No. 198 TNA PREM 3/131/1

Note of conversations between Eamon de Valera and Malcolm MacDonald

Dublin, 23 June 1940

I have had two further long conversations with Mr. de Valera, on June 21st and 22nd. The following is their substance.

I told him that we had received his specific requests for military equipment. They were being examined in London, but I should like to make some preliminary comments. There were a few items in his list which we had already promised to supply, and we would do whatever we could to expedite the arrival of these. But the other requests were much more difficult. They were for material which we ourselves needed for our own troops in Britain. Bren Guns, anti-tank guns and rifles, rifles and ammunition were the very things of which we were short as a result of our losses in Belgium and France. We were producing them rapidly, but required as many as we could produce for the re-equipment of our trained divisions. Even so, we might release some of these weapons for his troops if we felt a reasonable confidence that the material would not fall into the hands of the enemy within a short time of a German invasion of Éire. We had had a rather bitter experience of losing valuable arms to the Germans, and were not minded to repeat it. At present neither our military advisers nor we felt any confidence at all about the position in Éire; on the contrary, we thought the danger of a quick success for a comparatively small invading force was so real that we would not, in present circumstances, contemplate letting him have valuable equipment. If we had a better assurance that Irish resistance to the enemy would be effective, then the situation would change. If our naval ships could use Southern Irish ports, and some of our troops and aeroplanes could be stationed forthwith on Éire's territory, and if he took greater precautions against the Fifth Column in his country, then we should feel that the chances of successful invasion were greatly reduced, and we should be ready to let him have additional arms for his troops to use in defence of the common cause.

He answered that this was impracticable. He had given much thought to these questions since our conversations the other day, and could only repeat that an invitation to British forces to enter Éire before any invasion started would be a fatal mistake. It would break that strong unity with which almost the entire population were at present prepared to resist a German invasion. Moreover, the situation might be even worse than that. The appearance of British forces in Éire would almost certainly be followed by the I.R.A. sniping at some of our troops. A most unhappy situation might grow from such an unfortunate beginning. He wondered why, if we were willing to send equipment with our troops into Éire, we were not willing to send the same equipment to arm his troops in the same place. He was not short of men, but only of equipment. He could raise plenty of troops, and they were as good fighters as ours. He could assure me that they would resist the invaders bitterly. He thought our policy very short-sighted. Éire was exposed to attack; it was a back-door through which the Germans might try to enter Britain, whilst they were at the same time trying to get through other doors on the shores of Britain itself. We ought not to keep all our guns to defend the British doors, but to send some to the back-door in Éire. I replied that we were certainly concerned for the defence of the back-door. It could not be defended by infantry equipment alone. To secure it there should be a proper Naval patrol off the coasts, which meant our ships using Irish ports. That would secure that large numbers of the enemy invaders were drowned on the way over. As for the defence against those who succeeded in landing, we certainly did not under-estimate the fighting qualities of his men. They were very fine fighters indeed. But there was one important difference between his troops and ours. His were untrained, whilst ours were trained. The German invasion that we were talking about might happen any time now. There was not time to train troops in the use of equipment which many of them would never have seen before. That was why we wanted our troops with their own equipment to come into Éire.

He repeated that this would destroy the national unity which was all-important. He asked me whether we were partly reluctant to send equipment to Éire because we were afraid of Éire coming into the war against us. He said that if we made a mistake in this delicate situation, and ourselves committed an act of aggression against Éire, they would fight determinedly against us. But ruling out that possibility, were we afraid of the Irish helping the Germans?

I said that we had no mental reservation about that. We accepted that the great majority of his people would resist a German invasion, but we had to face the stern facts of German methods which had been employed with ruthless success in other neutral countries which had already been completely overwhelmed. The Germans could land troops by sea and by air without much difficulty in Éire, and there was a strong element of the Fifth Column inside the country already which would make their advance here at least as swift as it had been elsewhere. The reason why we would not provide equipment was that we were convinced that under present conditions that equipment would be quickly lost to the enemy.

Mr. de Valera said that the great majority of people in Éire desired very friendly relations with Britain. The agreement which we had reached with him two years ago had made a great difference. Certainly we had carried out our side of the bargain in the letter and the spirit. It was a pity that we were not able then to settle the only outstanding question, that of partition. If that had been possible, there might have been an alliance between the two countries by now. It was absurd for anyone to suppose that relations between the two countries should be anything but cordial. So far as the Irish were concerned, they were largely dependent upon Great Britain. This would be the case whether Britain won or lost the war. The destiny of Ireland must be closely linked with that of Britain. It was unthinkable that, so long as Britain did not interfere with Irish freedom, Ireland should give the slightest assistance to Britain's enemies. That was the general background to his whole view of the present situation. We ought not to have any qualms about his Government's intentions. He could not understand why we would not give them equipment with which they could hold up a German invasion for five hours instead of one, or perhaps for five days instead of one day, until our help could arrive. Coming in those circumstances, when the Irish had been attacked by the enemy and were putting up a stout resistance, the British would be welcomed by a united Irish people.

I said that I should like to repeat with greater emphasis something which I had said on the question of a United Ireland in our last talk. I had then told him that I thought the best chance of Ireland becoming united would be if Éire and Ulster were fighting side by side in the present war. It seemed to me that the co-operation and unity which would be established in war could not be broken when peace returned. In saying that the other day I had expressed my personal view, which I knew to be shared by my own generation in British politics. I could now tell him that this view was shared equally strongly by the War Cabinet in London. The Prime Minister himself, as well as Mr. Chamberlain and the others, had said that we should do nothing to discourage and everything that we could to encourage the unity of Ireland, so long as there was no coercion. The establishment of unity in war would almost certainly lead to the continuance of unity in peace. I therefore urged him to consider most seriously that by entering upon the war now he would not only be taking the most effective action in defence of the threatened freedom of Éire, but also the most effective action in the direction of union with the rest of Ireland.

He remarked that he by no means shared my view that the Germans would invade Éire. Such an invasion would not be easy, for it involved a long and difficult journey both by sea and by air from the French coast. Presumably the German ships and aircraft carrying troops would be subject to interference from our forces all the way. There was no need for Germany to take this risk in order to secure a fresh jumping-off ground for the attack on Britain. She already had far better bases on the continent from which to invade Britain.

I replied that no one could be dogmatic about this. I did not assert that a German invasion of Éire would positively take place. It might not. But the odds were in its favour. I then repeated the arguments which I had made in our earlier talk in support of the view that German thoroughness in seeking to bring the maximum of attack on Great Britain all at one time would lead them to Éire; and I added that no Government in this war could afford to leave anything to chance. Their plans and their preparations must be laid on the assumption that the worst would happen. The Government of Éire should make complete preparations on the assumption that their country was the next on the German list of victims.

Mr. de Valera agreed that this was the right course.

I then asked him whether there were any circumstances under which he would be prepared now, before a German invasion started, to invite our ships into his ports and our soldiers and aeroplanes into his territory, and to take vigorous action against the Fifth Column in his own country.

There followed a long discussion in which we examined three alternative possibilities. I made it plain throughout that my purpose was simply to explore the situation. The Government in London wished to have a clear picture of what was in his mind. The alternatives which we discussed were not proposals which I was making to him or which he was making to me. The British Government could consider what policy they wished to pursue in the light of his statement of his standpoint.

The three alternative courses, and the substance of the discussion which took place upon each, are as follows:-


I. That there should be a declaration of a United Ireland in principle, the constitutional and other practical details of the Union to be worked out in due course: Ulster to remain a belligerent, Éire to remain neutral at any rate for the time being: if both parties desired it, a Joint Defence Council to be set up at once; at the same time, in order to secure Éire's neutrality against violation by Germany, British naval ships to be allowed into Éire ports, British troops and aeroplanes to be stationed at certain agreed points in the territory, the British Government to provide additional equipment for Éire's forces, and the Éire Government to take effective action against the Fifth Column.

Mr. de Valera rejected this suggestion, saying emphatically that it was impossible for the two reasons which he had already stated in a similar connexion. First, the admission of British forces into the territory and territorial waters of Éire before a German invasion had started would be regarded by a large part of his own people as itself an abandonment of strict neutrality and a provocation of Germany. The result would be that national unity in the face of the German threat would be broken. Secondly, if British troops did come into Éire, there would be a grave danger of shots being fired at them by extremists and of most unfortunate skirmishes between the Irish and the British.

I asked him whether this was not only his own view, but also that of his Government.

He replied in the affirmative.


II That Éire and Ulster should be merged in a United Ireland, which should at once become neutral; its neutrality to be guaranteed by Great Britain and the United States of America; since Britain was a belligerent, its military and naval forces should not take any active part in guaranteeing that neutrality, but American ships should come into the Irish ports, and perhaps American troops into Ireland, to effect this guarantee.

In proposing this, Mr. de Valera said that he was only expressing a personal view when he contemplated the possibility of American ships and troops being allowed to protect Ireland's neutrality. He thought that some of his colleagues might be critical of the proposal, since America had shown her partiality to the Allies and her hostility to Germany so strongly. He would have to consult his colleagues on the proposal, if there were any prospect of America agreeing to it.

He said that he had thought a great deal about his earlier conversation with me, and that the only way in which he thought we could overcome our mutual difficulties was by the establishment of a neutral United Ireland. He recognised the obstacles from our point of view, but urged the following arguments for his suggestion. It would have the effect of consolidating at once national unity in Ireland; there were plenty of people in Ulster who would favour the idea, and the majority there would only be a tiny minority of the whole population of the country. It would kill the I.R.A. organisation stone dead, for they lived only on partition nowadays. Moreover, the declaration of the neutrality of the whole of Ireland would mean that the entire island was denied to German action. Whilst Ulster was a belligerent, the Germans would be quite entitled to invade the Six Counties. The American guarantee should be an effective deterrent to the would-be German aggressors. If it did not prove a deterrent, then America would presumably be in the war on our side. That would be a very satisfactory result for us. Mr. de Valera added that he thought that the neutrality of a United Ireland might well be very short-lived; after a while Ireland might enter the war on our side.

I firmly rejected this suggestion, saying that it seemed to me entirely impracticable for four reasons. First, there was no prospect that the people of Ulster, who had been engaged in the war from its very beginning, would now agree to desert Great Britain at the moment when her situation was more perilous than it had been for a century. Even if for any reason they were reluctantly compelled to do this, the result would certainly not be that united national sentiment throughout Ireland which he had spoken about. The majority of the people in the North would feel deeply incensed, controversy on the issue of a United Ireland would be roused to its highest pitch, and the new State would be launched on its career under the worst possible circumstances. Secondly, we in Great Britain could not contemplate that Ulster should now become neutral. In the Six Counties some vital war production was proceeding, such as the shipbuilding in Belfast. We needed all the productive units that we had got; if some of these in Great Britain were temporarily knocked out as a result of air raids in the near future, the production going on in Ulster would become all the more important. No doubt in theory this could continue even if the Six Counties were neutral. But we could not count on that unless there was adequate defence for the shipbuilding yards and factories there. At present there were squadrons of our aeroplanes stationed nearby, there were anti-aircraft guns manned by trained crews, and there were considerable numbers of well-equipped British troops. These would all have to be withdrawn if Ulster became neutral, and the industrial establishments there would thus be undefended. Thirdly, Ulster was situated opposite some of our own important centres of production and trade, such as Glasgow and the Clyde. Whilst Ulster was a belligerent we could prevent its coasts from becoming lairs in which U-boats could hide. We had a constant patrol of reconnaissance aeroplanes flying over those waters protecting our shipping. But if Ulster became neutral, that reconnaissance work would have to cease. Fourthly, an American guarantee of Ireland's neutrality would be worthless if it were not implemented by the presence of American troops and ships, and I very much doubted whether the American Government would send those forces. Surely Germany had proved herself, even to those who had the most touching faith in her goodness, no respecter of neutrality. Whilst Ulster was a belligerent and we could keep troops, aeroplanes and ships there, we could offer a fair guarantee that the Germans could not establish themselves in the Six Counties; we were also somewhat more capable of coming to the immediate assistance of the Twenty-six Counties when their neutrality was violated. If our forces had to withdraw from Ulster, the net military result would be to expand the area of weakness on our western flank, and increase the size of the territory which Germany might successfully invade.

Mr. de Valera endeavoured to counter these arguments. He urged that his proposal really would make for greater popular unity in Ireland and for a much stronger resistance to the Germans when they landed. Our forces would still be only just across the water, and could come to the aid of Ireland almost as quickly as if they had been situated in Ulster itself. He added that he quite agreed that it would be a mistake for our aircraft and troops and trained anti-aircraft contingents to leave Ulster immediately on the declaration of neutrality. There would have to be a transition period, during which our troops were gradually being withdrawn and replaced by trained and equipped Irish forces. We ought to let them have equipment for this. If the Germans launched any attack whilst our troops were still in the Six Counties, making the excuse that their presence was a violation of the supposed neutrality, the whole of Ireland would treat that as a casus belli.

I maintained all my objections to the suggestion.


III. That there should be a declaration of a United Ireland in principle, the practical details of the union to be worked out in due course: this united Ireland to become at once a belligerent on the side of the Allies.

I threw out this suggestion and invited Mr. de Valera's views upon it, in view of the fact that the present situation was a thoroughly dangerous one for Éire, that his country was likely to be dragged into the war under more unfavourable circumstances before long, and that the war in any case was one for Éire's freedom as well as everybody else's freedom, and that it was up to Éire to defend it. As there seemed to be insurmountable difficulties in the way of the two alternatives which we had already considered, was not this the only way out of Éire's difficulties? He answered that if there were not only a declaration of a United Ireland in principle, but also agreement upon its constitution, then the Government of Éire might agree to enter the war at once. He could not be certain about this. Perhaps the existing Government would not agree to it, and would be replaced by another Government which did. But the constitution of a United Ireland would have to be fixed first. As regards that, he thought it could be based upon the present constitution of Éire, which could be extended to cover the whole country. This would mean that its relation to the British Empire would be that of 'external association'; the King would continue to function as he did at present regarding all the external affairs of the State; he should not, for the present at any rate, be brought back any more prominently into the constitution, and Ireland should not be in the same position as the Dominions. Within this constitution, Ulster would enjoy a great deal of local autonomy in its own affairs. It would retain its Parliament to legislate on those affairs, and it would also send representatives to the Parliament of the United Ireland which would deal with all matters of common concern.

I said that, quite apart from the over-riding difficulties connected with the proposal for a United Ireland, which we all knew, I saw two particular objections to his suggestion which made it impracticable. First, I saw no chance of a constitution being prepared and agreed as rapidly as the war situation required. We knew a great deal about constitution making in the British Commonwealth of Nations, and he too knew a bit about it from his experience in working out the constitution of Éire. These were matters which required somewhat protracted and careful conference between politicians, constitutional experts and others. It had taken him many months to prepare his own constitution. No doubt he would urge that this constitution really would do for a United Ireland, and that all that was needed was the immediate extension of its machinery over the whole Thirty-two Counties. But we could not hand that constitution to the people of Ulster and tell them to take it or leave it. There must be discussion, there must be give and take, otherwise there would be violent ill-will. This would require a considerable time, and there was no time for that if a German invasion was to be forestalled. Therefore, I suggested again that all that could be expected was a declaration of union in principle, and the immediate establishment of whatever machinery was immediately necessary to protect the vital interests of the new State born in the midst of a European war. A Joint Defence Council might be set up at once, and on this the beginnings of practical co-operation would be made. The second objection to his suggestion was even more formidable. He had said that on the conditions that he had outlined the Government of Éire 'might' enter the war.

At this point he intervened to say that there would be a very big question mark after the 'might'.

I said that only made my point more important. We in London would not even consider the suggestion in return for a 'might'. We should not dream of spending time examining this proposal, nor of perhaps making approaches to the Ulster authorities, without a firm assurance that the Government of Éire would in fact on those conditions come into the war. He replied that a mere declaration of union in principle would not be enough. His people would recognise the difficulties which would lie in the way of the working out of an agreed constitution, and they would suspect that there never would be an agreement, and that the declaration of principle would never be implemented. And even if we got agreement on a constitution he still could not go further than a 'might'.

I asked whether this would be not only his view but the view of the other members of his Government.

At first he said 'Yes', but then I thought he became rather uneasy. He said that he would cast his vote that way anyway, but that perhaps some of his colleagues would take a different view. He did not think they would. His, and he thought their chief reason for this attitude would be that their people were really almost completely unprepared for war. They had not a large equipped army, they had not guns to resist tanks and mechanised troops; Dublin was practically an undefended town; they had only a few anti-aircraft guns, there were not even any air raid shelters in the city and the people had not got gas masks. They would be mercilessly exposed to the horrors of modern war, and he and his colleagues could not have it on their consciences that in this state of affairs they had taken the initiative in an action which so exposed them.

I replied that we would not disagree with that general attitude. We would not wish the Government of Éire to declare war without proper defence precautions being taken. I was discussing a situation in which there was an agreement between them and us that they would enter the war. That would alter our whole attitude on the question of equipment. We could then presumably send our ships into their ports, and our troops and aeroplanes to join with the Irish soldiers in defending strategic points. We should feel that we had assurances then which would enable us to send such guns, rifles and ammunition, and such gas masks and other equipment for passive defence as was consistent with the proportionate defence of our own island. We should certainly see that they did not face the Germans unarmed.

He replied that the provision of so much equipment would take time.

I answered that it would not take nearly so long as the writing of a constitution for Ireland, which was what he contemplated doing before declaring war. We were facing a situation in which Éire's territory might be violated at any moment. It might be next week, or the week after. Germany was going to try to defeat Britain in the course of the next two months, and if Britain were defeated, Éire's freedom was lost.

But he only repeated his former argument with an emphasis which made me feel that one of the decisive factors in the whole situation is his country's nakedness of defence. He said that if they had proper defences for Dublin and equipment for their army the situation might have been very different. But as it was, some of his colleagues and advisers were almost in a state of panic. They had had a meeting of the Defence Council following my earlier conversation with him, when a review of the defence situation showed their dangerous condition. There was some talk which was thoroughly defeatist. But he himself was not so pessimistic as some others. If there were a German invasion they would put up a stout fight. They were already mining roads and bridges though they would have to be careful only to blow up those that might be useful to the enemy, whilst preserving those that might be useful to themselves and their friends. But, in the circumstances, he and his colleagues could not take a positive decision which exposed their people to war. If war were forced upon them, it would be another matter. He urged again that the best solution of our mutual difficulties was the creation of a United Ireland which should be neutral, at any rate until they were prepared to enter the war. I answered again that this was out of the question.

He said that it would seem, then, that each of the three alternatives which we had discussed was impracticable for one reason or another. In those circumstances he would press us to let his troops have the equipment that he had asked for. He was particularly anxious for the material connected with 18 pounder guns, as he thought these would prove effective against tanks. He appealed strongly to us to give him as much as would enable them to keep the enemy in check until our forces could come to assist. He said that he would report our conversation to his colleagues when he returned from a visit, which he had to set on that afternoon, to Galway. He understood that there was a certain pro-German element down there, and he was going to address himself to that audience.




We had some discussion which roamed over the field of the war in general. This followed the general lines of the talk on June 17th1 and I need not repeat the detail here. But Mr. de Valera is evidently going to be influenced a good deal in his estimate of the war prospects by whatever is the fate of the French Fleet. If the French Fleet does not fall into Germany's hands, he holds the view that, provided we can withstand invasion in our island for the next two months, we shall defeat Hitler.

Finally, I said that I wished to press him further to take action against his Fifth Column. He had assured me that he was doing all he could to lock up I.R.A. leaders. But we attached importance also to German nationals being put under detention. Whenever I had raised this he had objected that to put them under lock and key would be regarded by his people as an unneutral act of provocation against Germany. I could see that this might be so if a hundred or so Germans were involved, though I still thought it a proper precaution in the light of what had happened in Norway, Holland and Belgium. But in any case, his objection did not really arise if he selected half-a-dozen of the most suspicious Germans and detained them. I had heard of a man called Becker,2 and no doubt there were others who were under particular suspicion. Would he take action against them?

He said that he would certainly consider this. He thought that the Government probably had power to do it under existing legislation and he would look into the matter.


1 See No. 193.

2 Heinrich Becker, a German national, a folklorist and photographer, remained in Ireland after the outbreak of the war.

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