No. 102 NAI DT S4714B

Letter from Joseph P. Walshe to Diarmuid O'Hegarty (Dublin)

Geneva, 30 June 1927

I am instructed by the Minister for External Affairs to make the following Report on the present position of the Conference for the Limitation of Naval Armaments in its relation to the Saorstát and to request you to bring it to the notice of the President and the Members of the Executive Council at the first opportunity.

The Saorstát delegation arrived in Geneva, as arranged, on Monday morning, the 27th June. In the afternoon the Minister paid a courtesy visit to Mr. Bridgeman, the First Lord of the Admiralty and Chief of the British Delegation. In the course of a short chat Mr. O'Higgins informed Mr. Bridgeman that the interest of the Saorstát in the Conference was mainly, if not entirely, based on constitutional considerations. Provided the constitutional position of the Saorstát was rigidly respected and safeguarded the Saorstát Government was ready to support the technical proposals of the British Government for the limitation of Naval Armaments. The Minister went on to remind Mr. Bridgeman of the precise character of our constitutional position as an independent unit of the British Commonwealth in the matter of Treaty making. The Imperial Conference Report had laid it down that the Plenipotentiaries for the States of the Commonwealth should have Full Powers issued in each case by the King on the advice of the Government concerned, and limited territorially in the case of each State to the particular area of jurisdiction of that State. That was, in effect, the position with regard to the Naval Conference. The Powers had been issued in the prescribed manner and the logical conclusion was that nothing should be done during the Conference to obscure in any way the exclusive right of the representatives of each State of the Commonwealth to accept responsibilities and otherwise act for and on behalf of their own Government. Mr. Bridgeman agreed with the Minister's conclusions.

On Tuesday, the 28th June at 10.30 a.m. on the Minister's invitation, Mr. Lapointe and the other Canadian delegates met the Saorstát delegation and discussed the situation. Mr. Smit, Chief of the South African delegation, was seen later in the day by the Secretary who conveyed to him the views of the Minister as to the line of action which could be taken with the most advantage. As a result of these conversations and of a close examination of the minutes of the Conference and of the reports of the meetings of the Commonwealth delegations together with explanations from Mr. MacWhite who had acted for the Plenipotentiaries during the first week of the Conference the Constitutional points worthy of note were found to be the following:                                                

  - A body to be known as the Executive Committee was set up on the proposal of the Americans at the First Plenary Session held on 20th June. The functions of this Committee were stated to be' to prepare a programme for the labours of the Conference and of its Committees and to make such recommendations to the Conference as it may consider desirable as to the creation of Committees and the disposal of the work of the Conference'. From the Reports of the two meetings of the Committee already held no conclusion was possible as to the precise nature and functions of that Committee and as to whether its decisions could be called political or merely technical and relating to procedure.

The question had been discussed at the private meetings of the Commonwealth delegations when the representation of the Dominions on the Committee was under consideration. Mr. Bridgeman had suggested that if all the Dominions sent delegates to each meeting the American and Japanese Delegations would feel themselves outnumbered and he stated that a hint to that effect had been conveyed to him from these Delegations through Mr. Campbell, the Secretary of the British Delegation. It was however definitely stated as being understood that all the Dominions had the absolute right to go but Mr. Bridgeman suggested that merely as a matter of convenience not more than two should be present at any meeting. It was understood by the Dominion delegates at the private meetings that there was no question of delegating powers to any of the Dominion Members attending the Conference. A further point in this connection was the use of the expression 'British Empire' as a composite description of the British and Dominion delegates in the Report of the Second Executive Committee meeting held on June, 24th. The use of that expression might tend to give substance to the suggestion that Great Britain and the other Members of the British Commonwealth of Nations were negotiating as a constitutional unit and not as a group of associated States.

Mr. O'Higgins and Mr. Lapointe were also anxious that the formula of a 'single British Empire quota' should be modified, if possible, notwithstanding the Imperial Conference discussion of the matter and the practice established at the Washington Conference. Such a formula was bound to give a handle to Constitutional theorists for conclusions detrimental to the individual status of the Dominions and Mr. O'Higgins accordingly proposed to Mr. Lapointe that instead of establishing a single maximum quota for the 'British Empire' in the instrument resulting from the conference there should be established a maximum quota for the sum total of 'all the States Members of the British Commonwealth'. This formula would have the immediate advantage of emphasising the distinct and separate representation of the Dominions and of securing proper respect for their consent as representatives of individual States to all the decisions of the Conference.

The Minister decided that a special meeting of the Commonwealth delegations was necessary in order to obtain more definite explanations on these points and Messrs. Lapointe and Smit concurred. It was subsequently learned, however, that a meeting of the Commonwealth delegations was being arranged for 9.45 the following morning (Wednesday, the 28th June). The necessity for formally requesting such a meeting did not, therefore, arise.

At the Commonwealth meeting of the 29th June, speaking on the foregoing matters, the Minister urged that the necessity for making a clear distinction between the expressions 'British Empire' and 'British Commonwealth' should be recognised. There was no constitutional unit known as the 'British Empire' and no delegation at the present Conference held Full Powers to represent such a unit. The use of the label tended rather to convey a suggestion of duplicated representation. The expression also was very loosely used, at one time to convey the meaning of a unit comprising Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Crown Colonies and the Dependencies and at another implying the existence of a constitutional unit comprising the co-equal states of the British Commonwealth as well as Northern Ireland, the Crown Colonies and the Dependencies. The British Commonwealth of Nations was in fact if not in strict theory more adequately described as a 'Sextuple Monarchy' than by any other formula. That was clearly the conclusion to be drawn from the Imperial Conference resolution on the separate right of each of the Commonwealth states to advise the King in all matters relating to their own affairs, which received concrete expression in the form of the Full Powers issued to all the delegations of the Commonwealth for the present Conference. The expression 'British Empire' used in any sense as descriptive of the whole body of the Commonwealth delegations, implying, as it did, a distinct constitutional organism had therefore no place in International Conferences of this kind. The representation of the Dominions - Mr. O'Higgins went on to say - needed clarifying and he would like to have a statement from Mr. Bridgeman as to the precise character of the Committee and as to the position of the Dominions with regard to it. At first sight certainly it looked as if the Executive Committee was merely the Plenary Conference with Dominion representation cut down and the form of that representation bore a close family resemblance to the panel system which is wholly objectionable. He also expressed the view that the single quota should not be regarded as a 'British Empire' quota but rather as a maximum quota to be applied to the sum total of all the navies of the Commonwealth.

If that view were adopted it would be possible for the representatives of the Dominions, consistent with their Full Powers, to sign any instrument embodying the ultimate conclusions of the Conference.

The Executive Committee, whatever its functions, could only take decisions - if it did take decisions - binding on those members of the Commonwealth whose delegations were actually present. No delegation of the Commonwealth had the right to delegate its powers to any other and none had any powers to represent the others. As far as the Irish Free State Government was concerned it would not consider itself as bound by the decisions of any meeting at which one of its own representatives were not present. The position could be summarised by saying that the Irish Free State representatives were not anxious to press claims for positions on this or that committee provided it was clear that where they were not present they were not represented and were not bound by any decisions come to in their absence.

At this stage Mr. O'Higgins read out and handed in the following statement to summarise the views of the Saorstát Government:

'The States of the British Commonwealth hold equal powers of representation. Their respective powers are limited territorially and no one of them can undertake any responsibilities on behalf of one or more of the others. They represent a group, not a single constitutional unit, and no form of representation or terminology should be used in the negotiations or in the resulting instrument which might lead to a different interpretation of the actual position. It is therefore essential that each state of the Commonwealth should be represented by its own plenipotentiaries at all meetings whatsoever at which responsibilities are accepted. The use of the expression "British Empire" to describe the group at meetings of the conference or in the instrument inevitably leads to the conclusion that there is a definite constitutional unit answering to that description and capable of accepting a unitary responsibility. The group character of our representation can only be adequately described by using the expression "the Component States of the British Commonwealth" or some other description which emphasizes its plurality.

The agreement to limit the naval armaments of the British Commonwealth must be understood as an agreement to impose a limit on the sum total of all the navies of the Commonwealth - the apportioning of the quota amongst the various component States to be a matter for arrangement amongst those States.'

Messrs. Lapointe and Smit supported Mr. O'Higgins' statement and the general views he had expressed.

Mr. Bridgeman and Lord Cecil agreed that Mr. O'Higgins, in general, had stated what was their own mind in relation to the matters he had raised. They agreed to expunge the description 'British Empire' from the minutes of the Executive Committee Meeting in which it had appeared opposite the British and Dominion Delegates. Mr. Campbell added that the description was inserted in error and would be immediately rectified. Both the principal British Delegates emphasised that the Executive Committee had no powers to come to any decision, that it was set up on the proposal of the Americans and that they did not see what it could do. They explicitly agreed with Mr. O'Higgins that no Dominion could be bound by anything it did except through direct representation and formal acceptance. The Dominions, they repeated, had all a perfect right to go to the Committee and were in fact receiving invitations to the Meetings. It is not without significance, however, to note that Lord Cecil in answer to an enquiry as to the functions of the Committee stated specifically that whatever powers the full Conference had the Committee had and that it was a body to which technical sub-committees could refer in political matters. An endeavour to repudiate this suggestion was subsequently made by other British Representatives to suggest that the Committee was merely a sub-Committee with no powers to reach decisions binding on the Conference. All this shows the necessity for careful watching of all subsequent proceedings.

With regard to the progress of the Naval Conference it will not be able to resume its effective formal discussions on other than minor technical mattes until the Japanese and American delegates have received new instructions as to the introduction of any questions relating to capital ships. The Japanese Delegation appears to be ready to undertake such discussions but the American attitude so far is opposed to re-opening any matters settled by the Washington convention which they regard as final. These instructions will arrive in the course of a few days and the Minister will then be in a position to give an approximate idea of the date of his return to Dublin. If there is any prospect of the conclusion of the Convention at a very early date he will remain for the signature. If, on the other hand, there seems no possibility of an agreement or if the agreement is likely to be postponed for some weeks he will return to Dublin and come back for the final drafting and signature.

[signed] S.P. Breathnach

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