Britain’s offer on unity: missed opportunity?

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—‘The morality of neutrality is in fact not the question’, Michael Kennedy asserts (HI 21.5, Sept./Oct. 2013, ‘Neutrality: “The very essence of Irish independence”?’). On the contrary, the German Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has described the Allied campaign to topple the Nazi regime as ‘perhaps the clearest example in all history of a just war’. Furthermore, in his preview of Irish Foreign Policy Documents (1939–41), Dr Kennedy elides reference to Britain’s offer on Irish unity, thus ignoring a significant portion of the 1940 correspondence. In June of that year, a few days after the capitulation of France, Malcolm MacDonald came to Dublin with proposals from the British government. In essence, the offer was a British commitment to the principle of Irish unity in return for Southern cooperation.

A memorandum of MacDonald’s talks with Eamon de Valera, who was both taoiseach and minister for external affairs, by department secretary Joseph Walshe records that de Valera told MacDonald that a declaration of the principle of a united Ireland ‘was no use. He would not enter into serious discussions on any basis except the immediate establishment of a united neutral Ireland . . .’ Walshe was an influential figure of high but narrow intelligence, who believed that the war, ‘so far, is none of our concern’. In a ‘most secret’ memorandum to de Valera on 1 July 1940, he said: ‘It does not seem that there is a single organised state left in Europe or Asia which is not ready to profit by what they regard to be the impending downfall of Britain’. He followed this with a coded telegram to William Warnock, our minister/ambassador in Berlin: ‘Government determined to maintain neutrality even in face of offers of concessions on unity question’.

Three days later de Valera replied to Neville Chamberlain: ‘The course suggested in your plan could only lead to internal weakness and eventual frustration’. When John Dulanty, Irish ambassador in London, handed this letter to the British prime minister, Chamberlain said that the taoiseach ‘was probably insisting on uncompromising neutrality because he expected that the British would be beaten’. He added: ‘I am afraid Mr de Valera is missing a great opportunity’. Warnock reminded him ‘of the grounds we had for suspicion . . . that we had been shamefully let down in the Home Rule Act of 1914 and in the dismal business of the Boundary [Commission]’.

In a memorandum to the taoiseach on 11 July 1940, Walshe averred: ‘England is already conquered’. He concluded: ‘Some priests, who have no world church outlook and overcome by hatred for the passing phenomenon of Nazism, say we are bound to join the fight against Germany. The pope [Pius XII] does not seem to share that view.’
Given the fractured state of Irish society seventeen years after our civil war, neutrality was probably the only policy on which to build consensus. Nonetheless, a more secure statesman than de Valera would at least have explored the British offer. Instead of looking over his shoulder at the fate of John Redmond, he would have grasped the significance of Viscount Palmerston’s credo: ‘Britain had no eternal allies and had no perpetual enemies, only interests that were eternal and perpetual . . . ’.

With Britain’s back to the wall, 1940 was a unique moment in history. De Valera and his advisers miscalculated the outcome of the war. In rejecting British overtures, they may have turned down a policy shift that the Provos would spend nearly 30 years trying to extract by force. Dublin’s pragmatism solidified partition. On the wider issue, our support could have made a difference in shortening the most barbaric war in history.—Yours etc.,

Co. Wicklow


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