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Knocking at the Door

Rory Montgomery

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume XII, 1961-1965, edited by Michael Kennedy, Eunan O’Halpin and Bernadette Whelan, Royal Irish Academy, 939 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1911479253

With the punctuality of a Swiss train, the twelfth volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy arrived in late November. The series started in 1998, and its predecessors have also appeared towards the end of even-numbered years. This volume covers the three and a half years, from October 1961 to April 1965, of a minority Fianna Fáil government under Seán Lemass.

The series, a collaboration led by the Royal Irish Academy with the support of the National Archives and the Department of Foreign Affairs, is triumph of Irish historical publishing. On a rough calculation, about 6,000 documents have been reproduced so far ‑ over 9,000 or so pages. Each volume includes a highly informative introduction, biographical notes on the main players, explanatory footnotes, and a comprehensive index. With their high-quality paper and their uniform dark livery, the books are delightful to look at and handle.

Over the years there have been several joint editors. Ever-present have been Michael Kennedy and Eunan O’Halpin (whose last volume this is), here joined by Bernadette Whelan. They should be immensely proud of their achievement. The series has a public and media impact greater than that of comparable publications elsewhere. Furthermore, in helping to illustrate the personalities and styles of leading figures in the history of the state, it makes a scholarly contribution beyond the field of foreign policy.

The 566 documents reproduced in this volume come almost entirely from the National Archives, mainly, but not just, from the files of the Department of Foreign Affairs. They include policy analysis, instructions from taoisigh and ministers, memoranda for government, reports from missions and of official meetings, correspondence, and urgent telegrams. They are presented in date order – reminding the reader that governments and departments do not deal with matters one at a time. While the majority deal with important issues, a few illustrate the random and eccentric dimensions of diplomatic life.

Ireland’s fortunate insulation from international conflict over the past century has encouraged a tendency to think that for our small state on the edge of Europe the articulation of values is the essence of our foreign policy. In recently reading applications for jobs in the Department of Foreign Affairs I was struck by how many candidates talked of promoting our values as a motive for joining the department, and by how few mentioned the protection of our interests. Most of the time, there is little enough conflict between the two. They are often mutually reinforcing – though at times of crisis values usually have to adapt themselves to the exigencies of interests.

However, there is no need to apologise for a focus on Irish interests: the welfare of the Irish people, the development of our economy, and the security of our state. Ireland’s greatest foreign policy successes – our gradual movement out of the ambit of the UK, the maintenance of an Allied-inflected neutrality in the Second World War, the achievement of peace and change in Northern Ireland, and our successful membership of the European Union ‑ have all served our interests in ways of which we can also be proud.

This volume is dominated by the pursuit of a vital national interest. At the centre of Irish diplomacy in the 1960s was a strategy of exploiting international opportunities to advance economic development. Until General de Gaulle’s veto of UK entry to the EEC in January 1963, and the consequent derailment of the Irish application, the EEC was at the centre of intensive activity. Thereafter, while community membership remained the ultimate goal, efforts shifted to finding other international routes to growth. Eventually this led to the negotiation of a new Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement.

Through their membership of the four-man Committee of Secretaries, also including the secretaries of Finance, Agriculture and Foreign Affairs, which led work at official level, the two secretaries of the Department of External Affairs in this period, Con Cremin until January 1963 and Hugh McCann thereafter, played an important role. Cremin in particular emerges as an indispensable member of the team. The Irish embassy in Brussels was essential in building contacts and supplying information and advice. To a greater or lesser extent, the embassies in London, Paris, Bonn, Rome and The Hague also played a part.

However, the key civil servant was not in the Department of External Affairs but in the Department of Finance. TK Whitaker’s celebrated force of personality and incisiveness of intellect shine through. In his clear strategic vision, the domestic and the foreign were intertwined. The Irish state’s grave economic underperformance, vividly apparent in the 1950s, had failed its people. Agriculture remained of great economic importance, and finding new markets beyond Britain was vital. However, it would not be enough by itself. The priority was therefore, to develop new industries capable of exporting successfully to Britain and Europe. Competitiveness required lowering and ultimately eradicating the tariff barriers and quotas which had protected weaker companies. This was best achieved through the discipline of participation in a common market – ideally that of the EEC but, if not, an Anglo-Irish one. Whitaker accepted that a transition period would be required to limit the damage which would follow – but pushed for a much shorter one than Irish industry, and the Department of Industry and Commerce, wanted.

At various moments of doubt and crisis Whitaker went back to these first principles. He was always lucid and could be trenchant. In January 1965, for instance, he robustly rebutted McCann’s doubts about the potential balance of gains and losses in an Anglo-Irish trade agreement, first by correcting his statistics and then by questioning his logic.

In this sphere as in others, Whitaker enjoyed the full confidence of Lemass. Lemass was clear-minded, pragmatic, decisive, and energetic. He provided strong political leadership. He did not stand on his dignity. He took part in meetings below the level of head of government at the EEC Council of Ministers and with British ministers. He probably judged that Aiken, apart from being often absent in New York, was not sufficiently on top of economic issues to stand in for him. And while Aiken led on most issues of classic foreign policy Lemass quite often intervened to some effect. Admiring comments about him relayed by Irish embassies– for example by European Commission president Walter Hallstein ‑ do not sound to me like mere plámás.

While there was no ill-will towards Ireland, there was little positive enthusiasm among the Six for its application, or indeed for those of Denmark and Norway. There were doubts about our capacity to meet the economic challenges of membership. Some wondered about the wisdom of enlarging the community at all at such an early phase of its construction, and without first having a debate on the ultimate objective of a political union. That Ireland was so much in the UK’s sphere of influence did not recommend it to the French. A concern unique to the Irish case was its non-membership of NATO. NATO membership was never a pre-condition of accession; but the prospect of a defence union in the longer term was very important, above all to France. Indeed, De Gaulle’s (well-founded) doubts about the UK’s openness to European strategic autonomy were crucial in prompting his veto. Would Ireland be a drag or block on progress?

Frank Biggar, the ambassador to Belgium and Irish representative to the community, a post he held until 1966, established and energetically maintained a network of contacts with national diplomats and members and officials of the commission. He reported frequently and in detail. As well as conveying invaluable information, he also offered shrewd advice on tactical and procedural issues.

There was also political contact between Ireland and the six member states. During 1962 Lemass visited European opposite numbers. In October he found Georges Pompidou, then French prime minister, quite encouraging, and optimistic about a successful conclusion to the British negotiations. His conversation with Charles de Gaulle, though cordial, was more general, and, with hindsight, more ambiguous: “without expressly committing himself to a definite position, [he] gave the impression of being well-disposed”. Foreshadowing his visit to Ireland in 1969, the general mentioned his McCartan ancestors and his great admiration for President de Valera. In Bonn, Chancellor Adenauer was generally supportive, though he asked searching questions. His discussion with Lemass was temporarily halted by the dramatic entry of a German official with the news that President Kennedy was to address the American people that night – about the Cuban missile crisis, as Lemass correctly surmised.

Much effort was therefore devoted to assessing the attitudes of member states, and in particular their approach to the opening of negotiations. Their views largely reflected those on the UK, negotiations with which began first. The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium were generally positive. By late 1962 Italy claimed to be, though suspicions remained that it was excessively influenced by France. Luxembourg’s position was not fully clear. Consistently the most lukewarm was France. Different signals came from different interlocutors. Was this scepticism which could be overcome? Or did it point to deeper problems?

The presentation of the Irish case was clear and consistent in its efforts to explain and reassure. In a statement to the Council of Ministers in March 1962, Lemass set out his government’s modernising economic strategy and made clear Ireland’s determination and capacity to meet the obligations of membership, in particular the progressive elimination of tariffs during a transition period. Ireland would not look for financial support. Its commitment to a strong Common Agricultural Policy was self-evident.

Handling the defence question required particularly careful calibration. Lemass had already broached the issue in interviews and speeches, in particular at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in 1960. The avoidance of any direct link between EEC and NATO membership was important. However, it was made clear that Ireland’s non-membership of NATO had arisen from the particular problems of partition, and not out of a principled neutrality like Sweden’s or Switzerland’s. Ireland fully supported the objective of political union, in which it was committed to playing a full part, and which it acknowledged might well involve a common defence policy. Lemass assured the Council of Ministers that this was understood not just by the government, but also by the Dáil and the Irish people, as the context in which our application was made.

A note by Whitaker in January 1962 set out his strong views on the NATO question. It was essential that our position did not leave open the possibility of its use by others as an excuse to block EEC membership. Yes, joining NATO was not and should not be a condition, but “nobody so loves us as to want us in the EEC on our own terms”. Ireland could be seen by others as “[bringing] the Community no particular benefits but [inflicting] on it additional problems including (as [the Six] might well see it) this tiresome 40-year old squabble with Britain”. He went on to challenge the logic, in 1949 and in 1962, of the NATO/partition link, and to ask if we could be seen “as treating a narrow national interest as being more important than unity and co-operation in the defence of Western civilisation”.

A year later, Cremin, just before moving to London as ambassador, wrote a lengthy memorandum on the political implications of EEC membership. He saw that it might in due course restrict our freedom of action at the United Nations and could imply a defence commitment “inconsistent with neutrality as a basic principle of national policy”. After sixteen pages of careful, indeed prolix, analysis, he rather abruptly reached the conclusion that “having regard particularly to the fact that our own independence is relatively recent and that our people are naturally, therefore, somewhat jealous of it, we should lean in favour of the loosest form of political confederation”, in line with “General de Gaulle’s concept of a Europe of States”.

Of course ‑ and as Cremin may have envisaged ‑ progress towards political union has turned out to be so gradual and halting as to mean that almost sixty years later we have not had seriously to answer or indeed debate these questions. It is striking, though, that Lemass and his officials felt it necessary and possible to hold the question of neutrality up to the light in a rigorous way, in contrast with the simple mantras of much subsequent public discourse.

In any case, all questions about Ireland’s application turned out to be moot. General de Gaulle, whose deep and innate suspicion of the British had been further exacerbated by their acquisition of the US Polaris missile system, dropped his bombshell at a press conference on January 14th, 1963. After scrambling (not just by Ireland and the other applicants, but also by the other member states, and indeed by de Gaulle’s ministers) to understand exactly what he meant, it became clear that his decision was definitive and that there was no chance of negotiations resuming until he left power. This volume’s most astute and nuanced account of the political factors which led de Gaulle to his position in fact came not from Europe but from Freddie Boland in New York.

Over the months and years which followed, Biggar assiduously maintained channels of communication with the commission and with national delegations, and reported on how the community’s own momentum had slowed. In Dublin, interim options short of full membership were considered from time to time. However, it was not realistic to envisage that Ireland could maintain a preferential relationship with Britain while also receiving concessions from the community. Nor was there any interest in Brussels. In January 1965 this was confirmed to the new minister for agriculture, Charles Haughey, who intimated that he was only asking in order to be able to tell the farming lobby that he had done so.

The possibility of an updated free trade agreement between Britain and Ireland, going beyond that of 1938, therefore came to be seen as the only realistic alternative now available to promote the economic modernisation which was the core reason for the EEC application. This idea was first raised with the British at a meeting in London on March 18th, 1963. It was discussed intermittently and inconclusively over the next two years, but the British, while polite and prepared to listen, had a basic problem: improving Ireland’s position in British agricultural markets could have negative implications for Commonwealth and EFTA suppliers and would not be compensated for by greater access to the small Irish market for manufactured goods.

The economic relationship was seriously jolted in October 1964 when the new British Labour government, confronted by the first in a series of balance of payments crises which were to disrupt its time in office imposed a 15 per cent levy on all imports ‑ including those from Ireland. This elicited a strongly worded personal message from Lemass to Harold Wilson, but to no avail. While the levy was reduced to 10 per cent in early 1965, by the end of the period covered by this volume there were few signs that a deal would in fact actually be done at the end of the year.

Partition naturally continued to feature in British-Irish relations. For Ireland, re-unification remained an unquestioned goal. However, the evolution in thinking which had begun in the later 1950s continued. At that time, Conor Cruise O’Brien had made the case for raising the issue at the United Nations, as many nationalists and Irish-Americans wished. But Freddie Boland had successfully argued that this was likely not only to be unsuccessful in New York but counterproductive in Ireland. Both Aiken and Con Cremin came to the same conclusion in the early 1960s. There was some consideration of whether to switch at the UN to a more aggressive approach on discrimination in Northern Ireland, but that too was put to one side. This was probably prudent. The government’s eventual effort, in the hot summer of 1969, to seek international support at the UN was successfully deflected by the British.

Earlier efforts, by Aiken in particular, to persuade the British government to express the hope that Irishmen (as it was put at the time) would come together to end partition had fallen on deaf ears – as did all later efforts to encourage them to become “persuaders” for unity. In the 1961-65 period, Lemass and Aiken put more emphasis on the British saying that “there would be no British interest in maintaining Partition when Irishmen want to get rid of it”. The British were politely resistant, and remained so until Peter Brooke’s 1990 declaration that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland.

Aiken also continued to hope that the United States could play a part in advancing the issue. Might President Kennedy say something on his visit to Ireland in June 1963? The ambassador, Thomas J Kiernan, assessed Kennedy’s temperament as “calculating” and his methods as “completely unemotional”, and noted that “he makes no secret of his firm attachment to Britain”. In their St Patrick’s Day meeting the president immediately said that trying to pressure the British would not work. At a further meeting just before the visit, Kiernan said to the president that he was not expected to make any public statement but that the matter could arise in private conversation. “The President looked as if another headache had struck him.” In fact, in his meeting with Lemass in Dublin on June 28th it was Kennedy who first mentioned partition, asking in a general way if any progress were being made on it. Lemass replied that this was a question which must be settled in Ireland and that any form of international pressure would not alter the basic situation. While it would be good if the British made some positive comment, he was not optimistic in the short term, including under a Labour government. At their second meeting, in Washington on October 15th, Northern Ireland was not mentioned.

Lemass’s most important and striking Irish initiative was his meeting with Terence O’Neill, the Northern Ireland prime minister, in January 1965, followed quickly by some ministerial meetings and another summit (not so called) in Dublin in February. Lemass was convinced of the value of North-South co-operation both in itself and as a way of promoting mutual understanding and reducing tensions. As early as 1961 he was asking Jack Lynch, the minister for industry and commerce, about prospects for greater free trade between the two parts of the island. Lynch reported much caution on the part of Southern manufacturers.

In September 1963, Lemass asked all relevant ministers to consider possible areas for co-operation. The work was taken forward over the next eighteen months, with Whitaker leading in the Civil Service. Over time several possible topics, mostly of a low-key, practical kind, were identified. Much would be familiar to those who worked on the aborted Council of Ireland under Sunningdale, the North/South aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, and indeed to those now charged with taking forward the Taoiseach’s “Shared Island” initiative (Micheál Martin speaks of the inspiration he draws from Lemass). Seventeen subjects for possible work, some more fleshed out than others, were eventually suggested to O’Neill by Lemass, and were broadly acceptable. Fifty-five years later, quite a few of the proposals have been implemented. Others remain to be worked on.

In early 1965, Dublin and London were much concerned with the transfer of the remains of Roger Casement to Ireland. Harold Wilson gave his consent after being assured that there was no chance that the body would be brought to Co Antrim or that there would be anti-British demonstrations. Paul Keating of the embassy wrote a vivid and meticulous report of the night-time exhumation of (most of) Casement’s body from a water-logged eight-foot-deep grave in the burial yard of Pentonville prison and its removal to Dublin in a special plane. The very last document in the volume, from April 20th, 1965, indicates the government’s reluctance to assume any responsibility for the Casement diaries. Hugh McCann had previously noted the private view of Richard Hayes, the director of the National Library and Second World War cryptographer, that they were not a forgery.

Beyond Ireland, Britain and Europe, Ireland remained active at the United Nations. Aiken continued to spend months at a time in New York. The business of the UN continued to occupy a great deal of the attention of the Department of External Affairs. In 1962 Ireland, without actively seeking to, became a member of the Security Council, though there is little about the work of the council in this volume. Progress was made on taking forward the “Irish resolution” on nuclear non-proliferation, which led in due course to the signature in 1968 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ireland was prominent on apartheid and on decolonisation.  

However, perhaps the first flush of enthusiasm had paled somewhat. As the number and in some cases the radicalism of African and Asian members grew, Ireland could find it harder to keep its balance between blocs. It continued to contribute troops to the UN mission in the Congo, but the secretariat was not always open about its political manoeuvring and the mission ended rather abruptly. The sending of a substantial contingent to the Cyprus mission in 1964 ran against Aiken’s initial instincts. He was angry that troop contributors were required to meet a portion of their own costs. He was also appalled by the failure of France and the Soviet Union to pay their UN contributions in full, to the point where he wanted the Charter provisions allowing for the suspension of voting rights to be implemented (Lemass, looking at the matter from the European perspective, cautioned against offending the French).

Lemass himself could take a somewhat sceptical view of the UN. In a November 1964 meeting with the Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, he remarked that it “was really a world in itself. Outsiders … might wonder at the importance [delegations] attach to a word or a comma in a resolution.” He also noted that membership of the Security Council had caused Ireland trouble, and “We were making enemies where we did not wish to come down on one side or the other”. One might recall our good fortune in having left the Security Council just before the US attempt in early 2003 to strongarm it into adopting a second pre-invasion Iraq resolution. An indication of how difficult a decision would have been is the fact that after the US attack Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen decided to leave Shannon airport and Irish airspace open to American aircraft during the several months before a Security Council resolution eventually was eventually adopted.

The spectacular departure of Conor Cruise O’Brien from his Katanga mission and then from the Department of External Affairs took place in November/December 1961. To high political drama was added the sensational news that the divorced O’Brien had been joined in the Congo by a colleague, Máire MacEntee, who happened to be the daughter of the tánaiste and minister for health, and who also resigned from the department. The department’s records, while thorough in recording the facts as far as it was concerned, reveal little of the human dimension – one imagines that much more was said than written. The loss of two highly regarded officers, one of whom was a great star who had worked very closely with them, must have shaken the minister and senior officials. But the government was quickly obliged to distance itself from O’Brien’s denunciation of British and French meddling. When his book To Katanga and Back came out a year later, Aiken stated that “a certain amount of inaccuracy and exaggeration is understandable in a hastily-written book of this kind but there is no basis in fact for the estimates he gives of some of the men known to me personally [including Freddie Boland, whom O’Brien saw as intriguing against him]. Breaches of confidence, moreover, are always deplorable.”

Some of the great events of the 1960s left their traces in the archives. They included the Cuban missile crisis (the government acceded to a US request to search Czechoslovak planes on their way to Cuba), and the assassination of President Kennedy, five months after his visit to Ireland and six weeks after he had met Lemass in Washington.

Reporting on Vatican II, the ambassador to the Holy See, Thomas V Commins, assessed with scorn the “meagre” contribution of the Irish bishops, bar Bishop Philbin of Down and Connor. He described their approach as “the reverse of exuberant” and “supremely conservative”, noting their particular hostility to ecumenism. He commented that Archbishop McQuaid “… is not gifted ... with the faculty of projecting his presence or expressing his views in a manner designed to win sympathy”.

A rather different 1960s innovation which sparked concern was the discovery that ships intended for use as pirate radio stations – including the legendary Radio Caroline – were being fitted out in Greenore, Co Louth.

Other documents concern issues and themes which were to become significant in future years. Aid to developing countries began on a very small scale, mostly through the World Food Programme and the World Bank. Charles Haughey, as minister for justice, asked for enquiries to be made about rumours of the illegal importation of arms from the US, and the consul general in Chicago described his difficulties in persuading the Irish-American community to support the government’s more conciliatory approach to Northern Ireland. In 1963, having checked that there was now no objection from the Holy See, Ireland finally granted de jure recognition to Israel. A policy of no contact with the communist countries of the Eastern bloc was nearly uniformly applied. The Department of External Affairs sought to define its role in trade promotion, though some missions complained about a lack of co-operation from state agencies.

Some of the less lofty duties and activities of Irish diplomats would be immediately familiar today. The Consulate General in Chicago reported on its successful contribution to the Irish stand at the Third Annual Holiday Folk Fair in November 1962. The consul general assured the secretary of the department that he had “expressed no enthusiasm for the stage-Irish folk-dish of bacon and cabbage” and that the “dozen or so ladies in charge … wisely confined their efforts to tea and soda-bread (Irish), ham sandwiches and hamburgers (possibly Irish beef but much more likely ordinary American)”. In 1965 the ambassador in Canberra wrote to The Australian newspaper protesting against allegations of anti-Protestant discrimination: the proprietor of the newspaper, a young Rupert Murdoch, finally published his letter with much reluctance.

How does the Department of External Affairs as revealed in this volume differ from today’s Department of Foreign Affairs? Its international presence was much smaller and less dispersed. By 1965 there were twenty-three missions abroad ‑ one in each of Africa, Asia, and South America - as opposed to 87 now. Staffing levels and budgets were lower.

Although conditions en poste can still cause unhappiness, I doubt if many ambassadors are as spectacularly intemperate as the first ambassador to Nigeria, Eamonn Kennedy. His plea in 1962 for more support from Dublin was acknowledged by Cremin to be well-founded, if unacceptably worded. One of Cremin’s promises was to transfer a First Secretary, Robin Fogarty, from New York. (In my early years in the department I worked for Fogarty in Dublin and Rome – one of the many pleasures of DIFP XII for me is the appearance of figures I got to know.) Over two years later Kennedy’s successor set out in great detail the continuing utter inadequacy of travel and subsistence payments. On the other side, Dublin periodically urged embassies to do more and more useful reporting.

The department’s structures in Dublin were less complex, its remit less broad, and the number of staff far smaller. It was a much more intimate place. Diplomats were almost entirely male. By today’s standards, communications with missions were primitive, sparse and intermittent. So it may seem to have been a simpler world. But the issues with which the government had to deal were every bit as complex and important as today’s. Senior civil servants did not have to face the information overload generated by modern technology, the pressures of the endless news cycle and of social media, the obligations of freedom of information, and much of the ever-growing burden of management. This gave them more time to think, and to set out their conclusions and recommendations in depth and with an eloquence, subtlety and often frankness rarely encountered now. Perhaps some of what they wrote was longer than it needed to be. We do not know if everything was read with the care it deserved.

However, the written record leaves no doubt about the high quality of Ireland’s political and official leaders at this time. Their work laid the foundations for Ireland’s transformative membership of the European Union. While the green shoots of the 1960s were trampled on by the violence of the Troubles, basic elements of improved relations on the island and between Britain and Ireland were developed. The value of skilful diplomacy in the service of the interests of the Irish people was, once again, clearly demonstrated.

1/1/2021

Rory Montgomery was an Irish diplomat from 1983 to 2019. He is currently a Fellow of the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin, and an Honorary Professor at the Mitchell Institute, Queen’s University Belfast.

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