No. 40 NAI DFA Legal Adviser's Papers

Memorandum by Michael Rynne entitled 'Neutrality'

Dublin, undated, but September 1939


  1. Essentials of Neutrality

    The essentials of neutrality are:-

    (a) An impartial attitude towards belligerents on both sides of the conflict.

    (b) Acquiescence in this attitude by both belligerents.

    (c) Ability to take such action as may be necessary to defend neutrality.

    (d) The first two essentials have already come into existence, in fact and according to International Law, in this country, the position being briefly this:

  2. Impartial Attitude

    The present position of this part of Ireland regarding neutrality, or any other matter relating to its Sovereign Rights, is the same as that of every other Sovereign State. Every Sovereign State is a master of its own resolutions and the question of remaining neutral or not is, in the absence of a treaty stipulating otherwise, one of policy and has no relation to International Law.

    All Sovereign States which do not expressly declare the contrary, by word or action, at the commencement of a war are regarded as neutral, and the rights and duties arising from neutrality come into existence and remain in existence, through the mere fact of a State taking up a duty of impartiality, and using all the means at its disposal not to be drawn into the war by either set of belligerents. A special assertion of intention to remain neutral is not legally necessary on the part of neutral States. Many States are neutral in the present war who did not so far consider it necessary, as far as I know, to make any public pronouncement to that effect, e.g. the South American Republics.

  3. Recognition by Belligerents

    A belligerent who, at the outbreak of war, refuses to recognise a third State as a neutral, does not violate neutrality by that action alone, because neutrality does not come into existence in fact and in law until both belligerents have acquiesced expressly or tacitly in the attitude of impartiality taken up by third States. But the Law of Nations, in its present development, objects to a would-be neutral State being forced into war, and a belligerent who refuses to recognise it as neutral violates International Law, although not neutrality. The fact remains that both sides in the present European conflict have acquiesced in our attitude of neutrality, hence, as I have said, the first two essentials of our neutrality are accomplished facts.

  4. Ability to take such steps as may be necessary to defend neutrality

    Impartiality towards belligerents on both sides excludes such assistance and succour to one of the belligerents as is detrimental to the other, and, further, such injuries to one of the belligerents as benefit the other. In addition, it includes active measures on the part of a neutral for the purpose of preventing belligerents from making use of neutral territories and neutral resources for their military and naval purposes, and of preventing either of them from interfering with his legitimate intercourse with the other. The duty of impartiality excludes, in addition, all facilities whatever for military and naval operations of the belligerents, even if granted to both belligerents alike. It has thus become a recognised principle of International Law that a neutral State must take all measures in its power, including force if necessary, to preserve its neutrality. If a neutral is unable or unwilling to use the means at its disposal to preserve its neutrality, a belligerent is, in certain circumstances, entitled, for the purpose of self-preservation, to occupy any portion of the neutral's territory.

  5. Position of Small States during the World War

    It is well known that some small States, such as Belgium, Greece and Persia, had their neutrality violated during the World War. The difficulties which other small States had in preserving their neutrality is, however, not so generally known. The original German plans provided for the invasion of Holland as well as Belgium. The Dutch, however, recognising the general and particular nature of the International situation, modernised and increased both their army and fortifications just before the war. The Germans, then, in view of the changed situation due to improved Dutch armaments, decided the probable Dutch resistance would more than counterbalance the advantages of invading Holland and changed their plan. During the whole period of the war, the Dutch had 450,000 troops and considerable naval forces on a war footing. Yet, in 1918, they again narrowly escaped German invasion.

    Switzerland also found it necessary to ensure her neutrality by mobilising and keeping two to three hundred thousand troops under arms for the whole period of the war.

    Demark, Norway and Sweden were not so directly threatened but they found common action, amounting almost to an alliance, combined with the full mobilisation and increase of their defence services, essential to the preservation of their neutrality and of their rights as neutrals. All neutral States suffered severely in their economic, commercial and industrial activities. They were left without essential imports and, in many cases, actually short of food, as a result of a conflict in which they took no part.

  6. Precautions taken by some small European States in present emergency

    • Belgium

      The Belgian Cabinet, at a meeting on 1st September decided that, in view of Belgium's policy of neutrality and of the present international situation, further military measures would be necessary to ensure her security and respect of engagements undertaken by her.

      It was reported on 25th September that the Belgian army had manned the frontier forts along her German border to full strength. It was stated that, since shortly after the outbreak of war, Belgium has proceeded with complete mobilisation measures, so that the country now has an efficient army of nearly 750,000 under arms. This force is superior to the Belgian army of 1914 and the Belgian frontier forts, constructed on the same lines as the Maginot Line, although not so elaborately, are more formidable obstacles than the pre-war system of isolated fortresses.

      A joint Belgo-Luxemburg Committee discussed on September 7th the measures to be taken to protect the population of the Grand Duchy in case of danger. The Belgian delegation promised 'the fullest and most fraternal support' to Luxemburg in case of emergency.

      The Belgian Government asked parliament for special powers and a special credit of 2,000,000,000 francs (about £11,000,000).

    • Netherlands

      Mobilisation of the Netherlands army and navy was carried out on 29th August, a few days before the invasion of Poland. The Government announcement stated:

      'To be fully prepared for all responsibilities should an armed conflict in Europe break out, and, notwithstanding the fact that there is still hope, Holland has decided to guard its neutrality on all sides and against all parties. The Government has, therefore, thought it necessary to order mobilisation of the army and navy without further delay'.

      The order affecting the army includes the reservist classes from 1924 up to and including 1939.

      The Government appealed to the nation to bear its burden and meet all difficulties as calmly as possible.

      The Queen, in a broadcast message, stated that, should a conflict break out, Holland will maintain a strict neutrality to all sides and with all the means at her disposal.

    • Denmark

      The Danish Government, on September 1st, called up five classes of men, totalling 40,000. Parliament met on the same night to pass several urgent emergency measures.

      Previously, only 8,000 men were under arms, equivalent to one year's supply of recruits. The Navy had a further 2,000. It is claimed in official circles that an army potential of 100,000 trained men could, in case of necessity, be mobilised in 24 hours. Arrangements are complete to call up members of the Auxiliary Services for civilian assistance and defence.

      Officially the view is taken that Denmark's neutrality is an accepted fact, strengthened by the non-aggression pact with Germany. The fact remains, however, that since the German Minister at Copenhagen re-emphasised Germany's intention not to infringe Denmark's neutrality, defensive measures have been redoubled.

      While Ministers and Government officials maintain close reserve to avoid giving offence to any Great Power, precautionary measures are being taken as far as possible, e.g. piles of sandbags for the protection of doors and windows were placed outside the building which houses the Danish Admiralty, Ministry of War, Home Office and also outside other Government buildings. The same applies to buildings like the Thorvaldsen Museum, to shield the Museum against possible harm.

    • Switzerland

      The Swiss Federal Council decided on 28th August to proceed with the full Swiss frontier mobilisation. This involved calling to the colours between 80,000 and 100,000 men.

      It was announced on September 1st that general mobilisation would take place on the following day. On 11th September it was reported that Switzerland had completed her general mobilisation and has now between 500,000 and 600,000 well trained and well equipped men under arms to defend her neutrality.

  7. Geography and National Defence

    National defence problems are primarily affected by geography. To quote a recent writer on Canadian Defence Policy: 'The permanent bases of the external relations of practically every country in the World find their origin in geography'. Continental European States maintain large armies and build fortifications to ensure the security of their land frontiers. Insular Powers, such as Great Britain and Japan, depend principally on Naval Power for the protection of their territories and interests. Many Powers maintain both armies and navies because they have land frontiers as well as overseas territories and interests to protect.

    With the exception of Belgium, all Continental European States maintain a naval service for local coast defence and for the effective control and preservation of the neutrality of their territorial waters.

  8. Problems arising from the geographical position of this country

    Éire, notwithstanding the Six-County border, still has nearly all the elements of an island in matters of national defence. With the exception mentioned, it can only be invaded from overseas, and even to reach the Six-Counties, any forces except those already there, must come from overseas. It follows that the defence of Ireland must be considered in relation to questions of navies and sea-power. It is generally agreed that naval strategic measures fall naturally into two main categories; first those of a military character – using the term in its broadest sense – and second, those of an economic character, undertaken with object of weakening the enemy's power by striking at his resources. For naval operations suitable harbours or bases are the paramount need. Such harbours or bases must be situated in central and controlling positions.

    No harbours in Western Europe are so centrally situated for this purpose as those of Ireland. Operations in any portion of the North Eastern Atlantic can be conducted more easily from Irish ports than from those of any other country. Irish coasts and harbours also directly control the entrances to the English Channel and the Irish Sea. To a somewhat less extent the Irish Coast is a suitable centre from which to direct operations towards the Bay of Biscay and the areas West and North of Scotland. United States troops coming to Europe in 1918 were practically all landed at Brest or ports further south in the Bay of Biscay. For the protection of those troops while in the Eastern Atlantic against a possible cruiser raid by the Germans, it was considered necessary to station a squadron of battleships at a suitable centre. Berehaven was selected by the Americans as the most central and suitable base for the purpose of protecting troops destined, not for Ireland or England, but for France.

    Many Irish harbours, e.g. Cobh, Berehaven, Galway, Killary, Lough Swilly, are sufficiently deep, naturally sheltered and commodious enough to accommodate a great fleet and, in addition, are easily navigated and can be protected against attack with comparatively little expenditure. Generally, they provide in their natural state many of the facilities which other countries have only been able to provide, indifferently, after very large expenditure.

    The development of new weapons, such as aeroplane and submarine, has largely increased the difficulty of protecting or even maintaining naval bases in narrow waters exposed to such attack. These developments have still further enhanced the value of the Southern and Western Irish harbours.

    Of the World's sea communications, 75 per cent are centred in the North Atlantic and it is estimated that more than half the World's traffic passes through the ocean gateway bounded on the North by the South Irish Coast and on the South by the Brittany Peninsula and then proceeds through the still narrower gateways of the English Channel or St. George's Channel. Not only does practically all British traffic pass through those gateways, but also almost all French, Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Baltic traffic. Admiral Mahan,1 who is considered one of the greatest authorities on these matters, from an English point of view, said: 'Ireland, by geographical position lies across and controls the communications of Great Britain with all the outside world … save the North Sea'. He also said: 'Communications dominate war; broadly speaking, they are the most important single element in strategy, political or military. In its control over them had lain the pre-eminence of sea-power as an influence upon the history of the past and in this it will continue, for the attribute is inseparable from its existence'.

    The great crisis of the World War, from the point of view of the Allies, was due to the activity of German submarines and this form of warfare was waged in its most intensive form, and from the German viewpoint, with most successful results, in the waters surrounding Ireland. The importance and intensity of the submarine war in Irish waters, and around Cobh in particular, is described by Admiral Sims,2 Wartime United States Commander in Europe. In his book he states: 'The far flung steamship lanes which bring Britain her food and raw materials from half a dozen continents focus in the Irish Sea and English Channel, therefore, the submarines . . . merely used to hover round the extremely restricted waters west and south of Ireland'. In an official report he stated: 'There is reason for the greatest alarm about the issue of the war caused by the increasing success of the German submarines . . . Most of the ships are sunk to the Westward and Southward of Ireland'. Admiral Sims then went on to state that in this case and other reports he urged 'that the United States should immediately assemble all her destroyers and other light craft and send them to the port where they could render the greatest service in the anti-submarine campaign, viz. Queenstown'.

  9. British opinions as to the strategic importance of Ireland's geographical position

    Some expressions of opinion given by responsible British officers as to the position of Ireland in the event of a war in Europe in which Great Britain would be involved serve to illustrate further the strategic importance of Ireland's geographical position.

    Major General Bird,3 in 'The Direction of War' (1925) under the heading 'Flanking Position' states: 'Ireland, which lies to the West of Great Britain, is so placed that, if held by a hostile nation, British trading ships sailing westwards and south-westwards would be liable to attack for many days after leaving British ports, and also when returning to them. The British would also be compelled to take far more extensive precautions for the security of their western coastline. Hence, in the wars between the French and English, the former, on more than one occasion, endeavoured to stir up rebellion in and gain possession of Ireland. Further, were the ports on the south and west of Ireland to be even closed to British sea and aircraft, the power of the British to deal with enterprises launched from the west or south against Great Britain or her commerce would be much reduced'.

    Boycott,4 in 'Elements of Imperial Defence' says: 'England holds the key to the sea gates of Europe'. (She held the fortified Irish ports when this was written.) 'Lines of communication in the Atlantic tend to centralise in an area lying roughly between Cape Clear, Milford Haven, Land's End and Ushant and it was in this area that German submarines became firmly established and did most damage. Submarines and aircraft based on Cherbourg and Brest would make this area even more dangerous than the German submarines were able to do from their bases on the Belgian coast.'

  10. Naval forces maintained in Irish Waters during World War

    During the whole period of the World War considerable British, and during its later stages, considerable American Naval forces were based on, and exclusively used Irish Ports and Harbours. In January, 1918, the following mixed British and United States detachments, under a British Commander, were based on Cobh alone:

    1 Light Cruiser,

    37 Destroyers,

    4 Torpedo Boats,

    10 Sloops,

    9 Sweepers,

    1 Decoy Ship,

    as well as numerous smaller and auxiliary craft, such as depot and supply ships, tugs, submarine chasers, etc.

    These forces, and others based on Berehaven and Lough Swilly, were engaged in the following duties:-

    1. Keeping channels leading from Irish harbours and on the routes used by Irish Coastal shipping and shipping proceeding to English and Scottish Harbours swept clear of mines and patrolled. All were, it is believed, usually swept daily.
    2. Performing the same duties on the great trade routes off the North and South Irish Coasts.
    3. Protecting, as necessary, the entrance to Irish Harbours and War Anchorages by the use of nets, booms and protective minefields.
    4. Finally, the flotillas of destroyers and all kinds of auxiliary patrol, and submarine-hunting craft, based on Cobh, Berehaven, Lough Swilly, Rosslare and other Ports in the South and West of Ireland, fought out the intensive submarine war in the waters off the Irish Coast known as the 'Western Approaches' of the Queenstown Command.
  11. Dangers that our neutrality may be violated

    It will be seen, from the preceding paragraphs what an important part Ireland, because of its occupation by the British and its strategical importance, played in the World War. In the words of Major General Bird: 'were the ports in the South and West of Ireland to be even closed to British sea and aircraft, the power of the British to deal with enterprises launched from the West or South against Great Britain or her commerce would be much reduced'.

    In the British Government's proposals for Irish peace in August 1920, the following passage occurred: 'Great Britain lives by sea-borne food; her communications depend upon the freedom of the great sea routes. Ireland lies at Britain's side across the sea-ways North and South, that link her with the Sister Nations of the Empire, the markets of the world and the vital sources of her food supply. In recognition of this fact, which nature has imposed and no statesmanship can change, it is essential that the Royal Navy alone should control the seas round Ireland and Great Britain'. May not similar arguments be used again before the termination of this war?

    As explained in the Memo on Contraband of War, page 3,5 even the clearest and most emphatic treaties have been unable to withstand the pressure of necessity, because every treaty is based on compromise and none are framed to meet the ultimate strain of war. When a State found itself fighting with its back to the wall, it preferred life to the observance of its promises. Naturally its lawyers explained the justification but the fact remained. As Sir Edward Grey6 has said: 'The Navy acted and the Foreign Office had to find the argument to support the action'. The fact is that, in time of peace States agree to certain legal rules by which they refuse to be bound when urgent self-interest dictates a contrary course. History is strewn with such broken treaties.

    The difficulty which some small States had in maintaining their neutrality during the last year is explained in Para. 5. All the virtues were not on one side and all the iniquities on the other in this respect. Both sides to the conflict violated the neutrality of small and weak States when it suited their purpose to do so and the same thing has happened in every major war.

1 Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), United States Navy officer and military historian known for his writings on geopolitics and naval power.

2 William Sowden Sims (1858-1936), Admiral, United States Navy. The reference is to The Victory At Sea (New York, 1920), Sims' memoir of his service in Europe during the First World War.

3 Major General Sir Wilkinson D. Bird (1869-1943). The reference is to his work The direction of war: a study and illustration of strategy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1925).

4 A.G. Boycott, member of the Royal Air Force Education Service; author of The Elements of Imperial Defence: a study of the geographical features, materials, resources, communications, and organisation of the British Empire (Aldershot, 1939).

5 Not printed

6 Sir Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon (1862-1933), Foreign Secretary (1905-16).

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