With the establishment of the Irish Free State as a recognised entity that had control over most of its own government and external affairs, an Irish government now had the opportunity to take part in international relations on a formal level. This aspect of the Free State’s existence is not to be underestimated: control of your own foreign affairs was a vital part of establishing true sovereignty, as the architects of the Irish Revolution had known when they made such a big deal out of having a functioning diplomatic section. From the point where the Dail’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference had been essentially ignored, Ireland was now in a position to join the major international organisations of the day, and in time would also face the prospect of taking a leading, albeit mostly symbolic, part in tackling the major international crises of the 1920’s and 30’s. The most high-profile avenue for such things was undoubtedly the League of Nations.
The League of Nations had long been dreamed about by numerous thinkers going back decades, and even centuries if you want to be technical, but found its genesis accelerated greatly by the First World War. The anti-war sentiment that became prevalent in those years propelled many academics, politicians and other significant figures to propose the creation of such an entity, whose role would be to facilitate the peaceful arbitration of international disputes with the ultimate goal being to essentially make war obsolete. The Treaty of Versailles established the League in its opening section, and the organisation began its operations officially in January 1920. It would consist of a General Assembly of all members and an Executive Council of the major powers who were victorious in 1918 (the UK, France, Italy and Japan) with a revolving panel of others. The League started with 42 members, and would reach a height of 58 in 1934: famously one country that would never be a part of the League, despite the advocacy of Woodrow Wilson, was the United States, whose legislature refused to endorse accession.
The Irish Free State joined the League of Nations in 1923, a few months after the end of the Irish Civil War. There were a great many international crises that the League was involved in in some capacity throughout The Free State and Ireland’s membership, including but not limited to the chaos of borders and separatist organisations at the end of the Forst World War, brushfire wars in Asia and South America and the administration of the “mandates”, the former territories of the defeated Central Powers. The Free State’s influence on all of these sorts of matters was, naturally, fairly limited, and reflected the League’s tendency to be dominated by the major powers of the Executive Council. In those times the Free State would have had a small part on sittings these various problems.
The only moment when Ireland took a more central place on the League of Nations stage was during Eamon de Valera’s time as President of the Executive Council. In 1932 the Free State gained the opportunity to become one of the four non-permanent members of the Executive Council, with de Valera chosen to preside over the meeting of the League for that year. He caused a stir with his opening address in September, wherein he openly criticised the League’s workings, marginalisation of smaller nations and lack of tangible results, especially in the wake of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria the previous year. That had been an extremely high profile instance that the League had been singularly unable to prevent with its declarations and sanctions, and had thus a common theme for which to criticise the League on: de Valera, mindful of the vulnerability of smaller nations to the actions of larger powers, had no compunctions about bringing such criticisms directly into the halls of power. His speech was received with reported “deadly silence” by the assembled delegates, but gained de Valera a great deal of international press attention.
De Valera would maintain this line of thought for much of his future interactions with the League. When Japan and Germany threatened to quit the organisation in 1933 he called for the League to live up to its obligations, and rejected suggestions that smaller members should see their influence curtailed relative to the “Great Powers”. The following year he was mooted as a potential candidate for the League Presidency, but choose not to run against the eventual winner, Sweden’s foreign minister Rickard Sandler. At that time de Valera campaigned for the admittance of the Soviet Union to the League, though he maintained reservations about its internal politics: he was dead set against the backroom dealings that smoothed the road for the admittance, and said so publicly on many occasions.
In 1935 de Valera was involved in the League’s discussions on the Abyssinian crisis, whereby an Italian build-up to an invasion of the future Ethiopia threated to spark a larger scale conflict, aside from presenting yet another example of a larger power expanding its colonial holdings through military force. De Valera again considered running of the League Presidency at this time, but was convinced to stand aside by those who felt he was too much of a public firebrand when Britain, France and the League Secretariat were attempting to solve the crisis behind closed doors. While maintaining his belief in the idea of the League as a positive force, de Valera was undeniably frustrated by how it actually went about its business, and warned of Italy’s threat to the collective security of the world if they were not confronted squarely on their territorial ambitions. When Italy went ahead with its invasion in October, de Valera approved the economic sanctions the League placed on Mussolini, though only after insuring they they would not apply to the Vatican City or other religious bodies based in Rome. The sanctions, which did not include oil exports, were not a major deterrent, and Abyssinia was annexed to Italy in May 1936 after a longer-than-expected campaign that highlighted some of the weaknesses of Italy’s military. De Valera was heartbroken at the final outcome, which for him demonstrated the fundamental weakness of the League, and made its continued operation difficult to imagine as effective.
The League of Nations would eventually fall apart under the weight of its many inadequacies. By the end of the 1930’s it was widely regarded as an impotent talking shop, whose inability to find solutions to events like the Spanish Civil War, or to properly rein in the aggressions of nations like Italy, were indications of its inability to fulfil its primary purpose, that is to prevent another major world wide conflagration on the scale of what had occurred from 1914 to 1918. Ireland would remain a member up to the League’s last practical meetings in late 1939, and up to its final end in 1946 when, in the aftermath of the greatest war the planet had seen, it ceded its position as the international arbiter of conflict to the new United Nations.
Our discussion on the League of Nations, and Ireland’s part in it, comes at an opportune time. Very shortly I will commence a series of entries that will examine the Irish role in the Spanish Civil War, at home and on either side of the Republican/Nationalist divide in that conflict. It was a war that, for many, would be just another extension of the divide between left and right-wing that had already seen flashpoints in Ireland, and would involve some of the same personalities too. More relevantly to the diplomatic failures of the 1930s, it came ahead of, and in many ways can be seen as a direct precursor to, the larger conflagration the Free State and Ireland had tried to stop with the League of Nations. But before that we must make one further stop back in Ireland, where we will look at the continuing evolution of the Irish Republican Army, its splits and its policies, as it too became embroiled in the European ideological divide.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.