No. 94 NAI DFA 11/3B

Letter from Seán Lester to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin) (S. 9/4/Conf. 50)

Geneva, 25 July 1932

Disarmament Conference

The Disarmament Conference adjourned on Saturday the 23rd instant, to a date not later than the 19th January. The General Commission sat until late on Friday night, in an effort to pass the draft resolution. After my first abstention, I consistently voted 'yes' for the various paragraphs, the number of abstentions being very small and dictated by very particular national policies as, for example, the case of Italy. There were nearly always a few against. The details of the voting appear in the Journal of the Conference and in the records. It was mostly by show of hands.

On the evening of the 22nd the General Commission proceeded to vote on the resolution as a whole. A large number of delegations made declarations explaining their votes. In nearly every case, it was to the effect that the resolution did not do all that was wanted by the Conference, but that it was the record of the end of a stage and that, in fact, it showed considerable progress. The German delegate voted against the resolution and read a declaration with reference to the principle of equality of right as between nations. This refers, as you understand, to the Treaty of Versailles. Germany, he said, must have the principle of equality established, but the method of application of that principle could be immediately discussed between the governments concerned. The German delegation would not take further part in the Conference unless the principle were established. The elections for the Reichstag are approaching and the political situation in Germany made a strong declaration essential from the point of view of the German Government. This principle had been discussed between the British and the French and I understood that the British and Italians were prepared to acknowledge the principle and press France to accept on the condition that it would be accompanied by a formal undertaking that the German Government would itself apply the restrictions laid down in the Versailles Treaty. Sir John Simon's statement, a little later, seemed to prove that this was so. Ambassador Nadolny1 remarked to me, later, that he thought and hoped his Government's attitude would have a good effect on the Conference when it resumed.

The speech of M. Herriot was not, when one came to examine it, very promising, but as it was the first time he had spoken at the League since 1924, he got an excellent reception. I had put my name down to speak but it was towards the end of a very long list and when it approached 8 o'clock, with a number of minor delegations rushing through short statements, I withdrew my name. I found, however, that the debate did not quite finish that night, and on its resumption the following morning, I asked the Secretariat to re-insert my name on the list. I had in mind a declaration associating Ireland with the other small States accepting the resolution as the best that could be got and as only an intermediate stage, and pointing out that disarmament must be preceded by agreement between the great and heavily armed powers upon whom the responsibility for the success of the Conference rested. A hitch occurred, owing to a misunderstanding of my message; my name was not called and the President was on his feet delivering his final address before the last formal vote was taken. Mr. Henderson said most of the things I had in mind to say and declared that if he were on the floor instead of in the chair, he would for the reasons stated vote for the resolution. It was a definite undertaking in which the great powers were primarily involved and if he felt there was any likelihood of that undertaking not being fulfilled, he would beg to be excused from returning to Geneva and spending another six months in the second stage of the Conference. The vote then proceeded by roll call, amid a good deal of excitement. Several delegations made explanations of their vote when called upon.

When the Saorstát was called, I rose and answered in favour of the resolution 'but only in the sense of the declaration of President Henderson'. Applause, mingled with laughter, lasted a minute or two. Gibson, the American Ambassador, shouted over to me: 'Now, you have tied him up. The first Italian delegate, General Balbo, Minister for Air, who is a somewhat excitable young man, half rose in his seat and shouted: 'très bien'. He had asked me a few minutes before whether I would vote for, against or abstain and had spoken of his Irish friends, Captain Saul2 and Fitzmaurice.3 He seemed a little disappointed when I told him I would vote ?for'; but my method of voting 'for' seemed to have given him most intense satisfaction. The vote proceeded to its close and for some time afterwards a number of delegates seemed to be waiting to catch my eye to nod their approval. Everyone was in a hurry to get away and naturally pre-occupied after the meeting, but seven or eight stopped me as I was passing through the lobby, using expressions such as 'un grand success', and (from intimate friends) 'quell esprite!' and 'the shortest and most effective speech of the day; and 'I see you favour the resolution if it means business. I think it was distinctly successful in showing that Ireland ranked herself amongst the small independent States sincerely anxious to reduce the great armaments of the world. I think the Minister would not disapprove of any single statement expressed by Mr. Henderson as President, save perhaps the suggestion that one might be excused in any circumstances from the experience of another six months as strenuous and difficult as the period now expired.

Reviewing our part in the Conference, I have to point out that it was extremely small. No delegation could have been weaker in number, as I was, after Mr. Hearne's departure, the solitary delegate, having at the same time, many other duties to perform, the normal work of the office, participation in the Council, Special Assembly, Committee of 19, scores of British Commonwealth meetings, dozens of formal lunches and dinners, and other matters. No experts and no instructions based on the views of experts. My task was to maintain in these difficult circumstances our prestige in the League, to watch the British and others lest anything should be done affecting our independent status, to follow the work of five or six committees so as to be able to discuss and vote intelligently. This involved continuous effort to disguise the weakness of our delegation and, at times, the exercise of a good deal of ingenuity. I believe I can report that, in spite of the difficulties which circumstances at home made inevitable, our position has not at least been very seriously worsened. On the other hand, it is not what it might have been had the Government been able to send me additional assistance.

[signed] Seán Lester

1 Rudolf Nadolny, leader of the German delegation to the Disarmament Conference.

2 Captain J.P. 'Paddy' Saul (1894-1968), served in the merchant navy to 1914, the Royal Engineers (1914-18), returned to Ireland to develop a private aviation business. Founder member of the Irish Aero Club (1929); crew member of the east to west transatlantic flight of the 'Southern Cross' (June 1930); chief of air traffic services, Department of Industry and Commerce (1950-59).

3 Colonel James Fitzmaurice (1898-1965), British Army (1914-17), Royal Flying Corps (1918-21), Irish Army Air Corps (1922-1929), Officer Commanding, Irish Army Air Corps (1925-29). In April 1928 Fitzmaurice, with Captain Köhl and Baron von Heunfeld made the first east to west Transatlantic crossing by aircraft.

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