We move now from the more select observations of Ireland in the Second World War back to the larger picture. Far more than they needed to with the Axis powers, Ireland was obligated to have a great deal of interaction with the Allies, first with their nearest neighbours in the United Kingdom, and then after December 1941 with the United States of America. Eamon de Valera and his government remained committed to the policy of neutrality, with notable exceptions, throughout those years but it was not an easy commitment to maintain: more and more as the war progressed, this was less because of German threats, and more because of a continued serious of increasingly fractious back-and-forths with London and Washington on a variety of issues. The bottom line was that the Allies wanted Ireland to join the war effort, and Dublin was not inclined to acquiesce to that desire: in this entry we will look at Ireland’s diplomatic relations with the Allies as they pertained to the Second World War, and how de Valera dealt with this immensely complicated struggle.
The British ambassador to Ireland during this time was Sir John Maffey. He was not actually a ambassador as others in the British foreign service were, but rather the “United Kingdom Representative to Eire”, reflecting British hesitancy in appointing a full ambassador to a country they regarded as part of the Commonwealth, and Irish inability to accept a representative without an acknowledgement that he was operating somewhere outside of London’s sphere of direct rule. Maffey established a good working relationship with de Valera, and was a vital part of the communications between the Taoiseach and Churchill.
Despite this, Irish diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom would remain fraught throughout the war, though growing somewhat less critical by the end of 1942, when the threat of German invasion had receded and the tide of the war had turned rather decisively. Despite this, the British would never give up on their desire to bring Ireland into the war as part of the Allies, or at the very least gain access to the Treaty Ports. But de Valera remained steadfast on these points, consistently refusing point-blank to any lease of the Treaty ports. The reaction was a mix of soft-handed diplomacy and strong-arm economics: access to British shipping, port and exports became restricted for Ireland, something that Churchill agreed to on the express idea that it would pressure Ireland financially. Later, this was extended to flights to and from Ireland, and coal exports.
Such things contributed to a sharp economic downturn in Ireland during the war, which would badly effect Fianna Fail’s electoral chances long term: it also drive emigration out of Ireland, mostly to Britain, with over 100’000 Irish working in Britain during the war. Later, a crisis erupted over British plans to extend military conscription to Northern Ireland, something to which de Valera and his government were vehemently opposed: the British, perhaps taking note of de Valera’s own speeches that brought up the disastrous 1918 Conscription Crisis, would end up backing down. Ironically, as recruitment to the Defence Forces fell later in the war de Valera would briefly consider imposing conscription policies himself. Any discussions that British representatives had with de Valera on the topic of greater friendliness between the UK and Ireland were generally met with a polite, but determined, “No”. Unhappiness with the Irish position was not limited to Chuchill’s Conservative party: Labour figures too, who would take power in the UK after the war and maintain a certain diplomatic hostility towards de Valera, also expressed a growing annoyance with Ireland’s inability to veer from neutrality.
In amongst all this was Winston Churchill’s offer of forwarding the cause of Irish unification if Ireland would join the war effort. Historical treatment of this offer has been mixed, with it sometimes treated as little more than a bizarre thought of the British Prime Minister that was easily dismissed, to something that was a serious flashpoint in the diplomatic relations between Dublin and London. Certainly it was more than just a barely considered offer, quickly rejected. It was first inferred in the aftermath of the German assault on the west, when de Valera was asked point blank if a united Ireland would be an ally of Great Britain. De Valera reply, “that would probably be the consequence”, indicates it was not just a one-way debate.
Such things evolved gradually. At first there were suggestions of a joint “defence council” between Dublin and Belfast for the entire island, which de Valera rejected as an obvious breach of neutrality. Later Malcolm MacDonald, the British Minister of Health operating as a special envoy, laid down more concrete proposals, of a declaration of a united Ireland in return for that entity’s immediate entry into the war. De Valera vacillated, arguing that the Irish people would be unprepared for war with such a declaration. Parts of the British cabinet pushed on with the proposal, but met sustained opposition from de Valera and most of his cabinet, especially Frank Aiken.
The reasons for suspecting the deal went beyond the risk of war: the Irish government did not buy that Ulster unionists would easily agree to the plan (probably wise) and suspected that the British idea of deferred unity, to take place formally after the war, would prove to not be worth the paper it was written on (probably wise as well). De Valera would go so far as saying that a united Ireland in wartime circumstances would have to be created as a neutral state, albeit one that was friendly towards the UK, something the UK rejected as a possibility. The undercurrent was that many in the Irish government suspected Britain was about to lose the war, and was not in a position to be making such promises. Later, after the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbour brought America into the war, Churchill sent a direct message to de Valera urging Irish entry into the war with the words “Now is the time. A nation once again”, but would almost immediately insist to his own government that he was referring to Ireland regaining some manner of “soul” by becoming a member of the Allies. De Valera certainly took the message as another suggestion of Irish unity as a prize for such an action, but was not interested.
My own opinion has always been that the British proposal for Irish unity at this time, the Summer and Autumn of 1940, was based more on fear of what was happening on the continent, and lacked a certain realism. Churchill always had a weakness for massive geopolitical gestures – he had supported a madcap idea to politically join Britain and France as the Germans overran the latter – but such things came and went: what didn’t go were his obvious unionist sympathies. Belfast would never have willingly agreed to such a plan, and the temptation to row back on the endeavor, or alter it to the point of it being a fundamental walkback, would have been irresistible to the British once the tide of the war turned. Any deal that brought Ireland into the war would probably have been quite unpopular in the south too, something that de Valera was more acutely aware of than any outside party. In essence it was a desperate scheme concocted by a British administration reacting to existential threat, that was rooted too much in the realm of “what if”.
If one thought that things would be much more positive between Ireland and the United States, they would have been disappointed. While Ireland maintained a natural influence on certain aspects of American politics by virtue of the diaspora, this seemingly counted for very little once the United States entered the war proper, and in many ways de Valera would have far more trouble with Washington than he would with London. Even before America entered the war the noises coming out of Washington were far less friendly than Dublin would have liked, with President Roosevelt expressing little sympathy for the contraction in the Irish economy on account of British quasi-blockades: “People are…getting pretty fed up with my old friend Dev”. Later, a meeting between Roosevelt and Aiken on the possibility of America supplying arms to Ireland allegedly became so heated – Aiken refused to be drawn on the likelihood of an Irish pledge to use the provided weapons on just Germany, Roosevelt considered accusations of possible British aggression towards Ireland as “nonsense” – that the President dashed a tea try from a table. Aiken’s mission in the US was to defend Irish neutrality, but it did not go down all that well. All of this was before the US had even entered the war, and after they did the attitude only became more hostile. In the weeks after Pearl Harbour, Roosevelt would respond only with thinly veiled scorn to de Valera’ maintenance of neutrality, icily saying regards Ireland that “Your freedom too is at stake”.
This lack of friendliness was especially true in the final years in the conflict, where supposed Irish coziness with the USA ran smack into what some considered an American “invasion” of the North. From 1942 to the conclusion of the war and beyond, Northern Ireland would play host to a large amount of the American armed forces, based there ahead of the invasion of Europe, and later ahead of deployment on the newly re-instated Western Front. The presence of these forces certainly ruffled feathers, and was at least partially an influence on the IRA’s future operations, and was much to the dislike of de Valera. Ireland still claimed territorial dominion over the entire island, and the imposition of a force of foreign soldiers ran directly against such a sentiment: this would inform Irish opposition to any effort to “occupy the six counties”. The Taoiseach would go so far as to request a commitment from Roosevelt that the American soldiers stationed in the North would never be used to attack Ireland: Roosevelt duly gave such a commitment, but used the opportunity to remind de Valera “should be associated with its traditional friends”. His opinion of Irish neutrality would only get lower, and towards the end of the conflict Ireland would be marked out as one of several neutral nations whose participation in the future United Nations would be impossible on account of their refusal to join the Allied war effort.
The US envoy to Ireland for the majority of the conflict was David Gray, a World War One veteran, and uncle through marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor: Gray himself would openly admit that his appointment came at least partially through nepotism. If Maffey worked well with de Valera, then Gray, dubbed “dangerously incompetent” by one contemporary politician, was the complete opposite, to the point that his status as Irish envoy seems truly bizarre. Argumentative, rude, self-confident to a fault and never liable to keep his opinions to himself, Gray and de Valera quickly came to detest each other, to the point that the Taoiseach would repeatedly request that Roosevelt replace him with someone else (which was never done: Roosevelt seemed to appreciate Gray’s hard-handed style for whatever reason). Gray seemed to have thought the Dublin government to be at least partially pro-German, despite de Valera’s claims to the contrary, and at least one shouting match between the two has been recorded. Gray repeatedly attempted to trap de Valera in anti-British feeling by urging for ultimatums to be put to him on the issue of Ireland joining the war effort: on more than one occasion blunt messages drafted by the American on the topic were only not sent because the British Foreign Office talked sense into their American equivalent. After 1943 such things had become especially pointless, as the potential use of Irish naval bases had diminished hugely in importance, but Gray persisted.
Another of Gray’s gambits was a diplomatic missive that requested Ireland close down Axis embassies in Dublin, on the basis that intelligence operative working in them imperiled the American position. It was another farcical blunder, with British intelligence agencies, who had long since broken German codes being used in their embassies, urged against on the grounds the embassies were a useful font of information if left alone. De Valera was appalled at the request, and refused point blank: its very communication provoked fears of an Allied invasion ,as had occured to Iran when they refused a similar request. The Americans moved to ease those concerns, but also published, at Gray’s insistence, their original message, which meant de Valera also had to publish his official response. The result was predictable: de Valera was praised in Ireland (the affair certainly played a role in the stronger-than-expected Fianna Fail 1944 election performance), and condemned in America, and any hope that the affair would push Ireland closer to joining the Allies was shown to be fantasy. Later still, Gray determined to force de Valera to issue a public statement that Ireland would maintain its right to grant asylum to those that he choose, which had Gray claiming the Irish state was admitting it would happily harbour German war criminals. Finally, with the war in its dying stages in April of 1945, the Allies, encouraged by Gray of course, pressed for Ireland to hand over vital documents within the Axis embassies: de Valera again refused. It was this last incident that would help propel de Valera into what was arguably his own greatest mistake in politics: a topic for a future entry.
Ireland made it through the war without bowing to the pressures represented by the United Kingdom and the United States, and remained neutral to the conclusion of the conflict. It was not an easy course, with de Valera’s government facing threats and cajoling of a type that other neutral powers never had to deal with. The Allied fixation on Ireland was understandable of course, but less so were some of their actions in pursuing their aims. De Valera’s resistance to joining that faction represents one of the most defining aspects of his leadership of Ireland, and remains a subject of intense debate: negative consequences would be seen soon enough after the war, and it may well be argued if Ireland’s diplomatic isolation was worth it, especially after it became clear that the Allies were going to win the war. But relative to the danger Ireland would have been placed in by becoming a member of the Allies, and the potential damage to national sovereignty and territorial integrity, put against the negligible gains Ireland would have expected as a very minor power, it remains in my eyes a logical decision for the time and place.
We will come to Ireland’s diplomatic relations with the Axis powers closer to the end of the war, and de Valera’s immediate post-war actions, especially as it pertains to one of de Valera’s most criticised moments as Taoiseach. But for now we will turn back to the IRA. Under Charlie Kerins, the organisation was now embarking on another series of actions, focused on Northern Ireland: the Northern Campaign would be another defining moment for the IRA, and another failure.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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