would seem certain to evoke protests from the Irish Government, which might be difficult to refute in a plausible way. Moreover, if the Southern Irelanders reacted badly and comforted the snipers, a large number of troops would be required to control the occupied areas.

Here it may be recalled that in 1938, the British Foreign Office was working hard to acquire allies and, particularly, to curry favour with the United States and, furthermore, that in 1938, the British War Office had not overcome the obstacles to conscription and that they expected a war in France which would have required the bulk of Britain's man-power.

(c) As a result of two Irish initiatives, the retention of the treaty rights was rendered more difficult, viz. (1) the fact that the Six County issue was loosely coupled with the issue of the ports, made the latter the lesser of two evils and harder to refuse, and (2) the fact that the Irish Government reiterated their resolve not to allow Ireland to be made a jumping-off ground for Britain's enemies, made the release of the ports easier to explain to uneducated public opinion in Great Britain. (Needless to remark the explanation could not be expected to satisfy the naval experts.) Supposing that in view of the two foregoing considerations, the return of the ports had been refused, the Irish Government would have been entirely freed from even the most theoretical duty to co-operate with the British garrisons to put down Irish extremists and they might, without any loss of face, decide not to carry out their more or less conditional pledge to repel Britain's enemies. In such a state of facts, any public opinion or popular sympathy which might survive the British world-censorship could not be other than unfavourable to Britain.

(d) By acceding to the Irish appeal to wipe out the Treaty clauses relating to the ports the British Government aimed at a number of miscellaneous objects viz.,

  • the postponement of the Six-County issue;
  • the conclusion of a commercial agreement which would tend to throw back the Irish national economy to its pre-Fianna Fáil condition of dependence on Britain. (Also desirable as a wartime factor);
  • the easier acceptance by Ireland of a tribute of £10,000,000 cash. (Useful for subsidising the arming of Czechs while retarding the development of Irish defence plans), and
  • the excellent moral effect of the 'gesture' on the world at large and especially on Germany, the United States and the sceptical ally, France.

But these were only the minor motives which influenced the British.

(e) The main argument for giving the Irish Government the use of the harbours during peace-time was, undoubtedly, to be drawn from the improved prospects of occupying them efficiently in time of need.

Admitted that the ports can only be availed of to the fullest advantage when, either (1) backed 100% by a friendly Irish Government or (2) backed by the total occupation of Southern Ireland by a British Army of Occupation, unthreatened by a united Irish people. These alternatives were brought nearer by the concession of the ports. At the best, Ireland might have declared war on Britain's side and thus opened her strategic harbours to all allied men-of-war, at the worst, she might be argued to have betrayed the confidence reposed in her by Mr. Chamberlain and so to have rendered herself liable to the just use of force.

Either alternative would suit the military man, and perhaps the latter would be preferred by him to the former. In the one case the control of supplies, rolling-stock etc., necessary to the functioning of the ports, would have resided in a native Government, in the other, the country and all it contained would belong to the British forces for the duration. Only the civilian departments would be troubled by the forceful occupation of Ireland by their military friends. To them would fall the task of 'justifying' the move politically and silencing criticism abroad.

2. Our second question, therefore, must be this: Why, seeing that Ireland did not declare war on England's side, has no action yet been taken to regain the ports for Britain?

There are several answers to this query. They may be, however, condensed into two, viz. (1) there was no necessity to occupy the ports; (2) there was no suitable opportunity for doing so.

The fact that the war has so far been a winter campaign has driven enemy submarines into home waters. There was no need to patrol the Atlantic after the month of September, 1939. The fact that Scapa Flow, the Shetlands etc., were not rendered uncomfortable until recent months relieved the British Admiralty of the need to secure alternative deep sea harbours.

In parenthesis, let it be noted that the coming of Spring may intensify the submarine war off our coasts and the air war against the ordinary British naval bases within easy range of Germany.

There was no very good opportunity of securing our ports up to this, assuming that there was even a necessity for them from the Admiralty's technical standpoint.

Militarily speaking, the claim could not have been backed with force without diminishing to ridiculous proportions the available troops for France, where hostilities were vaguely expected and where French mauvaise foi had to be beguiled away.

There was absolutely no reasonable excuse for an invasion of Ireland whose Government had been studiously correct in regard to the war, the English bombings etc., and whose relations with the world at large had not so far become the plaything of German propaganda. The new-found unity of the Irish people on the neutrality issue must have astonished the British Government as much as it surprised many people at home. So long as the people were united on any large political issue, they could not be relied upon to split in case of a British invasion. The 'War Party' here had signally failed to absorb even the normal pro-British element. In short, it would have been a costly mistake to have attempted force against Ireland in the last few months, even had the necessity been there. How could Finland have been played up successfully in the American (British-bought) Press if Ireland had been similarly treated by a 'democratic' Britain? America may be secretly feared and despised but during the last few months, prior to the inauguration of 'Cash and Carry', it was necessary to woo her.

3. Our third question must inevitably be this: When will our ports be retaken by Great Britain?

The answer to this query can be 'Never' only in two cases viz. (1) if the war ends almost at once and (2) if we are able to preserve such unity among our people, under the present Government, that the planned invasion will still look too costly.

Apart from that, the answer must be: very soon now, as part of the Spring offensive or in a matter of months when the Irish situation has had time to 'develop' and the foreign publicity per Reuter has had time to take effect.

4. As a fourth question, in amplification of the foregoing, we may ask: How is the Irish situation going to so deteriorate as to enable the British to occupy the whole of Ireland in 1940?

In reply we may well assume that the deterioration has been already artificially put under way.

It is only too clear that the British Government's refusal to reprieve the Birmingham Irishmen1 was based not on the facts of their case (no one believes that they were more than accomplices before a criminal accident) nor on the law (for, even according to English law their trial with the women prisoners was open to strong criticism) nor on public opinion (because, even in England there was an influential element in favour of reprieve and no blood-lust campaign in the Press).

Consequently, it must be assumed that the refusal to grant a reprieve was due to the policy of the Government which denied it. It is idle to argue that some of the British Cabinet were in favour of reprieve and it is not convincing to argue that one of them at least may have hoped that the executions would prove a deterrent to other wrongdoers (apart from the lessons of Irish history, there were bombings in England up to the day of the executions). The fact must be that 'Plan No. 2', by which all Ireland is to be brought under wartime control, has now been launched.

In time of war, military departments must always act on the assumption that hostilities will last for an indefinitely long period ahead, that no useful war measure, however difficult to carry out, should be postponed if it can be attempted at all; civilian departments, even while planning for post-war conditions, are compelled to recognise that so long as the war lasts, the soldiers must be allowed the decisive voice. If it should transpire, in connection with the Birmingham executions, that all the running was made by non-military members of the Government, that would not mean that the Admiralty and the War Office were opposed to a reprieve. Had they been so opposed (pointing out, perhaps, that the executions would render Ireland likely to prove troublesome to the successful progress of the war) they would have had to be heard and obeyed.

5. The final question for reply is, naturally, this: What can the Irish Government do to thwart Plan No. 2?

That will depend somewhat on what the British do, assuming that an endeavour is not made to forestall them. Probably the British hope to see the situation develop (with the active encouragement of their 'information' Bureau, Intelligence Service, etc.) as follows:

(a) Following Ash Wednesday's executions, a complete disintegration of the Fianna Fáil Government's support is looked for. Instead of containing a fairly solid centre of peace-loving 'neutrals' unsympathetic to Britain and Germany alike, plus the usual pro-British (but not active) Right Wing and pro-I.R.A. (but not active) Left Wing, it is hoped to see, at first, a breakup of the centre due to the majority going left.

(b) The next phase should be marked by a crescendo programme of outrages in England. At this stage it might be feasible to embarrass the Government by appealing to them publicly to co-operate in tracking down the criminals. A refusal would suit as well as the contrary. Any effort to elude the issue could be spread abroad as a national conspiracy against Britain which, since she gave Ireland back her ports, is fighting for democracy with one hand tied.

(c) The next move might be to deport the whole Irish male population of Great Britain (minus those in khaki) back to Ireland where they could be relied upon to make it still hotter for the Government.

(d) When all the powers of censorship and other emergency measures had ceased to check or conceal the discontent here, we might be faced with (i) a 'German Plot'2 story such as was tried once before (ii) a threat to dock supplies owing to the losses of shipping off the Irish coasts.

(e) As soon as the Irish people seemed about to boil over, the Government might be asked for the use of at least one treaty harbour in the common interest. When they refused, supplies might drop somewhat while transport would not be regularly available for Irish cattle.

(f) In a reasonably short time it might be anticipated that the mass of the people would be ready for the coup d'etat which would 'justify' the reoccupation of Ireland.

(g) The fact that all this unsettled state of affairs was ruining business in Ireland, terrifying many older people etc., would be all to the good inasmuch as it would tend to build up the nucleus of a pro-British party which would support even a puppet Government for the duration of the war, or of the puppet Government.

All this line of conjecture is very easy to arrive at and most people are already tightening their belts in anticipation. But need it come to pass? After all it is no more than the somewhat crude plan of British Government Departments responsible for the conduct of the war. Even if it turned out, in practice, to be a much subtler plan (e.g. if occupation were to be bracketed with an immediate measure of political unity with the North) it could not be necessarily forced on us.

We have, therefore, two courses open to us: (1) to hope that Plan No. 2 will be nipped in the bud by the British civilian Departments, that the whole thing will 'blow over', with the help of press censorship and the desire of so many citizens for a peaceful life, or, (2) to take it for granted that the Plan may be on its way and to prepare the world for our resistance to its consummation.

There can be no third alternative, such as that much-talked-of last resort of 'declaring the Republic' – if it ever comes to that, the Plan is as good a fait accompli. Personally, I feel that the situation might even yet be saved by the rapid defeat of Britain on sea and in the air. That is to say, that her prospects of victory in this round might appear so feeble in a few months that she may decide to seize on one of the many peace proposals and so postpone her designs on Europe for another decade or two.

But, seeing that States cannot be governed on the basis of miraculous aid, it would seem wisest to set about acting now as though Plan No. 2 had been put on foot.

This the Government can only do by explaining frankly to the people (i.e. the still unbroken centre block behind Fianna Fáil) what it may mean for them if they decide to give undue vent to their resentment of the Birmingham executions. Those that believe only that 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity' (but fail to realise that the contrary is also the case) will scarcely listen to the facts. Their numbers need not, however, be too considerably augmented, if the whole truth be told.

The truth is this: The Birmingham executions doubtless represent the initiation of a vigorous campaign against the I.R.A. in Great Britain, but they stand for more than that.

In Ireland it is the Government which has just been flouted by the British Government. Why? Not because they supported the I.R.A. in Britain: they never condoned the bombings although they left nothing undone to save the lives of the condemned men. Surely, the slap in the face administered to the Irish Government and people by the British Cabinet can only be regarded as an attempt to spur them into revolt, perhaps even to drive them out of their neutrality into the arms of Britain's enemies who (like the rest of the world) are once more talking of Ireland as a 'problem' – 'a problem once again!' If that is so, and that is so, then it bodes no good for the Irish State, which has achieved such a measure of freedom that no foreigner may set foot on her soil without the people's permission.

The inviolability of Irish soil is as sacred to us as that of Finland is to the Finns. Our people, therefore, must not let themselves be provoked into such a condition of anti-British feeling, because of the way they and their Government have been spurned, as to appear to give encouragement to the few in Britain who have sinister intentions in our regard. Those few are mistaken if they think their plans will be facilitated by a disunited Irish people; they will be foiled by a united nation and by the use of force, if necessary.

Unless the foregoing issues are made clear at a very early stage it is hard to see how the Government can check an epidemic of rainbow-chasing during the next few weeks. If it were decided to face up to the menace at home in the way suggested, there is no doubt that it might be well to send out the same line, in diplomatic language, to America and elsewhere. In fact it might be best to open up the campaign abroad, before officially broaching it here. That is a question of tactics; the main thing is to unite the people for defence before they prepare for war and to prepare the world for another adventure in the tradition of perfidious Albion' and so render it next to impossible.

[initialled M.R.]

1 See No. 124.

2 On the occasion of the so-called 'German Plot' of 1918 the British announced that they had evidence of collaboration between Sinn Féin and the German High Command. Many Sinn Féin leaders were arrested and imprisoned on the fabricated charge of treasonable activities with England's German enemies.

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