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Extract: ‘If I were Mr de Valera, I would keep a watch on all ports, communications and wireless in his territory’

A confidential report on a meeting with Neville Chamberlain in 1940 shows the British Prime minister wanted to pass on advice to the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera about the threat of Germany.

Neville Chamberlain, British Conservative statesman and Prime Minister (1937-1940)
Neville Chamberlain, British Conservative statesman and Prime Minister (1937-1940)
Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

John W. Dulanty, the first Irish High Commissioner to the UK, visited Neville Chamberlain following his resignation on 10 May 1940, he forwarded this report to Joseph P. Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs of the Irish Free State.

Dulanty wrote:

AS I HAD made a courtesy call on Mr. Neville Chamberlain when he became Prime Minister three years ago I thought An Taoiseach would feel that it was fitting that I should make a similar call this afternoon on his leaving that Office.

He was in good spirits, apparently relieved more than depressed over the recent political crisis and its outcome, and certainly talked with unwonted freedom and candour.

Though but an incident in the war, Norway, he said, had been made the occasion for an outburst of discontent with the late Government on the part of the Opposition and certain newspapers. Some of the attacks had been made on him personally while others had taken the line that the blame was not so much on the Prime Minister himself as on those he had around him in the Cabinet. Though only a phase of a much bigger affair, Norway had proved a focus point and while people had said that if the time-table of the debate had been differently arranged – had Mr Churchill spoken earlier instead of winding up the discussion a proper perspective would have been secured – he (Mr Chamberlain) was clear that a new Government was essential.

Infiltrations of treachery in Norway could happen in Ireland

Mr Chamberlain referred to the infiltrations of treachery which the Germans had made in Norway. I mentioned that Dr. Koht, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, had said in a speech in London that whilst there had been a few instances of individual treachery he did not think that it had gone beyond that limited extent. Mr. Chamberlain said he had not seen Dr. Koht’s statement but they, the British, knew there had been infiltration on a scale that had surprised even the most careful observer of conditions in Norway. Camberlain said:

If I were Mr de Valera, I would keep the most meticulous watch on all the ports, communications, and wireless in his territory lest he wakes up one day and find the conditions of Norway repeated.

This was said by way of warning only and of course with no intention of influencing Mr. de Valera one way or the other, but after what he had seen abroad he was afraid almost anything might happen now in a neutral country. Two or three times in conversation to me he remarked that the attitude of neutrality had saved nobody. To Norway, to Belgium, and to Holland, they had offered advice and consultation, but so anxious were these people to preserve in the fullest sense their neutrality they had always refused – in fact what they had urged the British and the French Governments to do was to keep as far away from them as possible.

The Irish situation

Mr Chamberlain said that the change of Government in Westminster involved no change at all in their attitude towards Mr de Valera and his Government. Since he was talking with such candour I ventured the observation that although the present Prime Minister had shown an approach to the Irish question in his earlier years he had in more recent time taken a Diehard line.

Mr Chamberlain I thought looked doubtful of that suggestion. I referred therefore to Mr. Churchill’s speeches opposing the Statute of Westminster, aimed openly and avowedly against us, and how in Parliament in opposition to the general wish of the Conservative party he had insisted on a division. I mentioned next the vigour with which he had attacked the restoration to us of our own ports on the 1938 Agreement.

Mr Chamberlain said that he did not think there was any ground for apprehension. ‘I have tried’, he said, ‘to do everything I could to improve the relations of the two countries and I am glad to hear what you told me Mr de Valera had said at Galway on that subject. Mr Churchill has his own views which he is accustomed to state in rather strong terms but I think nevertheless there will not be any change in the attitude of this Government towards Éire. After all, I am a member of that Government and a fairly strong member, and I shall continue to do all I can to keep the two countries on the terms of good neighbours’. It was significant that he went so far as to speak of ‘keeping a check on Mr. Churchill’.

‘The Six County problem’

I reminded Mr Chamberlain of the Taoiseach’s attitude on the Six County problem all through the 1938 conversations, and in so fateful a time for all European peoples how tragic it was that the Border question should still be allowed to embitter the relations of two peoples who ought to be in amity with each other.

Mr Chamberlain said he knew how deeply Mr de Valera felt on this point, and he could have wished that after the 1938 Agreement it had been possible for him to have done something, even if it were only in the way of a beginning, towards a solution: but Mr de Valera no doubt for reasons sufficient to him had had to do things which had not helped him (Mr Chamberlain) towards a settlement. (This I think referred to our beginning of the Anti-Partition campaign when he was about to have private conversations with Lord Craigavon).

As long as we do not provoke Britain

About the sentiment of the Irish people he did not feel any serious doubt. He thought that the issue in Europe being what it was the Irish people could scarcely wish to see the Dictatorship school of political thought triumph. The British attitude towards us would remain unchanged provided we did nothing to provoke them. There was no such intention in our minds I said.

And I asked what he meant by provocation. He said he was not thinking of any particular example but anything which disturbed their people or which looked to them like assistance to the Germans might well have serious repercussions over here. I rejoined that ever since the war began Mr Eden had been perfectly satisfied as to the complete observance on our side of neutrality. To this Mr Chamberlain immediately assented. And I went on to say that the benevolence of our neutrality was also clear to those concerned in Britain.

Mr Chamberlain reverted to what he said about Norway and wished to make it clear that of course the Irish Government was perfectly free as to their course but he hoped I would not mind his repeating again that the attitude of neutrality had saved nobody.

He finished the conversation by asking me to give Mr de Valera his warm personal remembrances and his hope that, however this ghastly struggle developed, the ideals of democratic Government, common as he thought to our two peoples, would in the end triumph.

This report, taken from the sixth published volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) online, is a dark read, showing that the threat to the relatively new Irish state’s independence was imminent and over-powering in 1940. The series, produced by the Royal Irish Academy with support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and National Archives of Ireland, offers a unique insight into the outlook and mindset of diplomats and the Irish government during Ireland’s first international crisis as an independent nation. The volume is edited by Dr Michael Kennedy.

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About the author:

Michael Kennedy

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