Volume 1 1919~1922

Doc No.

No. 142 UCDA P150/1913

Memorandum by Erskine Childers on Irish defence as affected by the British proposals of 20 July 1921

Dublin, July 1921

The conditions affecting Defence laid down in the British Proposals of July 20th 1921 are as follows:-

1. Naval Defence.
The common concern of Great Britain and Ireland in the defence of their interests by land and sea shall be mutually recognised. 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 around Ireland and Great Britain, and that such rights and liberties should be accorded to it by the Irish State as are essential for naval purposes in the Irish harbours and on the Irish coast.

2. Limitation of Irish Territorial Force.
In order that the movement towards the limitation of armaments which is now making progress in the world should in no way be hampered, it is stipulated that the Irish Territorial force shall within reasonable limits conform in respect of numbers to the military establishments of the other parts of these islands.

3. Air Defence (including Civil Air control).
The position of Ireland is also of great importance for the Air Services, both military and civil. The Royal Air Force will need facilities for all purposes that it serves; and Ireland will form an essential link in the development of Air routes between the British Isles and the North American Continent. It is therefore stipulated that Great Britain shall have all necessary facilities for the development of defence and of communications by Air.

4.(a) Contribution to British Armaments.
Great Britain hopes that Ireland will in due course and of her own free will contribute in proportion to her wealth to the regular Naval, Military and Air forces of the Empire.

(b) Recruitment for British Forces in Ireland.
It is further assumed that voluntary recruitment for these forces will be permitted throughout Ireland, particularly for those famous Irish Regiments which have so long and so gallantly served His Majesty in all parts of the world.

Conditions 2 and 3 are 'Stipulations'; Condition 1 says 'it is essential that'. Condition 4a is a 'hope'; Condition 4b is an 'assumption'. These expressions must be compared with those used in the economic and financial Conditions Nos.
5 & 6 where the phrase is 'shall agree to'.

Presumably the meaning intended is that there can be no concessions under Conditions 1, 2, 3 and 4b, but that 4a (as well as 5 & 6) are open to argument.

But if the principle of No 1 - 'Common concern' in defence, with exclusive British control of ports etc were assented to, the principle of 4a would logically have to be assented to also. Otherwise Ireland would be in the confessed position of sponging on a neighbour for a vital part of defence.

The effect of the five defence Conditions, taken as they stand, would be to retain Ireland in complete strategical, and consequently in complete political, subjection to Britain.

Condition No.1 governs all the rest. The words 'common concern' (line 1) might not necessarily imply strategical subjection - they might be read to cover an alliance for defence - but the stipulation for exclusive control of ports, waters etc clinches the matter.

An island can only be attacked from the sea. To prohibit an island from maintaining any kind of naval defence, and to place its naval defence exclusively under the control of another power is to deny its existence as a free nation, and to submerge it in the political and strategical system of that other power.

If this principle were assented to, it would be impossible to make any serious opposition to the Conditions relating to Air Force and Army. It follows logically from Condition No.1 that the whole defence of Ireland should be under British control.

The proposals endeavour to sweeten the pill by avoiding any direct allusion to the military occupation. But it is obvious that the defence of ports and coasts and Air Stations, and the stipulation for recruiting, imply and demand the presence of troops which would be British regular troops.

The expression 'Irish Territorial Force' in Condition 2 also implies not a regular Irish Army but a reserve at the back of a regular British Army, similar to the 'Territorial' Force in England and under ultimate British control, though paid for out of Irish funds.

In Condition 4a the British Army is included with the Air Force and Navy among the armaments to which Ireland is expected to contribute. No distinction is made here and none would be made in the matter of the occupation. If it were nominally made it would be worthless.

The strategical Conditions should be compared with the recommendations in the Report of the Defence Committee of the Irish Convention of 1917 (Report, Appendix 12) as adopted by the Convention.

This Report conformed in its main features to the Conditions laid down in an unpublished Memorandum from the British Admiralty and the oral demands (also unpublished) of a War Office representative.

The same school of experts, if not the same individuals, evidently inspired the strategical Conditions in the present proposals.

The three main points are the same in both cases:-

  1. Exclusive British control of naval defence.
  2. Recruiting of British regiments in Ireland.
  3. Irish 'local Territorial force'.

In dictating to the Convention, however, the Admiralty and War Office were perfectly frank in regarding the strategic unity of the two islands as complete for all purposes. The Admiralty added a number of conditions, including control of wireless, cables and telegraphs and, in time of war or imminence of war, control of customs, railways and other communications, and indeed of the whole framework of government. The Irish territorial force was frankly regarded as a mere local volunteer reserve under British control. All this was quite logical.

Setting aside the conditions demanded as wholly inadmissible, what counter-propositions can we make?

It is plain that the answer depends largely upon the fundamental character of the Peace and the relations which would exist under it between Ireland and the British Commonwealth. Defence cannot be isolated. It profoundly affects status and cannot be considered without reference to the wider question.

We are pledged to the discussion of an 'Association' and by the first letter of Aug.10th to the discussion of 'guarantees' to Britain, in connection with our primary claim for 'absolute separation'.

A 'guarantee', it must be remembered, implies an association, and a mutual guarantee - (it is we, it must be insisted, who stand in greatest need of one) a still closer association.1

We must be clear first as to what our naval and military policy would be were we free to decide upon it as an independent nation.

It must, of course, be a purely defensive policy. As an Island, our war-strength is primarily determined by naval power and for offensive purposes wholly so determined. We cannot attack another country or move a soldier out of Ireland against any opposition we are likely to meet without a powerful navy: we have no naval forces as yet: powerful naval forces - relatively to those of our neighbours - are not within sight.

Nor can we put up any adequate naval defence against any enemy we are reasonably likely to meet. We have not to take into account a possible war with some approximately equal power (as Belgium has with Holland, for example, as Norway with Sweden, or the S. American Republics or Balkan States with one another). Thanks to our position and foreign relations such contingencies can be dismissed. Our only danger can come from England, at present the greatest naval power in the world, or, in the future, from some yet more powerful enemy of England - or group of enemies - attacking her through us. However great or small the danger may be - and I personally think it is small - we cannot hope to avert it - and should bankrupt ourselves if we tried - by heavy expenditure on naval defence. We should be in much the same position of strategic helplessness as all the small nations as against the great naval powers with the added weakness of being an island and open to complete blockade. Nor have we any certainty of being able to prevent invasion by England, or by the hypothetically stronger power than England, should invasion be resolutely attempted. Heavy expenditure on fixed Coast and port defences _ forts and heavy batteries etc. - would be misplaced. Mobile fleets and armies can turn all such fixed defences, if they cannot demolish them.

On the other hand we can and should, with a well organised national army, put up a defence formidable enough to make invasion exceedingly costly to an enemy and the conquest of the island a task which he would be very slow to undertake.

Our naval and military plans should conform to the facts and possibilities of the case. Details are not necessary for the present purpose and I enter into none, only sketching principles. We should aim at creating a gradually expanding, as finance allowed, modest naval force purely for coast defence and reconnaissance, fishery, revenue and Lights protection, and to show the flag occasionally in foreign ports. We should also arrange for a yacht and trawler reserve. It would be safer politically to dispense altogether with submarines and specialise in an anti-submarine force of surface and aircraft.


It is no doubt agreed that we should maintain an army with a small standing force highly disciplined and well-equipped, and a wider reserve; with a strategic organisation based on the idea of rapid concentration for coast defence.

A small air establishment disposed on the same principle, specialising in coast reconnaissance and perhaps (see above) in anti-submarine and commerce protection work.


In view of the conditions and our national defence policy what should be our standpoint and object in the present negotiations bearing in mind - at any rate this is my own personal opinion - that the defence question will be more important than any other in determining our status as a nation, together with all our political rights and privileges.

Weak as we are strategically, I take it that our free preference is to stand alone, like the vast majority of small nations, with complete independent control of our own territory, waters and forces, neutral in all wars, and devoted to peaceful development, as described in the President's letter of Aug.10th.2 We do not want allies: none of any use are available save England and alliance with England tends to political absorption by England. What defence concessions to her may mean is shown by the defence Conditions of the Pact.

Our main effort should be to make the 'association' lie in friendly arrangements for trade and communications and numerous other civil matters that do not affect political status, and to keep defence out of the compact altogether, except in the indirect but, to England, the very important form of ensuring that we make no defence compacts or arrangements of any sort with any other power. This guarantee in effect is 'Association' of a practical sort.

If we must have more positive association in defence, then it should be no more than the British Dominions have with Great Britain, and in argument throughout we should be prepared to fall back upon the reiterated stress on absolutely 'full Dominion status' in the Smuts' letter, as adopted by Lloyd George. Broadly this means independent sovereignty (full information can be supplied if required) a seat on the League of Nations, equality of status with Gt. Britain, independent foreign relations and signing of Treaties, the right to engage in or abstain from British wars, absolute control of Dominion forces, naval and land, and Dominion waters and ports (no holding or leasing of ports by Britain): no obligatory contributions to British armaments, and, now, no free money contributions for that purpose (for New Zealand and S. Africa are both giving these up). In a word the whole association is one of absolute freedom even to the point of secession if desired. On the other hand there is a certain amount of voluntary communication in peace as to the facilitating of unified defence in a possible war. There is an Imperial General Staff, advisory in character, a certain amount of agreed uniformity in the training of troops etc. occasional discussions about the Dominion navies, and explicit agreements as to the disposal and command if the Dominions decide, in case of war, to place them at the disposition of Gt. Britain - (i.e. really, if the Dominions decide to engage in war - see Naval Agreement of 1911). War-vessels also have free access to Dominion ports and can obtain repairs etc at dockyards, e.g. at the small Canadian dockyards at Halifax and Esquimalt which are maintained and controlled by Canada.

Having said so much, it will be simplest I think to take in turn a number of defence alternatives all of which, as is inevitable, are closely connected with the political status we can achieve, under the Treaty.3

  1. GUARANTEED NEUTRALITY: The attached draft clause (A) shows what is meant.4 The precedents are Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg (attached also).5 I believe this is the best status we can aim at, though no doubt hard to obtain. To say that England will break her obligation if it suits her is beside the mark. Every term in the settlement depends on her good faith but the better and wider a guarantee we get the safer we are. In point of fact the danger of her finding an excuse for violation is infinitely less than in the case of Belgium, as of Switzerland, which has never been violated. The status is not inconsistent6 with 'association' nor is it inconsistent even with membership of the Common wealth. We shall be bound to repel by force all attempts upon us and that is in England's interest.

    She cannot contend that the conditions which justified the neutralisation of the European States do not exist. Her professed view is that Ireland may be used against her by a foreign power (our danger to her acting singly can be laughed out-of court). I believe the view to be an hallucination and it can be met strongly in argument (Reference to 'Is Ireland a danger to England ? enclosed) but if it exists it means that we are in the position of a 'buffer' State and deserve the neutralisation accorded to one.

  2. GUARANTEED INTEGRITY: with a clause binding us to preserve our own integrity (See Norway precedent attached B).6 and if necessary to enter into no foreign compacts likely to endanger it (See Clause X1 of Draft Treaty - or the form used in the Neutrality Clause attached - first paragraph - omitting 'neutrality' where it occurs).7 The 'Integrity' could hardly be made the subject of an express and general international guarantee - because , if Ireland is to be made a member of the League of Nations, and it is assumed that she is - the League itself guarantees the integrity of all its members. But the Commonwealth could give the additional guarantee and - most important of all, the United States - the only power which in the foreseeable future can threaten England in the way she professes to fear.

    The same obligation on us to protect our own territory of course holds good, and we should on our side accept the obligation formally.

  3. A SIMPLE AGREEMENT OF MUTUAL DEFENCE: that is in case of attack on either island. This of course could be combined with no 2 but it is simplest to take it separately. It would not necessarily involve occupation of our ports in peace but would commit us to a much closer and more compromising relation likely to lead to further demands.
  4. DOMINION ANALOGY: For the Dominion position, see above (-e-). Attached is a rough draft of a clause (6) to give approximate effect to it..8
  5. LEASING OF PORTS: The precedents are not favourable. That of China (see attached D)9 was a piece of piracy on Britain's part, humiliating to China, implying an inferior status, and carried out as the Treaty expressly says, in order to safeguard British commerce, the same object, as that of Condition No 1, alleged in the 'British proposals' of July 20th.

    Cuba is bound to lease and has leased to the United States, ports but the condition is combined with the right of American intervention in the island (See E)10 on domestic grounds, as well as with the obligation on Cuba's part not to enter into any foreign treaty which might endanger her integrity. Cuba is, nevertheless, theoretically a sovereign independent State. Actually her status appears to be inferior and dependent.

    A country which leases ports for naval purposes to another must certainly be held to be politically as well as strategically subordinate to the lessee country. A power at war with the United States would probably regard Cuba as ipso facto a belligerent, her ports being at the disposal of the enemy. Japan in 1914 attacked the Chinese territory leased to Germany and treated China as she pleased thereafter; Ireland, with ports leased to Britain, would be committed11 by implications to all British war and foreign policy.

    No Dominion would dream now of leasing its ports or permitting British naval possession or control of them.

    The point must be fought not only on grounds of status but on strictly strategical grounds. The conditions in the case of Cuba and China are not present in that of Ireland. China is a vast distance from Britain and a port there can only be a local centre for protecting local commerce. Cuba, as the anonymous Memo circulated points out is strategically more important to the United States than Ireland is to Britain owing to the constriction of the passages to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Irish ports have never been, even in the height of war, and are not now, used as naval dockyards proper. The small repair yard at Haulbowline, Cobh, has just been closed down. Irish ports were used in the great war as bases for small craft engaged in commerce escort, anti-submarine work, and local reconnaissance etc. (See the interesting account in the same anonymous Memo) (with maps)12. For a power with England's immense naval strength there is no necessity for the permanent occupation of ports in peace with a view to such purposes. In a war in which Ireland freely took part and offered port-facilities for, the organisation could rapidly be built up with no prior preparation, and in point of fact it might well be a feature of Irish defence policy to organise a small craft defensive service, as suggested above. In a war in which Ireland was neutral the inability of Britain to use Irish ports would no doubt be an inconvenience but not one that could justify the enforced inclusion of Ireland in the British strategical and political system. Scotch or English bases could be used for the Northern approaches. For modern destroyers, for example, the additional distance is trivial. The same applies to modern air-craft carriers. A Trawler service no doubt would be handicapped but the difficulty could be met. Moreover there is a back-door to England, North about, largely used during the war. Norway flanks it but England instead of claiming Norwegian ports, guarantees by treaty Norwegian integrity.

    It is true that in the war Britain looked east and had no battle fleets to the west of her, but, with her only possible enemy in the west the United States, the conditions would be little affected, the distance between England and Scotland and the West of Ireland being for battle-fleets relatively small.13. But if the United States is really the prospective enemy the case should be boldly argued with its political as well as its strategical implications. Politically14 it is an awkward case for them for one obvious safeguard for their amity with the United States is our independence guaranteed by them and the United States. Strategically the United States would have to fight Britain in Irish waters from a base 3,000 miles away - prohibitive for an invasion of Ireland or England, unless we pre-suppose the annihilation of the British navy, in which case the occupation of Ireland would be needless.

    If the 'submarine peril' is raised: it must be refuted by close argument. While England has command of the sea, the surreptitious use of the Irish coast and ports by enemy submarines on any appreciable scale is impossible. There is no evidence to the contrary from the world war.

    If we are bound to lease ports, no doubt Lough Swilly or Berehaven (not Cobh) would meet the case best.

  6. Other and less favourable alternatives can be dealt with shortly.
    • NAVAL. I regard the leasing of specified ports as the extreme limit to which we could go, under compulsion in naval matters. We must have the power to raise our own naval forces and control our own waters and harbours.
    • ARMY. We should stand out against their right to have any military forces on Irish soil. The leased ports would, of course, give them a loop-hole as it undermines a big principle, but we should insist upon their defence by Irish troops.
    • ARMY: Full right of course to raise our own army in our own way.

      The limitation on its numbers (Condition 2) should be contested as absurd, seeing that we cannot attack England with them and can use them only for defence - a strategic advantage for her, unless she meditates, which she could hardly admit, another attack upon us.

      But to limit them in accordance with a disarmament programme is of course in principle sound and might if it is thought important by her, be conceded on that ground.

      England should not be allowed recruiting stations on Irish soil (Condition 4). In the last resort some concession might be made as to sending over recruits to her but the principle is bad.

    • AIR: We should stand out against Condition 3. Save for Atlantic reconnaissance and anti-submarine work which can be done by her by other means, there can be no object in her air stations but that of using air force against us.

      A Commercial air agreement can be arranged going15, if need be, beyond the provisions of the International Air Convention.

      There can of course be no question of a Contribution to British Armaments (Condition 4a)

[3,000 words omitted. Appendices to memorandum]

Kindest regards
Sean T. O'Ceallaigh

1Handwritten note on text: It is assumed that the Treaty is to be with the 'Commonwealth of free nations' and its King. The question of accepting the King is not discussed.

1Handwritten insertion at this point reads: We have no enemies but England. She would never permit us other allies and ….

2Crossed out at this point: (I do not discuss the question of the 'King'.)

3Not printed.

4Not printed.

5The word inconsistent replaces necessitated which has been crossed out.

6Not printed.

7Not printed.

8Neither document printed.

9Not printed.

10Not printed.

11Replaces 'connected' which has been crossed out.

12Not located.

13Handwritten note in margin reads: While Scotland & England provide bases.

14Replaces 'probably' which has been crossed out.

15The word 'giving' has been crossed out.