No. 264 UCDA P150/2571

Cover letter and memorandum by Joseph P. Walshe on The German Note (Dublin)

Dublin, 19 August 1940

The attached Note was handed to me by the German Minister at 4.45 p.m. on Saturday, 17th August.1

The position, as clarified in a conversation with the German Minister, can be stated briefly as follows:-

  1. The German Government, having established a total blockade of Britain, will endeavour by every means at its disposal, to sink all cargoes going into and departing from British ports.
  2. The German Government suggest to the Irish Government that the latter should take steps to prevent Irish ships and Irish citizens from incurring the risks involved in running the blockade.
  3. The German Government are ready to instruct their naval and air forces to refrain from attacking ships sailing under the Irish flag (and this includes neutral ships under the Irish flag carrying Irish cargo), provided
  4. a) that the Irish Government give a guarantee that the said ships are not carrying cargoes to England and are not carrying from Ireland to other countries merchandise of English origin (i.e., goods already imported from England into Ireland); and

    b) that the Irish Government give due notice to the German Government of the times of sailing of these ships and the route to be followed.

  5. The net effect in our B. trade in practice would be that, while Irish ships, or neutral ships under Irish colours, could fetch cargoes from England, Irish cargoes going to that country would have to be sent in British bottoms.


1. The German Note raises two separate problems. First, there is the question of the effect of the German blockade measures on traffic between this country and Great Britain, and secondly, there is the German offer to make an arrangement with us whereby ships coming to this country with vitally essential supplies would be exempt from attack.

2. So far as traffic between this country and Great Britain is concerned, the following considerations must be borne in mind:-

(a) The danger of German attacks on shipping must not be underrated. So far as ships sailing to and from this country are concerned, the activity of the last three days has already belied the British attitude that the German declaration was merely a bluff and that it would make no difference in the situation existing before it was made. The new total blockade may be intended merely as a temporary diversion but, as long as it lasts, it is likely to make itself felt.

(b) Assuming the danger to shipping and passengers to be a real one, the immediate question is what action should be taken to safeguard or protect Irish citizens and ships against the risks, and to prevent serious trouble arising between this country and Germany. The German suggestion, made in the official statement declaring the blockade, is that we should prohibit our citizens and ships from entering the war zone. We would say that that would be unneutral and would be tantamount to doing the work of Germany's blockade for her. The Germans would reply that, in taking such action, we would be doing no more than countries like the United States and the Argentine have already done, at great economic loss to themselves, in the interests of their neutrality. A serious point for us, however, is that the British would almost certainly resent this or any other similar action on our part implying recognition of the effectiveness or legitimacy of the German blockade.

(c) Assuming that Irish citizens and ships are to continue free to enter the blockade zone, there remains the question of what other official action might be taken to minimise the risk of loss of life and property and to guard against the charge of timidity in the assertion of our neutral rights. Over 75% of the passenger traffic between Britain and Ireland is carried by the L.M.S.2 boats which are of British registry. Only about 10% of traffic is carried in Irish ships. So far as the question of the safety of our citizens is concerned, there would probably be no serious difficulty, even from the British side, about the issue of an official statement to the effect that 'Owing to the present risks, Irish citizens are strongly advised to avoid travelling by sea if they can do so without serious disadvantage or inconvenience.' If necessary, an exit permit system restricting travel could be instituted. But that would involve increased expenditure to the Exchequer and additional inconvenience to travellers.

(d) There remains the question of Irish ships. Here the position turns very largely on the question of the legality of the German blockade. On account of the novelty of blockade by air and for other reasons, a positive statement with regard to the legality or otherwise of the German measures is hardly practicable; but so far as the precedents go, there is a good deal more to be said in favour of the legality of the blockade than against it. If the German blockade is not illegal, any action by the Government in the direction of arming Irish vessels to enable them to force the blockade, or to combat the blockade measures, could be regarded as an act of war by Germany. The position would be the same if Irish ships were to be escorted by Irish naval units with instructions to resist the blockade measures. Whatever the legal position may be, however, politically an official attitude of defiance and resistance to the German blockade measures, would be liable to maximise the political repercussions of such incidents as did occur and to lead to a severe strain on our relations with Germany. There does not seem to be any ideal course. It might help if the Department of Industry and Commerce were to discuss the matter with the strictly Irish companies on the basis that measures of armed protection are not practicable in the case of neutral ships. In somewhat similar circumstances, other neutral governments kept their ships in port. Serious as the loss would be, if the proportion of sinkings became very high, our shipping companies might want to take similar action on their own initiative.

(e) There remains only the question whether, and if so in what form, we should make a formal protest to the German Government with regard to the application of the blockade measures to Irish citizens and ships. Our reply to the German Note would, of course, draw attention to the vital importance of trade with Britain to our national economy, and to the resentment likely to be felt by Irish people all over the world if Irish citizens and trade are seen to suffer the consequences of a conflict in which this country is not involved. But it is not easy to see on what we could base a formal diplomatic protest in the ordinary sense. As has been said above, there is more to be said in favour of the legality of the German measure than against it. We could also urge the German authorities in verbal representations to exercise discretion and forbearance in the case of ships of Irish registry. But here we would be likely to be met with the argument that the legality of the German blockade depends on its universality, and the German Government could not discriminate in our favour without leaving themselves open to challenge by other States.

3. The second part of the German Note contains an offer to exempt from the blockade measures ships flying the Irish flag coming to this country with vitally essential supplies. The offer is subject to the conditions that each ship should be notified individually and should follow any sailing instructions the Germans may give, and that the Irish Government should give an undertaking not to allow supplies so imported to be re-exported or trans-shipped from this country. The German Note apparently contemplates a more or less formal agreement on these general lines. The German Minister has been authorised to enter into negotiations about this agreement and is anxious to get a reply on this part of the Note as quickly as possible. No doubt, the Germans have an eye to the propaganda value of an agreement with us. On the other hand, the spirit in which the proposal is put forward by the Germans is not such that we can afford simply to ignore it.

4. The following considerations arise with regard to this German offer:-

a) On prestige and other grounds, the British reaction to any such agreement between us and Germany at this stage would, of course, be very bad – and, of course, we are dependent on the British for shipping, foreign exchange, supplies and so on. The British reaction would be particularly bad at the moment because they are about to approach us with a proposal that we should facilitate them by doing the very thing against which the Germans ask for a guarantee, i.e., by allowing British cargoes to be trans-shipped in our ports. It is barely possible that, in certain circumstances, the British might be brought to see certain material advantages for themselves in an arrangement of the kind proposed between ourselves and Germany. That might be the case, for example, if the arrangement guaranteed our imports of feeding stuffs and enabled us to increase the proportion of finished live stock which we send to Britain. The likelihood is, however, that the Germans would take care to define the term 'vitally essential supplies' in such a way as to make anything like this impossible.

b) On the other hand, we must allow for the possibility of the war continuing for a considerable time and the German blockade proving effective. The consequences for us might be wholesale industrial unemployment and serious reduction of our live stock population and agricultural production. It was precisely consequences of this type which, both in the last and in the present war, forced States like Holland, Switzerland, Denmark, etc., to make agreements with Britain of the kind which Germany is now proposing to us. We have, of course, useful stocks on which we could rely. But, in the situation in which we are now placed, such stocks as we have are a vital guarantee of our independence vis-à-vis Britain. According as our stocks were depleted, we would become more dependent on her, and, if she is at the same time feeling the effects of the blockade herself, she will not be able to give us much and what she has available to give will be more likely to be accompanied by political conditions. Furthermore, if, owing to the German blockade, internal conditions here become bad, firms are closed down and unemployment increases, public opinion will find it increasingly hard to understand why advantage is not taken of the German offer. Therefore, although there are strong reasons against making any formal agreement with Germany now, there are almost equally strong reasons for trying to keep open the possibility of making an arrangement on the lines suggested at a later stage if it should become really necessary to do so.

c) We could put our disinclination to enter into any agreement on the ground that it could be held not to be strictly neutral. We could support this by pointing to the German attitude to the War Trade Agreements concluded by Britain with Holland, Denmark, Belgium, etc., both in the last and in the present war. The Germans would, no doubt, counter this by saying that, what they objected to in the British War Trade Agreements with the Border neutrals was that the Border neutrals concerned were the normal channel for the passage of essential overseas supplies to Germany which the Agreements were intended to cut off. The British could not challenge the proposed arrangement between Ireland and Germany on the same ground.

d) The legality of German measures against cargoes coming to this country from overseas is much more doubtful than the legality of their action against trade between this country and Britain. Once again, however, the Germans would be able to point to lengthy and inconclusive diplomatic correspondence during the last war in which they would be able to find a colour of legal justification for their action. The trouble is that the sinking of cargoes coming to Ireland in Irish ships from countries other than Britain will be capable of being quoted in the British Press as instances of German violation of our neutrality. We shall have to take every such case up with the German Government to avoid the charge of allowing our neutrality to become a dead letter.

e) Our attitude to the German offer to grant immunity to cargoes coming to this country might be based on the following principles:-

i) The making of anything like a formal agreement is out of the question in present circumstances. An effort might be made to get the German Minister here to see this point of view and recommend it to his authorities.

ii) We should avoid entering into any obligation vis-a-vis Germany on the question of re-export or trans-shipment, but we could point out to the German Minister that, as a matter of policy, there has been no re-export or trans-shipment from this country since the beginning of the year, and that there is no intention of altering this position. The object would be to get the German Government to accept a statement somewhat on these lines in a Note as a satisfactory substitute for the guarantee for which they ask.

iii) The German Minister would be told verbally that, owing to practical difficulties connected with insurance and the fact that most of our overseas cargoes are carried in neutral vessels of other than Irish registry, we are not in a position at the moment to put forward concrete suggestions for any general arrangement such as the German Government suggests, but that we are looking into the possibility of making, in an emergency, practical arrangements of a kind which would enable us to put forward suggestions, and we will communicate with him later. The general idea would be not to reject the German offer out of hand and to keep it open for the present.

iv) We would tell the German Minister that, in our view, the sinking of cargoes coming to this country from countries other than Britain in Irish or neutral vessels would be contrary to international law and would give us a right to compensation which we would assert and claim in every case.

1 Not printed.

2 The London Midland and Scottish railway company.

Purchase Volumes Online

Purchase Volumes Online



The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.

Free Download

International Counterparts

The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
Read more ....

Website design and developed by FUSIO