No. 56 NAI DFA Secretary's Files P18
DUBLIN, 6 May 1941
1. The question of the protection of Irish registered ships was considered at a conference on the 8th April at which were present General MacMahon and Colonel Lawlor1 of the Department of Defence; Mr. Leydon of the Department of Supplies; Messrs. Flynn2 and Foster3and Captain Freyne4 of the Department of Industry and Commerce, and Messrs. Walshe, Rynne and Boland of the Department of External Affairs. The following paragraphs set out briefly the conclusions reached.
2. The arming of Irish vessels would be contrary to the interests of the country's neutrality. International law does not specifically prohibit a neutral from installing defensive armament on its merchant vessels, but it invests the use of such armament with serious legal consequences. For example, a neutral merchant vessel which opens fire on a belligerent aircraft or submarine, from which it apprehends an attack, commits an act of piracy if the gun and gun crew are provided by the owners of the vessel without official approval; and an act of war if the gun and gun crew are provided by the neutral government concerned and the vessel is acting under official instructions.
3. The arming of its merchant vessels is thus not a step which any neutral country desirous of preserving its neutrality would take. This has been the attitude of the principal neutrals both in the last and in the present war. When Germany declared the waters round about Britain a zone of unrestricted warfare in 1917, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Dutch shipping stayed in port, rather than resist the operation of the German blockade. So far as the information available goes, none of the principal neutrals in the present war have resorted to the defensive arming of their ships and, in fact, rather than face the issue the most important of them (e.g. the U.S.A., Japan, the Argentine, etc.) have taken the step, at considerable cost to themselves, of prohibiting their merchant ships from entering the blockaded area.
4. The crews of some Irish registered ships, particularly the deck officers, seem to be in favour of having defensive armament on their ships; but apart from the inclination to meet the wishes of the crews if possible, there does not appear to be a positive desire for the provision of defensive armament on the part of Irish ship owners.
5. The provision of defensive armament would lessen, but by no means obviate the risks and effects of the belligerent attacks. On the other hand, a general decision to allow Irish vessels to carry defensive armament would tend to increase the frequency of such incidents as have occurred and deprive Irish vessels of the qualified measure of immunity from attack which they at present enjoy.
6. Thus, if we were to decide to arm Irish ships, we should be acting contrary to the general practice of neutral states; we should be exposing our ships to attacks of greater frequency and intensity, and the situation which the increased frequency of such attacks would create would be a danger to our neutrality.
7. These considerations were felt by the conference to be conclusive against the arming of Irish vessels. If that view is accepted, the question of the practical difficulties which would be involved does not arise. It may be mentioned, however, that about 48 vessels would require to be armed and that the provision of the necessary armament and the training of the necessary crews would not be an easy matter.
8. It is important with a view to minimising the frequency of attacks on Irish ships that they should be marked in such a manner as to make their nationality and identity as conspicuous as possible. There is reason to believe that the existing markings on Irish ships are not satisfactory in this regard. It was decided that the marking of Irish ships should be made the subject of recommendations from the Department of Industry and Commerce to the shipping companies.
9. It is desirable whenever an attack takes place that authoritative and detailed information as to the circumstances of the attack should be available as quickly as possible. It was recommended that this question also should be made the subject of a circular from the Department of Industry and Commerce to the Irish shipping companies.
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