Volume 3 1926~1932

Doc No.

No. 523 UCDA P35B/115

Handwritten letter from Joseph P. Walshe to Patrick McGilligan (Dublin)

London, undated, March 1931

My dear Minister,

I was with the British yesterday from 11 am until 7.45 in the evening (having lunch with four of them). Batterbee was the principal on the British side. They let me open the discussion. I did so on the following lines which I hope you will approve notwithstanding the inaccuracies and exaggerations.

My Minister thought that their method of arguing about the meaning of the text in the Imperial Conference Minutes relating to seals was not serious. They misconceived the whole situation. The issue between us did not concern the interpretation of a particular text nor indeed the general conclusions of the Imperial Conference. The initial issue at stake was the whole relationship between our two countries in the future. It was a fundamental error on the part of the British to suppose that there was even a remote similarity between our position and that of the other Dominions - which were still evolving out of the colonial stage. No apparent acquiescence on our part in the past in such an artificial assimilation should have deceived them as to the real needs of our essentially distinctive and separate nationality. Let us therefore get away from trivial texts of Reports in which apparent common agreement and uniformity covered the most radical divergence of views. It would be for ever impossible for Ireland and New Zealand to take the same view in national matters and the last conference was a failure because British ministers did not realise that simple truth.

My Minister and his colleagues, long before the Imperial Conference, had been watching with pained surprise a new and dangerous phase in the policy of the British Government in relation to inter-Commonwealth matters. The Conservative Government following the desire of the Dominions and not least of the Irish Free State had formulated the principle of coequality and had accepted the conclusions urged on them by ourselves and Canada that coequality could only become an operative principle through the complete equating (?) of the relations between each Dominion Government and King with the relations between the U.K. Government and the King.

In his speech at the Oxford Raleigh Club and in his speech on the Dominions estimate in the House of Commons Mr MacDonald had practically declared the policy of his Government to be the direct opposite of that of the Conservatives. The Dominions, he said, must stop their progress on the coequality road. There must be an organic unity. The Imperial Conference of 1926 had gone too far. My Minister and his colleagues could only draw one conclusion from that attitude. The Labour Government had decided to restore the position of British Government as a supreme controlling power over the Dom. Governments and to eliminate the King from the inter-se relations of the Commonwealth. They had apparently decided that the monarchy was bound to disappear within a relatively short time and it was not their desire to add to the power and prestige of the King by allowing the Dominions to have direct relations with him. Such a policy was no doubt due to the influence of the Republican doctrinaires who appear from time to time in the Labour Party. (This insinuation seemed to have a powerfully worrying effect on Batterbee and Co. and he disappeared soon after to have half an hour's talk with Mr. Thomas.)

My Minister and his colleagues believed that the King and the King alone could keep the Commonwealth together and they were determined to establish their own relations with the King on a proper basis unless they were forced away from him by the B. Government. If the British Government adopted that line they would have themselves to blame if the Irish Government adopted non-monarchical methods in their future intra-Commonwealth and external relations. They had the means of doing so and they were not going to be held up, especially in their policy of developing friendly relations with foreign countries.

What did my Minister want? Complete untrammelled control of our external relations and everything remotely appertaining thereto. There must be no British control, not even the form of control over documents relating to our external affairs, and there must be the completest freedom of access to the King. No British Minister should in future be used as the channel between our Government and the King. My Minister must be able to say without any shadow of reservation that the advice tendered to the King was the advice of his Government, that that advice was tendered either by him in person or through a properly accredited agent, that the seals and documents used were in the complete and absolute control of the Irish Government. That was the only possible condition on which a complete and friendly understanding could begin to exist between the two countries. Continued interference meant continued friction, and the people who were responsible for the interference must take the consequences if the uncertainty of the Government's position in relation to British control of our External relations was a factor in bringing about a change of Government in 1932. Moreover the British Government should remember that the retention of this control was the best way of giving a possible new Government in 1932 a final push to the left. On the other hand if a new Government discovered that there was no trace of British control in their External relations they would have every reason to adopt a moderate attitude.

After this discourse which was very frequently interrupted and broken by long arguments the British came down to fundamentals, dropped all talk about interpretation of texts of Imperial Conference Reports, about the need of uniformity and all the usual dope with which they have been annoying and boring us for such a long time. I repeated again and again that you would never again have anything to do with British seals of any kind and that you would brook no further interference in the relations of our Government with the King. In fact I did my best to produce the impression that you and all your colleagues were in exceedingly bad temper owing to the attitude of intransigence and intolerance adopted by the British Government for the last twelve months.

How far have we got? I presumed your good will to let me discuss the last details, while making it quite clear that I was speaking unofficially and without powers. In the circumstances it was the only way to discover their entire mentality - if that is ever possible. The enclosed draft secret report of our conversation on the seals1 to be given by B. to his Government represents - after much chopping and changing on both sides - the bare bones of the conclusions. I gathered on Batterbee's return that Thomas was ready to go almost the whole way with us. Batterbee himself and Schuster2 appeared to be the chief opponents to surrender on the question of the single physical Great Seal and I think without being quite sure that the mot d'ordre came from Thomas after consultation with MacDonald to both of whom all my remarks had been retailed by Batterbee.

I am personally convinced that the King himself would not consent nor would the British Government to let us have a seal for the purpose of confirming the King's signature which did not contain some representation of the King, some sort of indication that he was an operative factor in the act to which his signature was appended. I urged as strongly as I could that the signature was quite enough and that the form of the seal was indifferent. They wanted to insist that the only possible indication was the royal arms as at present appearing on the signets. I replied that such a symbol represented the British Crown in a sense in which we could not accept it, and the only possible compromise which my Minister might consider accepting was a Seal bearing on one side a representation of the person of the Monarch for the time being, with his title round the margin, and on the other the Irish Harp and inscription as at present appearing on our own seals. That compromise would show the relationship between the Monarch and the Irish Free State to the exclusion of the British Government. The representation of the King could be exactly the same as on the present British Great Seal, i.e. the side on which George V appears sitting on his throne. The Signet for use on Foreign documents would be a miniature of the new seal and like it would be affixed in double embossed wax to a ribbon attached to the document.

The seals would take the place of the British seals on all our external instruments signed by the King. The British said that the King could not and never does waive all his personal feelings in dealing with his Ministers, that he was of a highly argumentative and somewhat Victorian disposition. He might, they said, want to hand you these seals himself. In fact if you agreed to his doing so it would help both him and the British Government to fall in with our demands. I expressed the view that if the King desired to hand the seals to you I could not conceive your accepting the proposal unless it was done in a completely informal way. You might, I suggested, be ready to hand the seals to Stamfordham on your way into the King and the latter could then hand them back to you or you might agree to send them to the King beforehand through Dulanty but under no circumstances could you agree to any publicity either for your visit or for the handing over of the seals. They acquiesced in that condition. I insisted that the seals must be created entirely by ourselves. There need be no name for the seals. We have a Great Seal and Ministerial seals. The new seals would be created by legislation, if you thought it necessary for the purpose of sealing documents signed by the King. The British thought that the King might ask you as he sometimes asks British Ministers whether you were sure of the legal side of your proposals. In that case, I said you would send our Attorney General to explain to the King the legal basis of the new seals. In this country the Attorney General is sometimes sent to the King at his request to explain points of law, and they admitted that there was no reason why we should not do likewise. Let me recapitulate shortly the entire procedure to be adopted if you think well of the proposals.

Having agreed with the British Government as to the design (as explained) you would prepare a document called a 'Submission' setting out quite simply and shortly that your Government regard the present system of seals and advice as out of harmony with the Constitutional relations between the Government of the Irish Free State and the King, that you propose to create new seals (telling him the design) and in future to communicate with him directly or through your High Commissioner in London. You would tell him to make things easy for him, that the difficulties with the B. Government have been eliminated. You would send the document to the King and a few days later you would go to the Palace and explain the situation verbally and advise. Measures would be taken to prevent publicity. The Seals would be struck at once, and you could get your documents signed by the King through Dulanty and Stamfordham. The Ministers here do not in the ordinary course present documents for signing. They go through the Private Secretary. The British have thrown up the sponge. Our real coup de maître in this whole matter was getting Dulanty to approach the Palace. That convinced the British that we were ready to go any length. I think they have made up their minds not to class us any more with the other Dominions.

Can you accept the compromise? To put the image of the existing monarch on an Irish Free State seal used only for confirming the King's signature is to my mind a safe and logical constitutional procedure. Politically it is not really so bad as putting you and the King together on the request page of the Passport. Even the FFs3 have never objected to the King's signature. They inquired about the countersignature. Johnson4 and Co. know all about the seals. MacEntee5 and Co. can find it out any day from Keith and half a dozen other textbooks. It may be possible to get through legislation without saying anything about the King sitting on his throne. I don't think there is mention of the form of the Ministerial Seals in the Minister's and Secretaries Act. At the worst if legislation and a full explanation is necessary you will have an opportunity of making a first class political and international statement which will certainly get the Labour Party (through Johnson) and the Independents. You will be able to say (the Privy Council having already by that time disappeared) that you have eliminated the last shadow of control of the British Government over the Irish Free State - that there is now no flaw internally or externally in the independence of the Saorstát. It would be of great advantage to be able to intimate to foreign countries that the seals on our external documents are now purely Irish seals. You remember that the State Department regards the seal as the measure of our independence. We shall have advanced further than any Dominion, placed ourselves in a different and better category. I most earnestly hope that you will find it possible to get the proposal accepted. I believe it solves our difficulty and if we reject the idea of the King's photograph on the back of the seal we cannot any longer use the King as a means of furthering our independence. We have broken the unity which they attached to the physical oneness of the seal and I think that achievement is worthwhile incurring slight political odium, though I feel that there is really nothing whatever to fear on that score, quite the contrary.

I send you a second note (draft report of B. to Thomas) on Lough Foyle and the Privy Council.6 They seemed terribly perturbed about the Privy Council. I told them that you had no alternative but to eliminate it at once. You had given them every possible warning and had been outrageously treated at the Imperial Conference (they seem to realize that now). Politically and constitutionally you had to wipe it out at once. The execution would be rapid and over in a fortnight probably. Then when you were sure about the seals and had abolished the Privy Council I did not think you would object to receiving a despatch on Lough Foyle and giving serious consideration to their suggestion about the Court.

The abolition of the Privy Council, they admitted, was of small moment except for the Southern Loyalist agitators who would give terrible trouble over here. I referred to the Mayo Librarianship7 as an example of the impartiality of the Government and a proof of the groundlessness of S. Loyalist protestors. This case impressed them enormously. Evidently they had followed it with the greatest possible interest in all its details. In actual fact they admitted that it left the Southern Loyalists without a leg to stand on. I left them convinced that you were wiping out the Privy Council at once (within 14 days) and they are resigned to the inevitable news in the Lords and Commons. I quoted several times Sankey's and MacDonald's aside appeals to you to legislate yourself and leave them out of it. They will no doubt say that you acted on your own initiative according to your own views and they were blameless in the matter. They understand quite well that failure to legislate would be a tacit admission of the static theory. When they mentioned the Statute of Westminster I answered that the Lords would be much more likely to amend if there was still a chance of saving the Privy Council. Once that disappeared they will wash their hands of the Irish Free State. They had no reply to that argument. I said it was my personal view based on what has already occurred, that there would be no outcry or opposition on the part of the Southern Unionists in the Dáil or Seanad. That brought much comfort. When they asked me how you were going to abolish the Privy Council I said probably it [would] be effected by making statutory the final decisions of our Highest Court and by eliminating the Proviso. Perhaps you did not want me to give that show away but I was being frank and there was hardly any purpose in concealing the method which I understood would be used.

Other points

I am rushing this report and do not have time to reread. Pardon the inaccuracies. You may take it that there is no romance as I began it in the early morning so as to have finished in time to catch my train at 11.10.

Will you please tell Seán8 that I have no time to write him about the interview. I'll send the President's Broadcast for 17th [March] from Madeira. Seán will have it on Tuesday the 20th. I could not possibly finish it here as I had to dine with Dulanty last night and give him the gist of my talks with the British.

1) Execution of Northern Ireland Warrants. British anxious. Told them matter in train. Isn't it so?

2) Veto Bill. Since British saw that your Bill referred to legislation by them they are disposed to urge the Government legal officers to legislate. They will let you know in two weeks as it takes some time to move all Departments concerned.

3) British having sent us Documents recently re Quit Rents at our request would like us to try and meet request of N.I. for certain Documents. I enclose note sent from Home Office to Dominions Office. I suggested that Blackmore10 could get in touch with O.H.11 and see what accommodation could be arrived at if there was no fundamental difficulty on our part. No doubt copies of parts of documents could be given [to] them. Seán could find out situation and write Batterbee or Machtig.12

4) Irish Lights. Further Despatch going to Dublin suggesting division on technical grounds - most of L. Foyle lights to be in our charge - most of Carlingford in charge of Northern Government. Made no comment.

5) Katherine Tynan - Very poor. Asked for pension from British Government, latter omitted to tell us. Matter going through this week. Told them our Government probably had no objection as she was married to an English National.

6) Despatch giving suggestions from Admiralty as to possible privileges for them re Drumm Battery.13

7) Admiralty wanted to send Cruiser to Dublin for Horse Show. Told them impossible - might still cause slight trouble which would be disturbing factor etc. But as Seals and P.C. were being settled might be possible for Destroyer to come in for several hours of one day. Will write from Madeira re this.

Excuse haste

Ever Yours

1 Not located.

2 Sir Claude Schuster.

3 Fianna Fáilers.

4 Thomas Johnson, leader of the Labour Party.

5 Seán MacEntee (1889-1984), founder member of Fianna Fáil and joint treasurer of the party until 1932, national executive member from 1926, Minister for Finance (1932-39), he was a member of all Fianna Fáil governments until he retired to the back benches in 1965.

6 Not located.

7 The Dunbar-Harrison case.

8 Seán Murphy.

9 No. 534 or No. 535.

10 Sir Charles Blackmore, Northern Ireland Cabinet Secretary (1925-39).

11 Diarmuid O'Hegarty.

12 Eric Machtig, Dominions Office.

13 A high-voltage rechargeable battery, invented by Dr James Drumm of University College, Dublin. It was used in a limited capacity to power suburban trains in Dublin during and after the Second World War.