When Michael Heseltine launched a not-too-oblique attack on Irish neutrality in the course of a visit to Northern Ireland on 4 May, he was – presumably – unaware of the fact that he was reopening a book which both Churchill and de Valera had decided peaceably to close almost exactly thirty years ago. That at any rate would be the charitable explanation. Within hours of his remarks, the Dail had been adjourned in uproar, the Irish ambassador in London was being told to protest to Whitehall, and the front pages of the newspapers were awash with ancient quarrels.
Anyone interested in exploring this now apparently pivotal aspect of Anglo-Irish relations will find Robert Fisk’s book both absorbing and provocative. Subtitled ‘Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality’, it begins its main narrative in 1938, with a brief look back to 1921, when the British military authorities insisted on the retention of the so-called ‘Treaty Ports’ in what was to become, eventually, the Irish Republic, but was then known as the Irish Free State.
The nature of the British authorities’ interest in these ports – the ‘sentinels of the Western approaches’, as Churchill was to call them – is admirably documented by Mr Fisk. What is not quite so clear from his narrative is that they were only part of Britain’s strategic equation. The other part was Northern Ireland, as recently released British official papers make clear. British policy in the period immediately prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty was not conditioned solely by the intransigence of the Ulster Unionists: the Chiefs of Staff had made it clear that, from a defence point of view, creating a secure military bridgehead in Ulster was of vital importance. In 1932, when the question of the Treaty ports came up for review, it may well have been the existence of that bridgehead in the North-East which allowed the Chiefs of Staff to describe the ports as an ‘awkward commitment’. It was, as Fisk points out, the first time that the military had ever wavered in their defence of the territorial imperative. An opening was created for de Valera which enabled him to secure the return of the ports. Plainly, it would have been impossible for the Irish to maintain their neutrality during the war had the ports stayed in British hands. Less plainly, the surrender of the ports reinforced the importance, in strategic terms, of Northern Ireland remaining under effective British control.
Churchill, who had been curiously unemphatic about the ports in discussions with his government colleagues before 1921, was under no illusions in 1938. He had bitterly opposed their transfer, and resentment at Irish neutrality fuelled the sharp attack on de Valera in his victory broadcast at the war’s end. He believed passionately that this neutrality could, at one stage, have cost the Allies the war, and had no doubt that it prolonged it. He saw the maintenance of the policy by de Valera as little more than the personal foible of a twisted nationalist consciousness (he was backed up in this view by Maffy, his envoy in Dublin). It was not until 1953 that the two leaders finally met, in a reconciliation which was as low-key as their 1945 confrontation had been dramatic.
In actual fact, Ireland’s wartime neutrality was far from dogmatic. Part of what makes the story so fascinating is the way in which both the Irish people as a whole and their political leaders simultaneously maintained a range of political convictions which included a strong belief in neutrality as the best policy for the country; warmly pro-British sentiments; and a permanent sense of grievance (in relation to Northern Ireland) against the belligerent they favoured. As well as providing much detailed evidence for the broadly pro-British praxis of the Dublin government, Mr Fisk explodes the myth, in which Churchill was all too prepared to believe, that neutral Ireland was in a covert way aiding and abetting the German war effort, notably by supplying their submarines in the craggy and remote Western inlets. There was pro-German sentiment, it is true, but it was never more than marginal. It could be found among the IRA, who still believed that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. It was sometimes based on a mistaken class analysis of the conflict: in the words of one of Mr Fisk’s informants, ‘the Establishment people around here [Co. Kerry] did not want Hitler to win because they thought their own position in society would be reduced, but the poor were for a German victory.’ And the wilder shores of Irish Catholic fanaticism were also briefly in evidence, as when the Catholic Dublin Standard warned its readers against the dangers of an ‘Anglo-Bolshevik victory’.
A benevolent neutrality on Ireland’s part was not enough for Churchill; and Mr Fisk, broadly speaking, has come to the same conclusion. ‘Throughout the critical years of the war,’ he writes, ‘de Valera’s attention was dominated by defence and national self-sufficiency. He stayed aloof from one of the few wars in modern times that really did involve the victory or the suppression of an evil creed, but he did so by adopting the same criteria of self-interest that governed the actions of the belligerents.’ Political reality, however, is rarely susceptible to such simple judgments, and Mr Fisk has failed to give sufficient historical weight to some of the factors he exposes in truly staggering detail. Perhaps he has allowed hindsight too much play. We have to remember, for instance, that the very legitimacy of de Valera’s government was continually being questioned by the IRA, whose activities south of the border were a long-standing problem for his administration. Any deal with the British on neutrality which failed to deliver a united Ireland would instantly provide chapter and verse for their critique. The IRA, it is now clear, were less of a physical threat to Mr de Valera’s government than he may have thought at the time. But it is perhaps easy to underestimate, at a remove of almost half a century, the volatility of national sentiment in the context in which de Valera was making his decisions.
No political leader is ever unfettered, and a potent illustration of the constraints within which both de Valera and Churchill had to operate is provided, paradoxically, by the fate of the attempt to impose conscription in Northern Ireland. The British Government, wisely, backed away from this option once the political and strategic risks involved in forcing the issue had become clear. Frankly, it would have been as easy for de Valera to lead his part of Ireland into battle on the Allied side as it would have been for Churchill to send the press gangs up the Falls Road; and for a very similar set of reasons.
It is, incidentally, worth asking what would have happened had the Germans realised that the real weakness on Britain’s western flank was not the Irish Free State, which they courted intermittently and ineptly, but Northern Ireland itself. That weakness was evident both militarily, in the province’s woefully inadequate defences – the effect of the air raids on Belfast was devastating – and politically. A diversionary attack on Northern Ireland by Germany and the setting up in Belfast of a Quisling-type government headed by local Republicans could have embroiled the whole island in the war in an unpredictable way and posed an extraordinary threat to the integrity of the British mainland. Such a project was, Fisk reveals, canvassed in a desultory way from time to time in Berlin. If German interest in Northern Ireland had been greater, and their intelligence operations there more effective (they seem to have been almost non-existent), such an option might have assumed an altogether greater prominence in Axis strategy. The irony would have been inescapable: Northern Ireland, retained within the United Kingdom for strategic reasons, would have become the weakest link in its defences.
The problem about allocating blame in Anglo-Irish relations is that everything depends on one’s starting-point. Churchill plainly felt, as did many Northern Ireland Unionists, that de Valera’s policy was both morally and politically cowardly. If one’s analysis begins in 1938, this is a point of view which it is comparatively easy to sustain. It could equally be argued, however – and this argument underlay many of de Valera’s lengthy discussions with Maffy – that if the British had seized the Unionist nettle in 1920-1921 and given Free State status to the island as a whole, the united country would hardly have hesitated before joining the war on Britain’s side. As things turned out, by 1939 there was very little hope of mopping up the milk that had been spilt twenty years earlier. The Unionist veto on integration with the South in 1939 was a different and more rugged obstacle than it had been in 1920-21, buttressed as it now was by two decades of virtually unfettered self-government, by the political and bureaucratic entrenchment of a Unionist élite, and by growing social and economic divergences between the two parts of the country.
Churchill could not promise to deliver unity, as both he and de Valera knew. De Valera, however, could accept nothing less, and maintained throughout the war that for him to abandon neutrality in the circumstances offered by Churchill ‘would have divided our people’. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to believe that his political judgment was inaccurate in this respect. Whether the policy he based on this judgment was morally right is, of course, another question, and it is unlikely that there will ever be an agreed verdict on it. One view is that Mr de Valera was wrong not to take the risk. Another is that Churchill weighed the disadvantages of continuing Irish neutrality against the disadvantages of the turmoil that would erupt in Northern Ireland were he to insist on acceptance of de Valera’s conditions, and chose the former. Whichever point of view one takes, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this neutrality – the ‘precarious equilibrium’, as Frank Pakenham described it at the time – was a consequence not only of de Valera’s political situation but also of British imperial policy. I disagree with Mr Fisk’s verdict, but he is owed an immense debt for his skill and tenacity in outlining so many of the parameters within which these historic decisions were made. If the book has a fault, it is that it bears the mark of the reporter rather than that of the editor: the voluminous detail, while never less than fascinating, has inevitably added to the bulk of the book to such an extent that its price effectively puts it beyond the reach of many who would prefer to have it on their shelves at home rather than queue up for it in the local library.
Is Irish neutrality now the ‘serious and positive international policy’ which Fisk says it was under Mr de Valera? The answer can only be: yes and no. Each of the major political parties in the Republic officially endorses the de Valera view that neutrality is in a vague and unspecified way conditional, a praxis. If attacked by outsiders, however, it can on occasion assume the status of a principle. Fianna Fail went furthest in the exploration of the conditional aspect of neutrality during Mr Haughey’s first period as Taoiseach, when he met Mrs Thatcher for discussions on Anglo-Irish policy. In the wake of these discussions Mr Haughey and his aides did their utmost to convey that relationships between the two countries had been elevated to a new plane and that, in some hazy way, constitutional aspects of the Northern Ireland problem had been raised at the highest level. Reading between the lines, one could see that the electorate was being encouraged in the belief that the discussions involved the possibility of some kind of trade-off between Ireland’s traditional policy of neutrality and its even more traditional policy of reunification. However, Mr Heseltine’s recent remarks indicated that what had apparently been a bargaining counter three years ago was now being elevated to the status of a non-negotiable or fundamental aspect of policy, and the Irish Government’s protest indicated that they, too, supported this general hardening of the line.
It is probably more accurate to say that neutrality is still, for the two major parties, basically a conditional policy, whatever about the rhetoric, and that in the extremely unlikely event of Britain proposing unity in return for a defence pact of some kind neutrality could be dropped or substantially modified. It is not so clear that this view is widely shared by the smaller parties or by the Irish people as a whole. The controversy created by Mr Haughey’s kite-flying in 1980 was revealing. Its very intensity even suggested that if the inhabitants of the Republic were offered unity in return for an abandonment of neutrality, the majority would consider it a bad bargain. It is certainly true that nationalist sentiment and irredentist rhetoric in the Republic has been declining over the years. The continuing carnage in Northern Ireland has, if anything, reinforced a vague national suspicion that unity might not be the unalloyed blessing that it has always been supposed to be. Economic recession, too, has taken its toll of national aspirations. Given the need of most national populations for a symbolic centre of unity, it is possible that in the Republic the concept of neutrality is slowly replacing that old-fashioned nationalism which has for years provided the fibre in our national political diet. It is, in a sense, ‘cleaner’. It challenges traditional nationalism, but not too directly. It might even become for us what the monarchy is to Britain.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? To latterday cold warriors, it undoubtedly is. Even in a nuclear age, the prospect of a conventional war has not been ruled out, and in any such war the Republic would still be, for Nato’s leaders, the ‘vulnerable spot in our heel’, as the Guardian called it in 1939. But policy, happily, is not made only by generals. Across Europe, opposition to a third world war is taking many forms, from the modified pro-Nato stance of Denmark (yes to conventional forces, no to nuclear arms) to the diffuse but powerful message of the West German ‘Greens’. Sweden’s neutrality has never seriously been questioned, Austria exerts a powerful brokerage role in many international situations, and Greece’s long-term plans, while obscure, are hardly militarist. In this context, the continuing Irish policy of refusal to join military alliances, however tangled its origins and muddled its contemporary expression may be, should be seen less as a wilful or historically-conditioned piece of nonsense, and more as a legitimate part of a complicated international mosaic of attitudes and relationships. It might not survive in an effective way in a nuclear war, any more than the neutrality of Belgium and Holland was able to survive the onslaughts of a conventional war: and indeed one of the reasons for the survival of Irish neutrality throughout the last war was the decision by both the German and British High Commands that the operational cost of invading Ireland was too high. The important thing is that it survives, at least until there is a war.