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Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume IX (1948–1951) now free to access online

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume IX, 1948–1951, originally published in 2014, is now available online in open-access format.


The ninth volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy covers the term of Ireland’s first ‘Inter-Party’ coalition government between 1948 and 1951, led by Fine Gael’s John A. Costello, with Sean MacBride of Clann na Poblachta serving as Minister for External Affairs. Originally published in 2014, this unique edition of primary source material (drawn from the National Archives of Ireland and UCD Archives) and is now available online in open-access format.

While DIFP IX covers the entire term of the Inter-Party Government, it focusses on its most active years in foreign relations: 1948 and 1949. During these two years Ireland formally left the Commonwealth, declared itself a Republic, refused to join the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) participated in the European Recovery Program (Marshall Aid), and pursued an active international campaign aimed at ending the partition of Ireland.

The legacy of Ireland’s wartime neutrality was compounded in some American eyes by Ireland’s refusal to join NATO, and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, which looms large in the volume, led to questions about where Ireland really stood in relation to the Cold War and support for the West. The war further strengthened the Anglo-American alliance and highlighted the futility of trying to use the prospect of Ireland’s NATO membership as a lever for ending partition. By way of contrast Ireland became a founder member of the Council of Europe, and the volume also covers the state’s response to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950 – the origins of today’s EU. But by standing aloof from other institutions of the new post-war international order, by the Ireland’s options in the international system were more limited in 1951 than they had been in 1948. Other themes explored in DIFP IX include communism at home and abroad and the intensifications of the Cold War, relations with Israel, the admission of post-war refugees and even fugitive Nazi collaborators to Ireland, and the overseas adoption of Irish infants.

DIFP IX is now free to access on our dedicated open-access DIFP website. To provide an overview of the period covered by the volume, here is an edited extract from our recent centenary history of Irish foreign policy by John Gibney, Michael Kennedy and Kate O’Malley, Ireland: A voice among the nations.

Explore Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume IX, 1948–1951 online here

From Ireland: A voice among the nations:

In February 1948 a broadly based ‘inter-party’ government made up of Fine Gael (the successor party to Cumann na nGaedheal), the new radical republican party Clann na Poblachta, the Labour Party, and Clann na Talmhan (the Farmers’ Party) took office in Dublin. The Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy had served as chief of staff of the army and as minister of defence during the civil war, and he was still blamed by many for the ruthless repression of republicans during the conflict. Clann na Poblachta refused to join any government under his leadership, so his party colleague John A. Costello became taoiseach in his stead, and Clann na Poblachta’s leader, the barrister and former IRA leader Seán McBride, was appointed Minister for External Affairs.

Costello and MacBride were from very different political parties. Fine Gael was traditionally seen as conservative, wealthier and more favourable towards the Commonwealth, while Clann na Poblachta had emerged after the Second World War with a socially radical and explicitly republican agenda. One area in which Costello and MacBride did share common ground was their Catholicism. The archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, regularly advised Costello and MacBride, and both men regarded obedience to Catholic values as the pre-eminent guide to their political actions.

The ‘Inter-party government’, as the coalition became known, went to great lengths to appease the Catholic Church; its approach to foreign policy was no exception.

MacBride lacked experience in government and ran Ireland’s foreign policy as he believed international relations should be run, rather than in accordance with international practice and diplomatic procedure. This lack of experience made MacBride more susceptible to alarmist reports on the progress of the Cold War in Europe and on Ireland’s position in the deepening East–West struggle. Unsettled on his second day in office by a report from Joseph Walshe that the Italian press was reporting that Ireland was veering to the left under the new government in Dublin, MacBride instantly reacted by instructing, with the approval of Costello, that a message of Ireland’s ‘filial devotion’ to the Holy See be sent by the Irish government to Pope Pius XII. In this context Walshe, who had seemed to exert less influence on policy-making in Dublin since his appointment as ambassador to the Holy See, now became a major influence on MacBride (whom he privately disdained). Walshe now found a receptive listener to his own increasingly narrow obsession with the Communist threat to Europe.

MacBride’s approach to foreign policy emphasised anti- Communism, a vocal support for Christianity and democracy and an avowedly pro-Western stance, along with a strong desire to promote Ireland’s independence and international sovereignty and above all the ending of the partition of Ireland. His highhanded and idiosyncratic personal style impacted on his working relationship with senior officials such as Boland, who became ambassador to Great Britain in 1950. Boland was replaced at the helm in Iveagh House by yet another veteran, this time Sean Nunan, who had spent most of his diplomatic career in the US, having begun it with de Valera on his American tour in 1919.

When it came to the appointment of officials, MacBride did oversee one landmark decision. The appointment of Josephine McNeill as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Netherlands in November 1949 made her one of only two female heads of diplomatic missions in the world (the other was Clare Luce Booth, then US ambassador to Italy). The expansion of the department in the late 1940s had led to a shortage of senior staff, and it was decided that suitable individuals should be brought directly into the diplomatic service. McNeill was thewife of former governor-general of the Irish Free State James McNeill, a role in which, MacBride argued, she had gained a good deal of relevant experience (though she was also known to be a supporter of his party, Clann na Poblachta). The Irish legation at the Hague was seen to be one of Ireland’s less important diplomatic missions; the Netherlands was deemed to be a country to which it was acceptable to send female diplomats.

MacBride also instituted structural changes in the department that he now headed. Following a suggestion originally made at the 1945 heads of missions conference, he created a ‘Cultural Relations Division’ to foster international appreciation of Ireland’s culture and heritage. He also had great ambitions for the newly established ‘Information Division’, which would work with another new venture, the ‘Irish News Agency’, to establish an international consensus on ending partition. While the traditional hierarchy of secretary, assistant secretaries and the legal adviser remained the key senior officials in Iveagh House, MacBride’s tenure in External Affairs also saw the rise of the new ‘Political Division’, which would, by the mid-to-late- 1950s, become the core area in the department that oversaw foreign policy development.

In his first months in office, MacBride displayed great dynamism, most notably travelling to Washington, DC in May 1948 to negotiate on the financial provisions earmarked for Ireland under the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan). Ireland eventually received $18-million of grants under the plan, in addition to $130-million of loans (the form of aid which the United States preferred to give to neutral countries).

There was, however, one major and somewhat unexpected development that essentially defined the foreign policy of the Inter-Party government. After the 1936 External Relations Act, neither Dublin nor London had sought clarification of Ireland’s exact status in relation to the Commonwealth; both sides seemed willing to tolerate the status quo that had prevailed since the legislation was enacted. Ireland had continued to show considerable interest in the Commonwealth in the years after the war; it allowed Irish officials to participate in scientific, technical and trade-related conferences in an era when other opportunities for such multilateral engagement did not exist. Yet by 1947 it appears that plans were in hand to repeal the 1936 act and declare a republic.

De Valera may have been waiting to see how newly independent India managed its relationship with the Commonwealth before proceeding further, possibly on the grounds that a republic within the Commonwealth, as India would become in 1949, might serve as a model to emulate. But on 7 September 1948, whilst in Ottawa, Costello suddenly announced that the repeal of the External Relations Act was imminent and that Ireland’s formal departure from the Commonwealth and the declaration of Ireland’s status as a republic would follow.

There appears to be little truth in the story that Costello was prompted to declare a republic after taking offence at the presence of a replica of ‘roaring Meg’—one of the cannon used in the defence of the besieged city of Derry in 1689 and a symbol beloved of unionists in Northern Ireland—on a table during an official dinner, despite the fact that Costello told the anecdote himself to a number of people. But the repeal of the 1936 act and the declaration of the republic was, to the Irish authorities, simply a matter of altered legal language and expression regarding the Crown. For the British, on the other hand, this was a development of the deepest political and economic significance, as the Commonwealth was evolving and decolonisation across the British Empire was accelerating. London remained more deeply affected by Costello’s actions in Canada than Dublin understood, and the British explained to their Irish counterparts that there could be consequences for Ireland: citizens’ rights, trade and freedom of travel now became live issues, and subject to negotiation. The British also hinted at punitive measures against Ireland, but Canada, Australia and New Zealand persuaded them to tone down their attitude. At the same time London confirmed the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom with the passing of the Ireland Act in June 1949, in a move that took Dublin by surprise. That said, this act also gave Irish citizens a special status within the UK; there was no restriction on their rights to travel to and work within the UK, a status that became increasingly important given the mass emigration of Irish people to the UK that took place in the 1950s.

Ending partition had always been to the fore in the rhetoric, if not in the conduct, of Irish foreign policy and it remained so for the Inter-Party government. Following de Valera’s example, MacBride placed ending partition and uniting Ireland as the primary goal of Irish foreign policy. MacBride’s raising of the ‘sore thumb’ of partition, as it was popularly dubbed, at all international opportunities won Ireland few friends and did nothing to improve already poor relations with Northern Ireland.

The Inter-Party government placed great emphasis on vocal opposition to partition, during a period in which the Ireland Act became a further political barrier between north and south. But ironically, the term in office of this government also saw the most successful developments in cross-border co-operation since partition. The conclusion of an agreement to develop the Erne Hydro-Electric scheme, the establishment of the Foyle Fisheries Commission and a series of direct north-south ministerial meetings concerning the future of the Dublin to Belfast railway line saw real progress in relations. But Dublin’s anti-partition campaign in Britain, North America and elsewhere held the limelight.

At no time while MacBride was minister did Dublin ever attempt to understand the Ulster Unionist position; in essence, cross-border co-operation was seen only as a means to short-term technical ends. Moreover, opposition to partition was shared across the Irish political spectrum: de Valera, whilst out of government, embarked on a world tour to highlight the partition of Ireland. MacBride, acutely conscious of de Valera’s global presence and international impact, and knowing that many senior Irish diplomats remained personally loyal to their former minister, prohibited de Valera and members of the opposition from staying in Irish diplomatic residences whilst campaigning overseas.

MacBride did take an interest in one very distinctive new state: Israel. In February 1949 the Cabinet agreed de facto to recognise Israel, making Ireland one of the last states to do so. Ireland refused to give de jure recognition to Israel, however, citing Vatican concerns about the future control of the Holy Places in Jerusalem as the reason. MacBride saw strong parallels between Ireland and Israel when it came to their freedom struggles, and by mid-April 1951 MacBride envisaged Ireland’s complete de jure recognition of Israel, but by this date the Inter-Party government was facing into a general election, and ultimately no action was taken.

In Europe, MacBride played a leading role in the drafting of the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights. The country’s refugee policy, however, remained ungenerous during the Inter-Party government. Despite its pro-Western outlook, Ireland was also unenthusiastic about joining the various post-war collective security pacts proposed by the Western Allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a specific case in point. Membership of NATO involved commitment to the mutual self-defence of all members, including the UK, and, by extension, Northern Ireland. Joining a pact of which the UK was a member would mean accepting the reality that British military forces were stationed in Northern Ireland, and thus the acceptance of partition.

In spring 1949 MacBride indicated to the American government that Ireland agreed with the terms of the alliance and would be prepared to join NATO if Washington first put pressure on London to end partition, but as NATO had access to facilities in Northern Ireland, access to bases elsewhere on the island of Ireland was deemed irrelevant. Washington was not moved by Irish arguments to do anything that might go contrary to the

Anglo-American relationship. The legacy of Ireland’s wartime neutrality was compounded in some American eyes (and especially those of the State Department) by Ireland’s refusal to join NATO. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 led to some in Washington questioning where Ireland really stood in relation to the Cold War and support for the West, though Ireland’s reputation as a staunchly Catholic society ensured that it was not seen as a country likely to turn to Communism. The Korean War further strengthened the Anglo-American alliance and highlighted the futility of trying to use the prospect of Ireland’s NATO membership as a lever against ending partition.

The one notable exception to Ireland’s detachment from the multilateral institutions of the post-war world was the Council of Europe. In May 1949 Ireland was one of the ten founding members of the Council, which had been established in the aftermath of the Second World War to promote democracy and human rights on the continent, and ultimately to begin to work towards European integration. While Ireland would not seek to join the latter project until the 1960s, membership of the Council of Europe allowed Irish politicians and diplomats to explore the possibilities of European integration. In that sense, involvement was a crucial, if often overlooked, milestone in Ireland’s foreign relations.

By the summer of 1951 the Inter-Party government had collapsed for a variety of domestic reasons. As MacBride prepared to leave Iveagh House, Ireland’s external relations had become increasingly international in scope but remained limited in many ways. While Ireland had a definite series of international interests to enhance and protect, it now did so in an orbit somewhat removed from the major foreign relations actors of the period.

Limited in size and power, Ireland had never been as significant geopolitically in the Cold War world as MacBride had believed; it certainly never had the means and influence to direct the major international crises of the day in a manner he had hoped. The question of how Ireland could most effectively and actively play a role in the post-war international system remained unanswered.

Cover image: In 1947 women entered the diplomatic ranks of the Department of External Affairs at third-secretary level. Here, Máire MacEntee (Mhac an tSaoi), the first woman appointed by open competition, walks in procession with Ireland’s ambassador to Spain Leo T. McCauley as he presents his credentials to Generalissimo Francisco Franco in Madrid in 1949. (Reproduced by permission of the Director of the National Archives).