I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Before the Deluge

Rory Montgomery

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume XIII, 1965-1969, edited by Michael Kennedy, Eunan O’Halpin, Kate O’Malley, Bernadette Whelan, Kevin O’Sullivan, Jennifer Redmond and John Gibney, Royal Irish Academy, 882 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1911479574

Horror films involve a suspenseful build-up to a decisive eruption of crisis. You know that something dramatically awful is going to happen, but despite an accumulation of warning signs you don’t know exactly what or when. You see people making the wrong decisions, and you sense a quickening momentum towards catastrophe. Despite being well aware of the conventions of the genre, part of you still hopes for a last-minute reprieve, though another part knows that this hope is futile. Carnage then ensues, and while the surviving good guys usually win in the end the road to safety is agonising and bloody.

Reading history can arouse some of the same emotions. You know what happened, but you keep wondering if things could have been different. The sense that alternative paths were open intrigues, but in the end frustrates. The rise of Hitler; the weeks between Sarajevo and the start of the Great War; the assassination of JFK – no wonder these episodes continue to grip us.

The latest volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy includes, as always, fascinating material about all manner of issues, mostly of considerable importance, if from time to time trivial or even comical. However, running through it is a consistent thread: the gradual erosion of hopes for a bright future for Northern Ireland and for North-South relations, and their replacement by a growing fear that old ways were reasserting themselves and that things were drifting out of control. The volume ends in June 1969, just before the large-scale violence of that August, but coming disaster is ever more clearly signposted.

In late 1968, not long after the RUC’s suppression of the October 5th Derry civil rights march, TK Whitaker sent a private memorandum to the taoiseach, Jack Lynch. Whitaker was shortly to move on to the Central Bank after his remarkable thirteen years as secretary of the Department of Finance. He had remained the dominant personality within the civil service and the main policymaker on both Europe and Northern Ireland.

In Whitaker’s view, unity by agreement could only be achieved through patience and by avoiding emotionalism and opportunism. The British were not blameless for partition, but it was ‘much too naïve to think they just imposed it on Ireland’. Division had deep historic roots. Unionists, and many nationalists, rightly saw that Northern Ireland benefited economically from its association with Britain. Without a very generous ‘marriage settlement’ from Britain the cost of unity would impose a ‘formidable burden which many of our citizens may find intolerable’. The liberalising policies of the Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O’Neill, would be of practical value to nationalists in the short term. In the longer term, only with prosperity and modernisation across the island were the conditions for eventual unity going to be established. No other possible strategy would work. The use of force had for decades clearly been ruled out as immoral and futile. Trying to get the British to pressurise unionists on partition would not work. We would need to be very flexible and imaginative about possible forms of unity. As for Articles 2 and 3, they claimed a ‘premature and dogmatic right’ for Dublin ‘to rule the whole of Ireland. But there is nothing we can do about this, in present circumstances, except to forget it!’ Internal reform within Northern Ireland would be advanced by public opinion in the UK and with encouragement by the British government. Too high-profile an advocacy role for the Irish government would be counter- productive.

Whitaker’s political masters, and indeed his Department of External Affairs colleagues (the main figures in this period being Hugh McCann, secretary 1963-74, and Seán Ronan, assistant secretary and head of the Political Section 1964-72), might not have put things so trenchantly, indeed provocatively. But the consistent policy of the government – which was set by Seán Lemass during his period as taoiseach, from 1959 to 1966 – reflected his analysis.  The consequences of partition were of course routinely decried, the long-term aspiration to the peaceful achievement of unity restated, and no form of official recognition could be given to Northern Ireland. However, only through agreement between Irish people (“Irishmen” in the usage of the time) could Ireland be united. Developing practical co-operation in areas such as electricity interconnection and tourism promotion, and the political and official contacts they generated, were the way forward. Despite a foot-dragging Department of Industry and Commerce, which reflected the nervousness of business, the push to accelerate and widen unilateral tariff reductions for Northern Ireland companies continued. In such co-operation, the approach to the use of such constitutionally improper terms as ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘The Republic of Ireland’ should be flexible and pragmatic.

This approach was widely shared, including, surprisingly in the light of his future career, by minister for finance Charles Haughey, who in March 1967, perhaps under Whitaker’s influence, went so far as to propose that the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 should be examined. Jack Lynch continued the pattern of summit meetings with Captain O’Neill, in whom the government, like the British government, reposed its hopes for the gradual progress of reform, in particular of the local government franchise and discrimination in housing.

Throughout this period, the government was extremely cautious about doing anything which might disturb the evolution of the North/South relationship. The very first document in the volume, from March 1965, records Frank Aiken’s decision not to seek Irish membership of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, on the basis that it could risk pressure from groups in Northern Ireland to raise issues of concern– which would achieve nothing and would be strongly resented by the Northern authorities. This general line was maintained consistently by Aiken and officials at home and abroad, above all in their dealings with increasingly assertive Irish-American groups. Nor did the government co-operate with the Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland. This did not change with the growth of domestic, British, and international media attention to discrimination from 1966 onwards – not least because opposition to O’Neill within unionism, most visibly from Ian Paisley and his followers, but more insidiously from conservative members of his own party and cabinet, began to emerge. In April 1967 Erskine Childers reported to Lynch on a chance meeting with O’Neill. O’Neill said that he believed ‘in more cooperation … and that Unionism could not survive in a fog of prejudice and bigotry’. But Childers wondered if he were ‘in advance of his Cabinet in his thinking’. Dublin was highly sensitive to his vulnerability.

In several meetings with Wilson, neither Lemass nor Lynch emphasised the question of unity. Wilson and British officials were conscious of the need for change in Northern Ireland, but maintained the convention whereby Northern Ireland matters were not discussed at Westminster. They made clear in private that while of course a British government would accept and implement a decision to end partition, it would not enter into the question in public. This was accepted by the Irish side. In October 1966, McCann wrote to Jack Molloy, the ambassador in London, reprimanding him for saying, in an unauthorised speech to the United Ireland Association, that Ireland would wish the UK to say that it would not object to any agreement on unity. This had given O’Neill a pretext to restate in strong terms the unionist view of the constitutional situation.

McCann followed up the next day by strongly criticising the inadequacy of the embassy’s political reporting and issuing detailed instructions for improvement. Problems with reporting, both in general and in specific missions, and the need for better arrangements for the submission and circulation of reports, were raised from time to time – a pattern of frustration and exhortation which has continued ever since.

On a number of occasions Eddie McAteer, the leader of the nationalist opposition at Stormont, said privately that nationalists in the North felt neglected (‘nobody’s children’) as the focus of Dublin’s attention continued to be on improved relations with unionism. Paul Keating, deputy head of mission in London, suggested after a visit by nationalist MPs to London to meet the Labour Party’s Campaign for Democracy in Ulster ‑ a visit of which the embassy was quite unaware in advance – that maybe some thought should be given to a recalibration of policy to take more account of nationalist sensibilities. There is no sign that this prompted any reflection at HQ.

After the October 1968 police brutality in Derry, and the later failure of the RUC to protect civil rights marchers at Burntollet, calls for a stronger government policy, including at the United Nations, grew – but mostly continued to be resisted. Lynch did say shortly after Derry that partition was the root cause of the problems of Northern Ireland, but got a gentle rap on the knuckles from Wilson (and this may also have prompted Whitaker’s memorandum). He did not highlight the point afterwards. Aiken, drawing on his intimate knowledge of security matters going back to the 1920s, complained strongly to the British ambassador about the reinforcement of the RUC by the B-Specials, but the government did not push the point in public.

Diplomats in the US were instructed not to appear on radio or television or take part in public meetings on the situation. When Congress took a growing interest in discrimination Tip O’Neill became actively involved for the first time and called on the US president to raise the matter with the British government. The embassy, while sympathetic, did not engage actively with him.

The one notable departure from this cautious approach was an April 1969 visit by Aiken to the UN secretary general, U Thant. His presentation of the troubling situation was detailed, factual and balanced. Though Aiken reported that there had been some interest expressed at Cabinet in the idea of a UN representative in the North, he made no request. The secretary general thanked Aiken for informing him about this ‘important but delicate’ matter and said he would think further about it. Under-secretary general Ralph Bunche pointed to a number of possible difficulties with any UN engagement.

On April 28th, three days after the meeting, O’Neill resigned. On May 7th Aiken met the British opposition leader, Edward Heath, who in a ‘hectoring tone of voice’ attacked him for meeting with U Thant and hinted that an unhelpful Irish attitude could, under a Conservative government, have repercussions in the economic sphere. Northern Ireland was as much a part of the UK as Yorkshire; Éire had no right to interfere in the UK’s internal affairs. The process of reform would continue. Aiken replied robustly, and Heath calmed down a bit, without changing his position. However, when Aiken said that unionists needed to realise that they were no longer living in the middle of the nineteenth century, Heath said that Bernadette Devlin MP, with her appalling and incredible sentiments, was herself ‘something from the last century’. Aiken replied that she was ‘really your baby’.

Fifty-five years on, it is hard to decide if the government could or should have taken a different approach to Northern Ireland. The lack of significant – if necessarily discreet and mid-level‑- contact with nationalist opinion on the ground (there had been some in the 1950s, conducted principally by Conor Cruise O’Brien), or indeed with other elements of Northern society, was clearly a mistake. In consequence, when the Troubles erupted, the government, like the British, had to scramble to find out what was really happening, and then to establish new structures and practices. In defence of the Department of External Affairs, its staffing levels were pitifully low – a total of five diplomats had to deal not just with international political questions but also with British-Irish relations.

However, the overall lines of the policy are defensible. Highlighting partition internationally had proven to be entirely unproductive. There was no reason to believe that raising it, or internal discrimination, at the United Nations would be any more effective, or that the United States administration would exercise any leverage. No Irish political leader since Collins had contemplated the use of force. It was clear both that unity could only be achieved peacefully and by agreement, and that there was no apparent prospect of such agreement. It seemed that Northern Ireland was beginning to change, albeit frustratingly slowly, and Captain O’Neill was an attractive interlocutor. Northern nationalism was weak and disorganised. There was real scope for greater North/South co-operation. The Labour government in Britain was, while entirely orthodox on the constitutional question, more aware of the problems to be overcome. The international environment was also moving in a helpful direction, with the example of the US civil rights movement and the hope that North and South would grow closer when in due course EEC membership could be achieved. The growth and modernisation of the Irish economy in that context would weaken a major argument against unity.

Would a more assertive policy vis-à-vis either Stormont or Westminster, or internationally, have been more effective? In my opinion, probably not. Only unionism, encouraged and prodded by the British, could have put its own house in order at that time. Anything Dublin could have said or done would only have strengthened the hand of those who saw reform as a Trojan horse, without assisting nationalists in any practical way.

Many elements of the Lemass/Whitaker approach came to form part of nationalism as reconceptualised in the 1980s and 1990s: the need for co-operation and partnership within Ireland (one thinks of today’s Shared Island initiative); a recognition that ultimately only Irish people could solve their own problems and that Britain could not be a persuader for unity, as opposed to a facilitator of it if circumstances changed; and an openness to flexibility on symbolic issues, and ultimately to constitutional change.

The other thread which runs through DIFP XIII is Ireland’s ambition to join the EEC. A great deal of internal analysis and diplomatic activity had been undertaken in support of our first application for membership before de Gaulle’s brutal veto of UK membership in January 1963, which blocked the other applicants as well. With no prospect of early movement, the focus then moved to a new, more extensive Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement to replace that of 1938. Negotiations only got properly under way after the election of the Wilson government in 1964 and the agreement was concluded in December 1965. It was never seen as a replacement for EEC membership, more a second-best framework to promote the modernisation and diversification of the Irish economy. While there was hard bargaining, neither government questioned the objective of an agreement. A few weeks before the deal was completed, Patrick Hillery, then minister for industry and commerce, wrote to Lemass expressing several strong reservations about the text and what he saw as its lack of balance regarding Ireland’s tariff concessions: he got short shrift from Jack Lynch, minister for finance, whose reply was presumably drafted by Whitaker.

British emergency tariff and exchange control measures, introduced as emergency responses to the devaluation crises of 1966 and 1968, disrupted trade and investment to an extent. Trade in live cattle with continental Europe collapsed after the Common Agricultural Policy was established. Repeated Irish appeals did not cut much ice.

During 1965 the Community was in crisis, with the French tactic of the “empty chair” blocking business as it pursued its vision of the CAP and asserted the primacy of the member states over the Commission. After the Luxembourg compromise of early 1966, which acknowledged that a member state could veto any proposal affecting a vital national interest, the possibility of a new attempt to join the EEC became live once again.

As previously, the negotiations were overseen by a Committee of Secretaries chaired by Finance (Whitaker until March 1st, 1969), with External Affairs (McCann), Industry and Commerce and Agriculture and Fisheries also taking part. The committee analysed issues of substance, many related to the length of possible transition periods in the different sectors. It also prepared high-level visits by the taoiseach and ministers to capitals and considered tactics generally. It worked methodically and rigorously.

In June 1967 a lengthy memorandum was prepared in External Affairs on the political implications of membership. Its conclusions were reassuring: on the whole, Irish foreign policy, at the UN as elsewhere, ought not be greatly affected. The possibility of demanding new political and defence obligations, which had seemed quite likely previously, had now receded for the foreseeable future, given the loss of momentum within the Community.

However, in an internal note requested by McCann four months later, Tadhg O’Sullivan, counsellor in the Political Section, was less sanguine. European integration might start moving again. And the Irish people were very sensitive on questions of sovereignty and national independence. The public saw EEC membership in exclusively economic terms and were unaware of the other dimensions. The Labour Party and left-wing intellectuals were developing ‘cogent and forceful’ arguments. We should take a very cautious and gradualist approach.

There is no indication as to whether O’Sullivan’s note elicited a response or was circulated more widely. In public statements and in discussions with others, our full openness to assuming whatever political or defence obligations might develop continued to be stressed. Nobody did so more enthusiastically than the minister for finance: Haughey assured the president of the Commission, Jean Rey, that in the Dáil he had ‘spelled out fully our acceptance of the political and eventual defence policy involved and that no objections had been expressed’.

Ireland’s first objective was to ensure that its application was handled alongside that of the UK and that its eventual entry would be simultaneous. It was accepted that membership without the UK was neither feasible nor desirable, given the extent of Irish dependence on the British market, and the new FTA. Assurances from the British government, the Commission, and the member states were regularly sought and given. There were moments of anxiety when some on the British side (notably the mercurial foreign secretary, George Brown, the man to whom Private Eye first applied the description ‘tired and emotional’) seemed to entertain an alternative, UK-first, process. In late 1966 there were rumours of interest in Germany in a ‘two-tiered’ Community, or of a Community of seven (a larger number being too unwieldy, a much-repeated argument which has, up to the current EU-27, not been borne out by developments). But on the whole the partnership with Britain was convincingly solid.

The more fundamental question was: what would de Gaulle do? Might his mind have changed since 1963? This was the subject of endless speculation and embassies, particularly those in Paris, Brussels and London, reported regularly. Interlocutors in Paris, up to the foreign minister, Jacques-Maurice Couve de Murville, admitted that they did not know what the general was really thinking. The most negative, hard-hitting, and ultimately accurate analysis recorded in this volume came not from a European capital but from Washington. Under-Secretary of State George Ball, in conversation with McCann, saw little reason to think that British membership would ever be acceptable to de Gaulle. His objective was to re-establish France as a great independent European power, and to that end he would seek to weaken NATO, keep Germany divided, and punish Britain for being too close to the US.

The earlier Irish membership application was renewed in May 1967, alongside fresh applications from the UK and Denmark. De Gaulle poured early cold water on the idea of British membership and hinted at some form of undefined association, but many felt that this might not be his last word. Lynch visited Paris in November. De Gaulle said that he had no issue with Irish membership but that there were grave problems with the British application: the weakness of sterling, the internal cohesion of the Community, the role of the Commonwealth, its attitude to agriculture. He does not seem on this occasion to have mentioned Britain’s ties with the US, but he certainly did elsewhere. He went public on much the same lines in late November, and on December 18th/19th, 1967 an acrimonious meeting of the Council of Ministers saw deadlock between France and the other five members. The enlargement process was frozen once again.

Other approaches were floated in 1968, including negotiations with the Five, co-operation in areas outside EEC competence, some form of interim agreement, or an approach to EFTA. But none went anywhere. The sudden resignation of de Gaulle on April 28th, 1969 (on the same day as Terence O’Neill) inevitably opened up the question of whether his most likely successor, Georges Pompidou, would be more open. It was hoped that he might be more flexible and constructive than de Gaulle. This eventually turned out to be the case, but by the end of June 1969 his attitude was still opaque. So the volume ends as it begins, with Ireland’s European future in limbo.

Participation in the United Nations continued to be a major plank of Irish foreign policy and occupied a great deal of ministerial and official time. The former secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Con Cremin, was a highly experienced permanent representative.

As had been the case since entry to the UN in 1955, Ireland had to adopt positions on many issues, some appearing consistently on the agenda, some new. Tadgh O’Sullivan argued in 1967 that we had bitten off more than we could chew in our early years of membership, relying too much on ‘the brilliance and imagination’ of individual officers in a preposterously under-staffed mission and HQ, rather than on knowledge and analysis.

Overall, this period saw a continuation of a trend towards greater caution in Irish policy. One factor was that new states from Africa and Asia took radical stances, which made clear that by comparison our interests generally lay more with other Western countries. So, for example, while condemning apartheid strongly, Ireland opposed the expulsion of South Africa from the UN or its agencies, as well as the imposition of economic sanctions. These were unlikely to be effective and would restrict the dialogue out of which change would come. A similar approach was taken towards how to deal with Portugal and its colonies.

The Middle East changed dramatically after Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day war, and further increased Irish sympathy for the Arabs and uneasiness about Israel. Aiken was strongly attached to the work of the UNWRA relief agency, though Ireland’s voluntary contribution, even as it increased, remained very small. The number of Irish troops assigned to UNTSO (the truce supervision organisation on Israel’s borders) grew. On the political side, Aiken urged Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-war lines and the reversal of any changes in the administration of Jerusalem. He believed a peace treaty could be negotiated. The papal nuncio in Dublin was less optimistic, reminding Aiken that he had served in the region, he remarked that ‘the Israelis were very difficult and the Arabs almost impossible’.

In 1968 Ambassador Fay in Washington reported on a meeting with his new Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces in 1967 and later, as prime minister, to be assassinated for his role in the Oslo process. Rabin offered a crisp analysis of the decisive factors in Israel’s victory, and of the current situation in the various Arab capitals. He declared that Israel would not surrender an inch of the occupied territories before a full peace agreement. And it would never accept the loss of the new freedoms Jews now enjoyed in the Old City of Jerusalem. Fay described him as having a “tough, soldierly demeanour” and being “rather frank and somewhat ironic in speech” as well as “lacking all the characteristics usually associated with Jewish people” [sic].

The international crisis which attracted more attention in Ireland than any other was the secession of the Igbo-dominated eastern region of Nigeria, known as Biafra. Aged eight or nine, I remember hearing often about Biafra and the suffering of its people, including starving children. Ireland’s particular interest in Nigeria arose from the very large number of missionaries working there, many but not all Holy Ghost fathers (Spiritans). They were dispersed across the country, but many lived in Biafra. In addition to concerns about the welfare of their flocks (the Igbo were mainly Catholic) a number of priests became high-profile supporters of Biafran independence.

Numerous reports describe how the Department tried, in an increasingly violent civil war leading to famine, to strike a difficult balance between ensuring the safety of the missionaries (and its own staff), maintaining relations with the legitimate government in Lagos, and resisting pressure from strongly pro-Biafran Irish public opinion to lead the search for peace. What is now Concern was created to bring humanitarian relief to Biafra: the Department made clear its strong preference for working through the Red Cross.

At the United Nations Frank Aiken was associated with two important initiatives and doggedly fought for them over several years. One ended in an enormous success, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In recognition of Ireland’s leading role as penholder of the resolution to conclude the negotiations, Aiken was the first person to sign the treaty when it opened for signature on July 1st, 1968. Incidentally, while Ireland also supported a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Aiken rejected the idea of a convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons as a futile distraction (in recent years Ireland led in the negotiation of such a treaty).

The other initiative failed. For years Aiken had been furious that contributors to peace-keeping missions were not properly compensated for their considerable expenses, in part because many countries were slow to make payments. He regularly threatened to end Ireland’s participation in the Cyprus mission (UNFICYP), though he never did. In 1965 he prepared a resolution which set out a scale of mandatory contributions by all member states and a procedure for levying them. Over the years he weakened some of the provisions in the interests of agreement. He attracted some support, but the UN Secretariat was always dubious about the chances of adoption, and some of the biggest players ‑ France and the Soviet Union, and later the US ‑ were opposed. Cremin hinted that pursuit of a deal might be a wild goose chase, but Aiken carried on – even after the UNFICYP debt owed to Ireland nationally was eventually paid, in the very large sum of £473,686. 2s. 0d.

Aiken is best remembered today for his commitment to the United Nations and for the months he would spend in New York on UN business. But there was one possibility he did not entertain, at least in the later 1960s: Cremin reported him as saying that ‘membership of the Security Council is par excellence an office we should not covet’.

One of the pleasures of this volume, as of other recent volumes which have moved into the period of living memory, is to note the ways in which the Ireland of then was very different from that of today. There was still enormous respect for, and a reflexive deference to, the Catholic church. The views of the Holy See were significant in shaping our approach to Israel. In instructing Irish delegations at UN population conferences, HQ, very anxious to avoid any suggestion of Irish support, however tacit, for birth control, advised them to keep close to the Vatican’s representatives. However, the Irish hierarchy did not enjoy unqualifiedveneration. The ambassador to the Holy See, TV Commins, expressed amazement that the Irish bishops, despite the great number of Irish missionaries in the field, had not responded in the Vatican Council to strong criticisms of the missionary mentality by the radical new superior general of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe Gondra (earlier during the council the previous ambassador had reported on the negligible contribution of the Irish bishops). In a farewell call on Aiken, the nuncio said he had tried to moderate the approach of the hierarchy on some matters, including post-primary education (he greatly admired Cardinal Conway of Armagh, less so Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin).

On a number of occasions, including in debate on the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Department of Labour insisted that Ireland oppose language on equal pay, despite the strong advice of the Permanent Representative that what was entailed was only a commitment to act as soon as practicable. In one vote Ireland found itself in a minority of one.

When it was confirmed that ratification of the convention on racial discrimination would require domestic legislation, McCann agreed with the Department of Justice that as there was no practical need for it it should remain a low priority. He also expressed concern that ‘Afro-Asians’ in Ireland, in becoming ‘conscious’ of their ‘rights’ might manufacture grievances and foment trouble.

Spending on aid continued to be minimal. In 1968, the total contribution to UN agencies (UNDP, UNICEF, UNWRA and the UNHCR) was £74,000 – much less than would have been achieved by replicating the 0.17% contribution to the UN regular budget. The egregious exception was the World Food Programme, much of the contribution to which was in kind: Ireland was contributing at 352% of the target rate. Aiken at one point wrote that this was so disproportionate that he would prefer to see the WFP contribution cut. A serious development policy would have to await the 1970s.

In its submission to the Devlin Commission on the public service, the Department, in making the case for more resources, pointed to increased activity in trade promotion. Prolonged efforts to negotiate a trade agreement with Japan remained fruitless. It was agreed that economic opportunities in the communist countries of Eastern Europe should be explored, notwithstanding the absence of diplomatic relations. Despite potential economic benefits for business and tourism, repeated American proposals to renegotiate the air transport agreement to allow US airlines to fly into Dublin were almost unanimously repulsed by a coalition of Ministers and Departments, mainly to protect the development of the mid-west region. Aiken said that Ireland was already too much of a “one city state”. The only person expressing some openness to the idea, though he did not press the matter, was Lemass.

McCann and his colleagues were, however, frank in their frustration at the great difficulty of co-operating with state agencies, above all CTT (a predecessor of Enterprise Ireland): it was ‘a law unto itself’. The Department of Foreign Affairs and missions abroad give trade a high priority, but relations with other actors can still be tricky.

In the relationship with Britain, some symbolic issues arose. The flag which flew over the GPO in 1916 was returned from the Imperial War Museum. However, it was agreed that ‘sleeping dogs should be let lie’ when it came to a possible transfer of the controversial Casement diaries. And it was also agreed that it would not be prudent to allow the transfer to Ireland of the bodies of Joseph O’Sullivan and Reginald Dunne, executed in 1922 for the assassination in London of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP.

There was some reporting on preparations for the commemoration of the Easter Rising, with Embassies being conscious of the need to meet the expectations of Irish communities without offending other sensibilities or incurring huge costs.

The volume includes reports on some of the most dramatic events in a very turbulent era: as well as the Six-Day War, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, May 1968 in Paris, the crushing of the Prague Spring, race riots in the US and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. In their reports, ambassadors tended to strike a conservative note. Fay in Washington, in a surprising departure from hagiography, noted that Kennedy had lacked the ‘easy grace and radiant personality’ of his brother, and said that some had seen him as a demagogue. In March 1969, however, he reported happily on a most successful St Patrick’s Day shamrock presentation to the new president, Richard Nixon, who was determined to show that he was ‘in no way encumbered by the unfortunate image (largely created by the press and television) of an earlier, less successful and less likeable public figure’.

The internal business of the Department is not much mentioned in this selection of papers. Exceptions are, as mentioned earlier, periodic laments about the gross shortage of personnel in the Political Section and attempts to galvanise missions into more systematic reporting. The costs involved were cited as one reason for not having a St Patrick’s Day reception in Washington. And in a matter of personal interest to civil servants, and some ministers, then and now, Lemass sent a stern note to Lynch, as minister for finance, about the inadequacy of subsistence payments for travel abroad, including a complaint that he had just had to pay £16. 4s. 1d to the Department of External Affairs for meals during a visit to New York, the subsistence allowance barely covering the cost of his hotel.

Lemass retired in late 1966: the record up to then confirms his incisiveness and strong personal engagement with policy across the board. No strong impression, good or bad, emerges of Lynch’s style and personality. Aiken, who was in the last four years of his fifteen as Minister for External Affairs, was a strong personality. He was particularly committed to a strong Irish role at the UN, though he may have grown a little disillusioned over time. His leadership on the Non-Proliferation Treaty remains a high point of Irish diplomacy. On Northern Ireland, he had followed Lemass in shedding his anti-Treaty baggage and was pragmatic and strongly opposed to gesture politics. He was apparently firmly in support of EEC membership.

Among the officials, TK Whitaker remained the leading figure, prepared to offer home truths clearly and emphatically, and combining strategic vision with a mastery of detail. Hugh McCann, who had become secretary of the Department of External Affairs in 1963, was also active and relied on by taoisigh as well as by his own minister. Other officials who feature prominently were Seán Ronan, as head of the Political Section, and his deputies, Edward Brennan and then Tadgh O’Sullivan. Useful and insightful reporting and advice came from Con Cremin in New York, with Paris (Denis MacDonald and TV Commins) and Brussels (Frank Biggar, Brendan Dillon and Seán Morrissey) also communicating regularly. Overall, the commitment and diligence of the leaders of a very under-resourced Department, the continuing thoroughness of their analysis, and the elegance of their drafting, are impressive.

With this volume, coverage of the first fifty years of Irish foreign policy has been completed. Each of the thirteen volumes includes material from an average of just under four years. The first was published in 1998 and they have come out with metronomic regularity every two years since then. The series is edited meticulously and published to the highest of standards by the Royal Irish Academy. It does enormous credit to all associated with it, above all Dr Michael Kennedy, who has been series editor from the very start. Professor Eunan O’Halpin has also been ever-present.

I am already looking forward to Volume XIV, in which the full horror of the Troubles will erupt, but in which Ireland will eventually arrive at the end of the tortuous path to EEC membership.


Rory Montgomery is a retired Irish diplomat. He is an honorary professor at the Mitchell Institute, Queen’s University, Belfast, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.




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