No. 88 UCDA P150/2226

Minutes of a meeting between Eamon de Valera and Ramsay MacDonald

London, 15 July 1932



Meeting with Mr. de Valera on Friday, 15th July. Note by the Lord Chancellor

The attached note of the meeting with Mr. de Valera on Friday, the 15th July, was prepared by the Attorney General, and has been approved by the Prime Minister.

(Initialled) S.1


Conversations took place between the Prime Minister and Mr. de Valera on 15th July in accordance with suggestions made to him on the previous night by Mr. Norton.2

Mr. de Valera reached London at 5.50 p.m. and the meeting was appointed to take place at 7.30 p.m.

At 7.30 a telephone message was received that Mr. de Valera was not prepared to come to Downing Street unless he was to see the Prime Minister alone, as he had had no conversations with his own colleagues. The Prime Minister sent a reply that he could not see Mr. de Valera unaccompanied by any of his colleagues, and he suggested that the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General should be present with him. Mr. de Valera replied that he would not come unless he could see the Prime Minister alone, at any rate in the first instance. The Prime Minister thereupon agreed to receive him alone in the first instance, and Mr. de Valera reached Downing Street about 7.50 p.m.


The Prime Minister and Mr. de Valera had a conversation alone for about a quarter of an hour. The Lord Chancellor then joined them. About 8.30 p.m. the Prime Minister called the Attorney General into the room.

The Prime Minister stated that it was clearly understood that the conversations were to be without prejudice. He also rebutted a suggestion made by Mr. de Valera that the Prime Minister had sent for him to come to London. The Lord Chancellor asked Mr. de Valera a number of questions with regard to the new proposal for a commission of four persons. Mr. de Valera, in dealing with that part of the proposal referring to negotiation for a settlement after the Commission had reported, said that he had no doubt the British Government were under the impression that by the action they were taking they would force Mr. de Valera to have a General Election with the result that a new Government would be substituted for the present one. The British Government were making, on this occasion, as often in the past, a profound mistake; the Irish people were in a resolute mood and there was no intention on his part of having an Election, nor any likelihood of any change in popular feeling, which at present strongly supported him.

The discussion then passed to a consideration of the proposal for arbitration. Mr. de Valera expressed the opinion that no question of principle was involved, and by way of illustration of his contention that an Empire tribunal was not obligatory, he referred to a statement made in the course of one of the debates to the effect that if Canada and Australia chose to arbitrate before a non-Empire tribunal they were perfectly free to do so. The Attorney General intervened to say that, as he saw it, apart altogether from the question of the effect of the Imperial Conference, 1930, the question of principle at stake was whether the British Government could possibly take a step which would lend colour to the suggestion made by Mr. de Valera that if the matter were referred to an Empire Board the dice would be loaded against the Irish Free State Government. This he thought would be a slur upon the Members of the Commonwealth to which the British Government could not be expected to make themselves a party. Mr. de Valera replied that he understood the Attorney General's point, but he did not think that there was much in it. However, he recognised that unless one of the two parties was prepared to recede from the position taken up as to the constitution of the tribunal there was a deadlock. He added that even if there was a name within the Empire which would be acceptable to him he could not now possibly propose or accept such a name, as it would be said that he was going back upon his demand for freedom of choice. As a matter of fact, he had no such name in mind. He and his Ministers had not the same opportunity of becoming familiar with persons of high judicial standing within the Empire or, for that matter, outside the Empire, as the British Government had.

The discussion then returned to the new proposal that a commission of four persons, two to be appointed by each Government, should consider the circumstances, and make a report as a basis of negotiation for a settlement. Mr. de Valera said that this proposal was intended to get over the difficulty of the choice of a chairman of an arbitration tribunal. Even if there were two reports, representing the two sides in the dispute, one advantage would be that the Irish Free State case would be explained to the Irish people. The impression had got abroad in Ireland, as well as elsewhere, due to the misrepresentation of the Irish Free State case, that the Irish Free State had made an agreement and had broken it, and he wished to remove this impression by a correct and full statement of what their real case was. The Attorney General reminded Mr. de Valera that the opinions of six lawyers on his side as well as of six lawyers on Mr. Cosgrave's side had already been published, to which Mr. de Valera replied that the six lawyers who reported in favour of the present Irish Free State Government's contention had made their report in a technical form, which was not likely to be read by the public, whereas Mr. Cosgrave's lawyers had made their statement in a more popular form, and it had been issued as part of Mr. Cosgrave's election propaganda.

The Prime Minister laid stress upon the complete absence of finality in the new proposal. He referred to the proposal that negotiation should begin afresh after the commission had issued their reports, and said that such negotiation might drag on for weeks or for months, and meanwhile relations between the two Governments would become more difficult. He elicited from Mr. de Valera the statement that what he meant by negotiation for a settlement was a discussion of what it was fair should be paid. Mr. de Valera made it plain that he wished to go behind the two agreements of 1923 and 1926, stating that he was of opinion that a fair settlement would not merely leave the Irish Free State under no liability to make any payment but would require the British Government to pay a considerable sum to the Irish Free State.

At this point in the discussion, the Prime Minister wrote down on a sheet of paper the position as he saw it, and read it out to Mr. de Valera. He said the first alternative was arbitration, in which case the steps which ought to be taken immediately were:-

1. to settle the terms of reference, and

2. to settle the composition of the tribunal.

If, however, that was ruled out, the other course was negotiation, and he asked Mr. de Valera whether he had any other suggestions to make. Mr. de Valera agreed with the statement made by the Prime Minister. After a good deal of desultory conversation as to the deadlock, the Prime Minister said that he thought at any rate it was desirable that contact should be maintained, and he suggested that each Government might appoint two or three persons to continue to discuss the points at issue. Mr. de Valera said that it would be difficult to proceed with such discussions immediately owing to the limitations of the Irish Free State Government. The British Treasury was a Government machine of unrivalled efficiency, and no doubt on the British side discussions could begin within a few days. The Irish Free State Government, however, was not similarly equipped, and it would require some time before they would be in a position to carry on negotiations. Meanwhile, an economic war had been declared, and it was necessary, in his opinion, if there was to be any negotiation, for the British Government to suspend what he called the ?marching orders'. He recognised that it was difficult for the British Government to suspend action, as they had not merely taken power to impose duties, but had actually imposed them, whereas the Irish Free State Government had not yet imposed any customs duties, but he regarded it as essential, if any discussion was to go on between persons appointed by the two Governments, to suspend hostilities. Otherwise the Irish Free State Government would have no time to discuss matters as all their energies would be concentrated upon the 'war.'

The Attorney General asked whether, in the event of the duties being taken off, Mr. de Valera would be prepared to consider a proposal to resume the payments that had been stopped, it being understood that any sums so paid would be repaid if it was ultimately decided that the Irish Free State Government was not liable. This was a practice very familiar in the course of litigation in the courts when provision had to be made for the circumstances pending an appeal. Mr. de Valera declined to consider any proposal of this sort. He said their decision to pay the monies into a suspense account was ample evidence of their good faith. The Prime Minister more than once pointed out that if there was to be a suspension of the duties there ought to be a complete return to the status quo which the Irish Free State Government had been the first to disturb.

The conversation continued without any progress being made or agreement reached. The Lord Chancellor had been obliged to leave at 8.45 in order to attend the Judges' dinner at the Mansion House, and did not return until 9.50. He resumed discussion with Mr. de Valera on the points above mentioned. The Prime Minister intervened about 10.35 by saying that he thought further conversation that night was not likely to lead to any result. Mr. de Valera agreed and said the only thing remaining to be done was to agree upon a statement to be issued to the press. This statement was then settled and subsequently issued.3

1 John Sankey, British Lord Chancellor (1929-35).

2 William Norton (1900-63), leader of the Irish Labour Party (1932-60).

3 Not printed.

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