The British Offer to End Partition, June 1940

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), News, Volume 9

One of the most intriguing episodes in the history of Anglo-Irish relations is the British proposal in June 1940 to end partition in return for Ireland’s participation in the war against Germany. The British ‘offer’ was made during the course of discussions between de Valera and Malcolm MacDonald, the former dominions secretary. According to Robert Fisk: ‘had these discussions reached any kind of fruition, the history of Britain and Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century would have changed irrevocably’.
Virtually the only source of information on the de Valera-MacDonald discussions are the latter’s, remarkably detailed reports to London. On the Irish side there were no comparable records. Until January 2001, that is, when a file on the MacDonald mission was released by the National Archives. In it is a hand-written note by the secretary to the government, Maurice Moynihan, on the cabinet discussion of the British offer. In the margin of the his note is an annotation by Moynihan dated 27 July 1940 which states: ‘this record follows closely the lines indicated by the Taoiseach personally’.
The first de Valera-MacDonald discussion took place on 17 June 1940. There were further meetings on 21 and 22 June. Finally, on 26 June MacDonald presented de Valera with the British government’s proposal:

A declaration to be issued by the United Kingdom government forthwith accepting the principle of a United Ireland.
A joint body including representatives of the government of Éire and the government of Northern Ireland to be set up at once to work out the constitutional and other practical details of the Union of Ireland. The United Kingdom government to give such assistance towards the work of this body as might be desired.
A joint defence council of representatives of Éire and Northern Ireland to be set up immediately.
Éire to enter the war on the side of the United Kingdom and her allies forthwith, and, for the purposes of the Defence of Éire, the government of Éire to invite British naval vessels to have use of ports in Éire and British troops and aeroplanes to co-operate with the Éire forces and to be stationed in such positions in Éire as may be agreed between the two governments.
The government of Éire to intern all German and Italian aliens in the country and to take any further steps necessary to suppress fifth column activities.
The United Kingdom to provide military equipment at once to the government of Éire.

Moynihan’s note of the cabinet meeting on 27 June is as follows:

Meeting of the Government 27 June, 1940 Council Chamber 11 am to 12.10 pm

Present:
All members of the Government

In attendance
Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach        Mr Smith
Attorney General               Mr Haugh
Secretary to the Govt.                Mr Moynihan

Communication from the British Govt.

The Taoiseach informed the Government of the contents of a communication which had been conveyed to him on 26th June 1940, by Mr Malcolm MacDonald on behalf of the British Government.
He said that he had informed Mr MacDonald that he was satisfied that the proposals contained in the communication would not be accepted, but that he would submit them to the Government.
The view which had been expressed to Mr MacDonald by the Taoiseach was confirmed.
The Taoiseach said that Mr MacDonald had suggested that some members of the government might like to ask him questions about the matter whilst he was in Dublin. Arrangements were being made for a luncheon at which Mr MacDonald would be a guest and the Taoiseach thought it would be well if one or two members of the government, in addition to himself, were present at the luncheon, when he would inform Mr MacDonald of the government’s decision. He was of opinion that there would be an advantage in Mr MacDonald meeting members of the government in addition to himself. He proposed, in this connection, the Ministers for Supplies [Sean Lemass] and Co-ordination of Defensive Measures [Frank Aitken]. This was agreed to.

The cabinet minute of this meeting reads:

COMMUNICATION FROM THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT

The Taoiseach informed the government of the contents of a communication which had been conveyed to him on the 26th June, 1940, by an envoy of the British government. It was agreed that the proposals contained in the communication were not acceptable and that the view of the government thereon should be communicated to the envoy by the Taoiseach, accompanied by the Minister for Supplies and the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures.

The projected lunch between MacDonald, de Valera, Aitken and Lemass was held later that day. According to MacDonald’s report on the meeting while Aitken ‘was extremely rigid in his opposition to our plan’, Lemass ‘seemed far more prepared to discuss our plan in a reasonable way, and to see whether there was any means of reaching some agreement which was mutually satisfactory’. Lemass was particularly interested in the possibility that, according to MacDonald, Éire could remain neutral and non-belligerent providing Britain was granted port and military base facilities with a view to joint defence of the country against German invasion.
In response to the objections raised by de Valera, Aitken and Lemass at this meetings the British amended their proposals on 29 June. On that day Neville Chamberlain—responsible for the British side of these negotiations—wrote to de Valera stating that clause (i) would now read (changes in italics):

A declaration to be made by the United Kingdom government forthwith accepting the principle of a United Ireland. This declaration would take the form of a solemn undertaking that the Union is to become at an early date an accomplished fact from which there shall be no turning back.

Clause (ii) was amended to:

A joint body, including representatives of the government of Éire and the government of Northern Ireland, to be set up at once to work out the constitutional and other practical details of the Union of Ireland. The United Kingdom government to give assistance towards the work of this body as might be desired, the purpose being to establish at as early a date as possible the whole machinery of government of the Union.

Clause (iv) was changed to:

The government of Éire to invite British naval vessels to have the use of ports in Éire, and British troops and aeroplanes to co-operate with the Éire forces and to be stationed in such positions in Éire as may be agreed between the two governments, for the purpose of increasing the security of Éire against the fate which has overcome neutral Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. [In this clause the main change is the deletion of the words ‘Éire to enter the war on the side of the United Kingdom and her allies forthwith’].

It seems that the amended British proposal was never considered by the Irish cabinet and on 4 July de Valera wrote to Chamberlain formally rejecting the plan, arguing that it ‘would commit us definitely to an immediate abandonment of our neutrality’ while giving ‘no guarantee that in the end we would have a united Ireland’. De Valera also reiterated his alternative plan for a united but neutral Ireland which would defend itself from attack and ‘would provide the surest guarantee against any part of our territory being used as a base for operations against Britain’.

Geoffrey Roberts is Statutory Lecturer in History at University College Cork.

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