No. 43 NAI DFA Letter Books (Department of the President 1923-28)

James McNeill to Desmond FitzGerald (Dublin)
(V.4.) (Copy)

LONDON, 2 March 1923

My dear Minister,

I am anxious to have a clearer understanding about my duties and responsibilities. I thought of writing to you earlier but did not wish unnecessarily to trouble you and the Ministry with matters which would adjust themselves with the help of time and patience.

As advised by Mr Walshe's telegram Sir Philip Hanson1 came here this morning. I was ill and unable to see him at 10.30 when he arrived, but told Mr McGilligan beforehand that I would see him in the afternoon. He came at 2.30 p.m. and told me that he had instructions from the Finance Department to inquire as to premises. He had no written instructions and no communications from the Finance Department addressed to me to state what his duties were. He had heard already from Mr McGilligan and Mr MacDonnell2 that an offer had been made on my behalf for other premises, the offer being made on such terms as would prevent its being binding if a better bargain could be secured. He had been to see Norway House and was told of other premises by the Board of Works people here. Some of these at least were those which were suggested to us and regarded as unsuitable. We discussed the possibility of sub-letting a part of the premises (2nd floor, Kinnaird House, Cockspur St.) for which an offer of £2750 had been made. I explained why I thought that subletting of a part of these somewhat large premises would have to be considered as a possibility but not as a necessity. He asked me as to details of the accommodation I should need with reference to Norway House. I told him that while I wished to be in no way discourteous to him I was not prepared to explain my proposals to him. I added that I was personally dissatisfied with the attitude of the Finance Department and that I did not think it right that anyone should be sent over here to deal with the arrangement about premises without any written instructions and without giving me formal information. He thought that financial control was necessary. I agreed with him but told him that I did not care for the way it was exercised in this and in other cases which were at the moment irrelevant.

I now wish to state that I am not prepared now or at any time to explain my proposals to officials of the Finance or any other Department who come over here with instructions about my work which are not communicated to me. I do not doubt that Sir Philip Hanson was carrying out instructions and I am sorry that he should experience anything unpleasant as a consequence of my strong dissent from the methods of the Finance Department. I tried to make that clear to him.

As regards the control of the Finance Department, I have no wish to evade proper control, but do not care to have my arrangements upset nor to have officials sent here by the Financial Department to anticipate my proposals or relieve me of my duties, whether their intentions are communicated to me or not.

The anxiety for transferring responsibility from my shoulders has lost us a suitable set of premises and caused the numerous enemies of the Free State some satisfaction. It has not helped us in the matter of terms.

The withholding from me of all information regarding the agreements3 come to at the recent conference has caused some official difficulty. I have asked orally and more than once in writing for a copy of the agreement which is supplied to Government Departments here.

The Ministry of Finance in its letter, No. 657 of 19/2/23 ,4 states that that Department has arranged directly with the British Government that equipment for my office shall be requisitioned from the Office of Works here. I think that that is a politically objectionable arrangement, and I also think that it is desirable that I should ask British Government Departments for any facilities. If I am in difficulties I shall inform you as Minister of External Affairs. It is unnecessary to adopt a procedure which suggests that neither the Minister of External Affairs nor the High Commissioner knows his business, even if it is assumed that the Board of Works can always supply my needs most economically.

When there was urgent need for munitions the Colonial Office was informed a day before I received any intimation. The officials in the Colonial Office are courteous and helpful, but if they only are informed I can do nothing, while if I am treated by my Government as other High Commissioners are treated by theirs the public business will benefit. Neither the Colonial Office nor any other office will take the High Commissioner very serious if he is kept in the dark or side-tracked.

Both Mr Crowley and I have been informed orally that the former is to work under my general control. There has been, so far as I know, no formal communication to either of us. The Colonial Secretary inquired of the Governor General what Mr Crowley's duties were. Had I been duly informed I should have told him before inquiry was made. He does not ask other Governments about the duties of their officers working under the control of High Commissioners.

A stream of precedents is swelling which will render the status of the High Commissioner of the Irish Free State something very different from that of his Canadian colleague. There is an anxiety in some quarters here to minimise his status. I am not concerned with my own importance, but you will readily understand that I do not want my tenure of this office, however short, to have been marked mainly by having it treated as unimportant as some people here would wish. Obviously the High Commissioner cannot be an Ambassador but he need not be an office boy. I am writing to you separately about the proposed definition of my duties which Sir Mark Sturgis wrote about.

Meantime, as Sir Philip Hanson will doubtless let you know that I declined to go fully into my proposals with him, I thought it right to place frankly before you the facts and opinions which are contained herein. I am sorry to cause you personally any trouble and I have no wish to raise official controversies, but I think that neither I nor anyone else can reputably serve as High Commissioner if needful information is withheld and needless interference is practised in the guise of financial control. Economy is a very good thing when not extended into the region of official courtesy. If my view, based on some experience of financial control and administrative responsibility and possibly strengthened by a belief that the Free State will suffer from an undue effect to work in close conjunction with British departments, is held to be mistaken I have no wish to claim any personal consideration. I cannot carry out a system which is, to me, unintelligible, wastes time and money which might be spent more usefully, and is calculated to lower the repute of the Irish Free State. If you think that on the grounds of either ill-health or incompetence I should cease to impede financial efficiency as authoritatively recognised I shall quietly make way for a healthy or competent successor, who enjoys having some of his work undone, some done by somebody else, and most of the remainder rendered difficult or impossible.

[signed] James McNeill

1Hanson was Chairman of the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland.

2Solicitor for the Irish High Commission.

3See above, No 36.

4Not printed.

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