Thursday 18 July 2019

James Downey: History teaches us value of leadership

James Downey

EVERY two years the Royal Irish Academy, in association with the National Archives, publishes another instalment in the series 'Documents on Irish Foreign Policy'. The story begins in 1919, and the latest volume, No 7, covers the period from January 16, 1941, to August 14, 1945, in other words most of World War Two.

The link between the dates may not be immediately apparent, but it is close -- and relevant to the present in more ways than one.

Even before independence, our leaders took the first steps towards devising our own foreign policy. Before the second world war broke out in 1939, they decided on a policy based on maintaining neutrality throughout the unavoidable conflict.

This was not a matter of principle, and Eamon de Valera, who dominates this volume, was not a neutralist. In the 1930s, he argued in vain for "collective security". In the confrontation between Britain and Germany, his sympathies lay with the British.

Neutrality was a highly practical policy -- always assuming that it could be maintained at all. We were almost defenceless. We could not have resisted a German invasion except with the help of the British. Something less than an invasion, namely an aerial blitz, would have harmed us more in relative terms than the actual blitz hurt Britain. In addition to the loss of life and physical devastation, our trade would have been ruined.

Secondly, it was an assertion of independence, 18 years after the Treaty (and only 16 years after the civil war).

But how could a small, desperately poor and weak country pull it off? Almost certainly it could not have been achieved while Britain still had naval bases -- always inaccurately called "the ports" -- on our territory. Probably only de Valera could have persuaded Neville Chamberlain to hand them over to us in 1938. And probably only de Valera could have resisted successfully when the British, in dire straits, demanded that we return them and threatened to take them by force if we refused. Handing them over would have grossly breached neutrality and made German retaliation certain.

The Long Fellow's reputation has taken a few knocks since his death, but these documents show what a towering figure he was. In the worst of times, he understood diplomacy. He understood administration. And he understood leadership. He united an overwhelming majority of the population behind him -- at a time when we faced internal enemies, in the form of the pro-Nazi IRA, as well as external threats.

Then, when it was all over, he raised the argument to a new height in reply to a vindictive speech by Winston Churchill. It was a superb piece of oratory which elevated the spirit of the people and brought special comfort to Irish diplomats abroad, especially in the United States where they had not had an easy time.

Most of us know only vaguely about this background. It emerges with great clarity in the documents now published. It does not always cast the participants in a favourable light.

De Valera (again, to his credit) picked superb officials to serve him. Among them were the Secretary of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe (Dev was his own foreign minister) and John Dulanty, High Commissioner in London. Dulanty enjoyed great respect in the British establishment, and had excellent access all the way up to Churchill himself. Walshe formed what the editors of this volume regard as an axis with the British representative in Dublin, Sir John Maffey.

At a slighter lower level, good relationships were cultivated with British officials and military men.

But relations with the United States were fraught. David Gray, the American envoy to Ireland, has been bitterly blamed, and the documents here show him as nasty, petty, and unwilling to learn.

He so provoked Walshe that the latter accused him of outright enmity to Ireland.

However, they also show more than a touch of naivety. Great powers do not conduct their affairs on a basis of sentimentality. President Franklin Roosevelt was not sentimental about Ireland or anything else. He fought for democracy and civilisation, but he fought in the first place for America and he was not -- could not be -- too scrupulous.

The Americans refused to supply us with arms, and denied us quite small favours like selling us a couple of cargo ships.

For current relevance, we have only to look at the terms imposed on us by that equivalent of a great power, the European Union, in return for the EU/IMF bailout. It would be foolish to ask, "What would de Valera have done?" in our present straits, just as it would be foolish to ask, "What would Patrick Pearse have done?" or, "What would Michael Collins have done?" in other contexts.

For one thing, the circumstances of the crisis simply could not have arisen. De Valera's preoccupations did not include cheap money and reckless lending.

But it is well to remember that the stakes in his time were far higher, and fair to ask whether any Irish politician of the present day could stand comparison with him. The answer is all too obvious.

He chose the right policies. He pursued them with tremendous skill, making all the necessary compromises but no more. He succeeded in the face of daunting odds.

Three years after the war, the voters threw him out of office. He came back, but the rest of his political career was, to say the least, undistinguished.

No matter. To read these papers is to make you reflect on the meaning of leadership. And to make you long for something that has been lost.

Irish Independent

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