No. 344 NAI DFA Secretary's Files P4

Letter from John J. Hearne to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Ottawa, 22 November 1940

I have the honour to report as follows:-

On Tuesday afternoon the 12th November Mr. Hanson,1 Leader of the Opposition speaking in the House of Commons, raised the question of the ports. As I knew that Mr. King was to speak that evening after Mr. Hanson, I got in touch, as soon as I could, with Dr. Skelton. Dr. Skelton said he had not heard that the question had been raised by Mr. Hanson. He had, he said, just seen one of Mr. King's private secretaries and the private secretary had not mentioned it. He did not think Mr. King would make any reference to the matter in his speech. Dr. Skelton was sure there was no reference to it in the prepared speech. (I confirm that that was so, as later that night, I saw the prepared text and the official reporters report of additional remarks made on points raised in the debate.) 'He may put the matter off in some way with a very few words', Dr. Skelton added; 'I don't think he will discuss it'.

When Mr. King concluded his speech (Mr. Conway and I were in our places in the Speakers gallery) we went to the Official Reporters' office to get the exact text of the reference to Mr. Hanson's remarks. The Official Reporters' note had gone to the private secretary's office for checking and we accordingly went there and saw the text. As we were going home we met Mr. King in a corridor outside his office. He was with some others. He immediately hailed us with the words 'Oh, Mr. Hearne, I wanted to see you'. He then brought me to his Office.

After asking me whether I had been in the House during the debate the Prime Minister said that he would like Mr. de Valera to know from him that the question of the ports had been raised in the House. It would be gratifying to him (the P.M.) if he could be of any help in the matter. He said that he knew our attitude. He knew (he said) that if we gave the ports to one of the belligerents we would involve ourselves with the other and have the country bombed and wrecked. But he nevertheless felt that as the question had been raised Mr. de Valera should know from him (he repeated this) and, if he could help, it would be very gratifying to him. He himself would not wish to put the question of a lease of the ports (to the Canadian Government) to Mr. de Valera; and if it would embarrass Mr. de Valera in any way and if he were assured beforehand that the question could not be entertained, he would not put it at all. But he might be pressed in the course of the debate to do something about the matter as it had been put up to him and if he were pressed, he would not like it to be said he had done nothing whatever about it. He would like to be able to say he had been in touch with Mr. de Valera.

I asked Mr. King if he had read the Taoiseach's speech of the 7th November (which I had sent to Dr. Skelton on receipt of the text from Mr. Brennan). He said he had read it and added that he understood the situation very well. He made no further comment on the speech. I said that I thought the answer to any message to Mr. de Valera was contained in that speech. I emphasised that the question was not whether the ports could be leased to one of the belligerents rather than another; the speech expressly referred to all the belligerents and the real issue involved in the ports question was the maintenance of our neutrality. I said that I saw no prospect of a fundamental change of national policy at this stage. I stated that there was no possible Irish Government that could go behind the people's manifest will in this matter. The nation was not divided on it; we had, in fact, never secured so complete a national unity on any other policy. I referred to a speech made by Mr. Cosgrave sometime ago where he said that the Government should not take too much credit to itself for having kept the country out of the war; it was the people themselves that had made the decision. (I did not purport to give Mr. Cosgrave's exact words: but I remember the speech.) Mr. King's eyes opened wide at the mention of Mr. Cosgrave's name. (Mr. Cosgrave's portrait is in his study.) He seemed genuinely surprised that Mr. Cosgrave should have spoken thus. I may say that I had spoken often to Dr. Skelton of the attitude of all our political parties to the war. Looking back upon Mr. King's surprise at my mention of Mr. Cosgrave I would now attribute it to the fact that he had read the New York Times report that Opposition and Labour Parties in the Dáil were 'gloomy and preoccupied' during the Taoiseach's speech of the 7th November. I may be wrong in this; but Dr. Skelton made a definite point of the report to me when I brought him the substance of the relevant portion of your cable No. 67 of the 16th November2 on Monday morning the 18th November. There seems to be an impression that the gloom and preoccupation indicated the beginnings of a difference of opinion between the Government (Mr. de Valera in particular) and the parties referred to. My own interpretation has been that the whole House was impressed by, and shared, the preoccupation of the Taoiseach himself, and of his words, with the possible consequences of the British press campaign which had followed Mr. Churchill's speech. Be that as it may, I emphasised to Mr. King that even the 'Irish Times' newspaper was against our entry into the war from the very beginning: and so on.

The Prime Minister was very easy in his manner; he avowed to, or professed, a full understanding of our position. I must do him the justice of recording that he gave me the impression that he knew the answer to any message he would send to the Taoiseach, but that he wanted to be able to save himself the embarrassment – in Parliament – of having failed to do anything about an appeal made to him by the House of Commons, that is, should Mr. Hanson's speech be followed by a number of others in the same sense. He wanted to be able to say to the House: 'I have done as the House desired'.

Mr. King is not regarded as a great leader, but he is regarded as one of the most astute politicians in Canadian political history. I cannot, therefore, discount the likelihood of his having wanted to send a message to Mr. de Valera at this stage in the war for the sole purpose of putting himself on record – although ostensibly off the record – in the sense of my cable to you – the words of which he practically dictated. I wrote them down as he spoke.

It was towards midnight when I left Mr. King. Mr. Conway and I sent cable No. 67 by about 3 a.m. on the 13th November.

Next morning I spoke to Dr. Skelton about my interview with Mr. King. He had not yet seen Mr. King and apparently had no knowledge of my interview with him on the previous night. I told him about it and gave him the sense of my cable. His only comment was that he would have liked me to have asked you to allow Mr. King to refer (in the House) to his telegram of the 16th June.3 I said that Mr. King had not mentioned that, and that his anxiety appeared to be confined to the reply he would have to give in Parliament to Mr. Hanson's appeal especially if there were others along the same lines. Dr. Skelton accepted that, but felt that we might have to cable again about the telegram of the 16th June.

I had no doubt as to what your reply to my cable would be. Although I knew it was my duty to send the cable when the Prime Minister had requested it, I keenly felt the affront of the whole business and the futility and silliness of the suggestion to lease our ports to the Canadian Government. Apart from that, Mr. Conway kept on emphasising to me the excellent point that the proposal was based on the assumption that our neutrality policy was primarily anti-British. I hoped that you would send me in addition to your reply, an official – or personal – reprimand for not having kept the Canadian Government better informed of our position. I would gladly have shown it to Dr. Skelton as he knows how frequently I have summarised our national attitude and policy for him following the instructions you have sent me from time to time. It would have been a rebuke to him, chiefly. They should certainly not have tried this on. But perhaps on the whole it was as well they did. Your message may have stopped a ramp at the very beginning. Anyway the Prime Minister is not, so far, being pressed in a spate of speeches in Parliament to take the matter of the ports up with the Taoiseach. The Orangemen's spokesman T.J. Church M.P. of Toronto (the gentleman who objected to my going to Toronto early on this year) confined his remarks to praise of Ulster's war effort.

On Monday the 18th November I delivered your message to Dr. Skelton and left him a copy of the words of the cable (copy herewith).4 He simply smiled and said that was what he had expected! He had previously said as much. No doubt you will ask, then why did they ask you to send the message at all? I refrained from asking that question myself.

Dr. Skelton asked me whether your words 'it would be extremely awkward if the Prime Minister said he was in touch with the Taoiseach' referred to the Prime Minister's cable of the 16th June. I said that I thought you clearly did not want any public statement at all by Mr. King to the effect that he had been in touch with Mr. de Valera either in June or recently. I added that your reply to Mr. King's message on the ports applied a fortiori to his message of the 16th June. I suggested that the message of the 16th June was practically telling the Irish people to give up their neutrality. (He seemed to think that was a bald way of putting it.) He said that he would talk to the Prime Minister about the question of sending you another cable asking whether he might refer publicly to the fact that he was in touch in June. I said that I thought it would be a mistake to send another message asking you that, as you clearly wanted no public reference at all to either of Mr. King's messages. We agreed that I should not ask you then but should simply report to you that I had delivered your reply to Dr. Skelton and that he said he would pass it on at once to the Prime Minister. I have so far heard nothing more about the matter and have not enquired.

In the course of the conversation just referred to, Dr. Skelton quoted the Dublin press message that the Opposition and Labour Parties were 'gloomy and preoccupied' during or at the end of the Taoiseach's speech of the 7th November. He made quite a point of it. I think they have some idea here that men like Deputy Dillon (and certainly Senator MacDermot)5 would go into the war if they held office and that there is the possibility of a Government alternative to the Taoiseach's which would hand over the ports. I pointed out to Dr. Skelton the falsity and danger of that line of thinking. I said that it was a complete mis-reading of the situation to think that any Irish public man could stand a moment's chance of election on a policy of going into the war or handing over the ports.

[signed] John J. Hearne

1 Richard Hanson (1879-1948), interim leader of the Canadian Conservative Party (1940-1) and Leader of the Opposition (1940-3) (party leader Arthur Meighen did not have a seat in parliament).

2 Not printed.

3 Not printed. In his telegram to de Valera the Canadian Prime Minister warned of the imminent dangers facing Ireland; in particular the likelihood of a German invasion. MacKenzie King appealed to de Valera and to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon (to whom he sent a similar telegram), to 'meet and work out a basis upon which united and effective resistance could be offered in the event of invasion or attack' (NAI DFA P4).

4 Not printed. The telegram (No. 67, Estero to Ottawa (NAI DFA P4)) pointed out that while de Valera was 'most friendly' towards Canada, 'Canadian critics do not realise Ireland's right to independence and to the absolute ownership of her own territory'.

5 Frank MacDermot (1896-1975), politician (National Centre Party and Fine Gael), Senator (1937-42); a prominent critic of Irish neutrality.

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