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Sunday 13 July 2014

Struggles of the early Free State

Published 31/12/2000|00:11

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John A Murphy welcomes a book that testifies to government success in the 1920s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. 11,1923-1926 Edited by Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O'Halpin Royal Irish Academy: £30 SOME historians might regard the publication of a selection of source documents in book form as somewhat old fashioned in this day and age. After all, there is ready access nowadays to the rich documentary material released to scholars over the last 10 years or so under National Archives legislation. Indeed, that material has already stimulated a number of fresh studies on early independent Ireland.

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But not everybody, particularly those resident outside of Dublin, can afford to spend endless days poring over documents in the National Archives of Ireland in Bishop Street, idyllic though such an existence would be. Hence the project of publishing, under the joint auspices of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Irish Academy, a multi-volume series of documents in chronological order on Irish foreign policy with the objective of deepening our understanding of the development of that policy by early governments.

Most of the material in this 600-page volume comes from the records of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and of the Taoiseach. The eminence of the editors ensures that the documents selected here are representative and significant. Moreover, the reader of this volume, unlike the solitary researcher in the archives is given every hand-holding assistance by the editors. The texts are clearly and exactly reproduced, the identity of senders and recipients of unsigned letters have been established as far as possible, and there are explanatory footnotes throughout.

An informative introduction is followed by biographical notes of the key personalities appearing in the texts. In short, everything has been done to make this second volume in the series an authoritative source and reference work for those interested in the early years of the State, particularly in its foreign policy.

The background to the first volume was the dramatic and revolutionary course of events from the First Dail's Declaration of Independence in 1919 down to the Treaty split. With the present collection, we are in more sober, not to say sombre, territory with the new Irish Free State struggling to establish itself in the face of numerous difficulties foreign and domestic. @@STYL EL,2 @@STYL RCAP MANY of the letters and documents deal with the boundary question and with what turned out to be the debacle of the Boundary Commission which resulted in the personal discomfiture of Eoin MacNeill (the distinguished "scholar-revolutionary" who was the Irish Free State's representative on the Commission) and, more importantly, in the copperfastening of partition.

W. T. Cosgrave's impotence is evident in his dignified protest. "Our representative, an honourable man, has lost faith in the other members of the Commission and has felt himself in honour bound to dissociate himself from them. I am forced to the conclusion that they have allowed themselves to be swayed in the discharge of their official duty by the threats of political influences which have been brought to bear on them. Dr MacNeill left not because we were not getting all we asked for but because justice was not being done, because the rights of our people in the North that were enshrined in Article 12 of the Treaty were being shamefully flouted and their destinies being made the play thing of hostile prejudice." All the material on this episode makes fascinating reading.

IT WOULD BE be a mistake to think of the 1923-26 period as one of unrelieved post-Civil War depression and disenchantment. Those years had their own excitement for the inexperienced politicians and diplomats who strove to shape the international identity of the new State, whether in the British Commonwealth and the League of Nations or in bilateral relations, particularly with Britain and the USA. At the same time, they were pushing out the limits of the restrictions on sovereignty imposed by the Treaty, or if you like, they were successfully exploring the potential of Commonwealth status. Timothy Smiddy, Michael MacWhite, Joseph Walshe and Sean Murphy were pioneering Irish diplomats who were alert to developing events in the international scene which might be useful for Ireland.

Admittedly, not all "bread-and-butter" politicians at home were impressed by all this. Consider the attitude of Deputy Denis J Gorey who objected, during a Dail debate in November 1923, to the establishment of the Department of External Affairs. "We are concerned with no Foreign Affairs. We have no colonies and have no interests to clash with any other nation. I think it is ridiculous to be playing with theatricals like this ... the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be known as the Ministry for finding a job for somebody."

Yet there is a sense in which a state has no legitimacy until it is recognised and welcomed by the family of nations. That is what Irish foreign policy was about in @@STYL xleg those difficult and formative.

* John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of History at UCC.

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