No. 90 NAI DFA Secretary's Files P70
OTTAWA, 5 June 1941
I have the honour to refer to my report No. 14/126 of the 4th June.1 The report continues as follows.
On Tuesday the 27th May Mr. King's private secretary called to inform me that Mr. King would be glad to see me at Laurier House at 8.30 o'clock that evening. The hour was later changed to 9.30 p.m. as the Prime Minister was preparing a radio address and would not complete it by 8.30 o'clock.
The Prime Minister was unfeignedly happy. He bustled me into the study, and when we were seated, he at once put his hand into his breast pocket and drew out a folded document. Very slowly, he opened it and, before passing it to me, said: 'I thought you would like to know what I had done in connection with the conscription proposal. I was most anxious to see you before the day passed so that you would know as soon as possible. On Sunday morning I sent this telegram to Churchill. I knew that the British War Cabinet were to con- sider the conscription proposal sometime that day'. He then passed me a Department of External Affairs copy of his cable to Mr. Churchill. I read it through. When I had read it, I thought it right to express myself at once as follows: 'Mr. Prime Minister, I am sure it would be Mr. de Valera's wish and that of all the members of the Irish Government that I should at once express to you their gratitude and the gratitude of our people for your intervention in the grave crisis of the past few days which has now, we hope, passed. I have no doubt that your cable made a tremendous difference. It may have made all the difference'. (I felt it was right to be generous in my expression of thanks even at the risk of exaggerating the influence the message might have had in London. My own view upon hearing the tone of the B.B.C.'s short wave account of the Taoiseach's speech2 – for North American consumption – a few days previously and upon reading the New York Times on Sunday morning the 25th May, was that conscription was even then being dropped). Mr. King was quite moved by the warmth of my language. He said: 'I hoped it would be a help'.
The terms of the telegram do not, of course, touch the immediate issues involved in the threat to enforce conscription in Northern Ireland. Mr. King, however, would have created new difficulties for himself with the British Government – he already has many – if he came out as a champion at the present time of the rights of what is here so frequently called 'Southern Ireland'. Besides, he appeared to be most anxious to give his message the character of a spontaneous intervention on his part, and his best line for that purpose was obviously to emphasise the North American aspects of the conscription proposal. All Canada was then expecting more from Mr. Roosevelt's fireside-chat of the 27th May than, when it was over, it could be held to contain. But Mr. King was in any event on safe ground in drawing attention to the possible consequences of the enforcement of conscription in Northern Ireland on Irish opinion in the United States.
He put that aspect of the situation first in his cable, and placed the Canadian aspect second. He had an obvious point in so doing: but the order did not much matter. The Canadian aspect of the affair was one of real importance to Mr. King's Government and he must have been glad to have been given the opportunity of asking Mr. Churchill to consider the effect of an acute Irish crisis (on the issue) on Canadian national unity and on the new recruiting campaign in Canada. That campaign, launched over three weeks ago, with tremendous publicity and pressure, has so far (5th June) not been a success: less than four recruits a day – three and a fraction – are volunteering in the City of Ottawa.
On the whole, I think it is just and fair to say that the Prime Minister did as much as ever he could for us in all the circumstances. It was our good fortune that a message from him to Churchill in the sense of his telegram suited his own political book admirably at the particular moment: but that does not take from the main fact that Mr. King seems to have rendered us a genuine service.
The Prime Minister did not wish me to cable you an exact copy of his telegram. He said I should summarize it for you.3 He did not want a copy to go out of his hands at all, as he said 'You never know how things get about. I don't want it to get back to Churchill'. He had a copy of the body of the telegram struck off with the cable markings omitted. He gave me that but said I should not send even it by cable; I might, he said, send an exact paraphrase. (I now enclose a copy of the text which Mr. King gave me). I assured him that I would cable you only a paraphrase for the Taoiseach's own information exclusively. I added that there was not the least likelihood of your not abiding by his clear wishes that nothing would get back through us to London, and that even if he had expressed no such wish that would be the position.
When we had finished speaking about the telegram, Mr. King said: 'What do they think in Dublin about the war situation?' I said that I had no information from Dublin on that question, that is on the question as to what the Government thought would happen. The news of course, I said, was uniformly bad from the Allies' point of view. 'Well', he said 'here is what is going to happen as I see it. We will lose Crete and Syria and Iraq. We will be driven out of the Eastern Mediterranean. Then the Germans will turn to the invasion of Great Britain and Ireland. Now suppose that is the prospect and suppose that within a short time after tonight's broadcast by the President the United States goes into the war what do you think is the likelihood of Ireland giving bases to American ships and planes: American, mind you, not British. Suppose Irish unity were established at once, wouldn't that make the difference? My goodness, there is not the least chance of the British wanting to persecute or dominate any other country again: they have got their lesson, egad, they have, and what a lesson! What do you think? After all, Churchill has gone against the men who support him, his own strongest Party men, on the conscription business. He has made a gesture. Is this a time, I wonder, for something big and generous and spontaneous by your people? You know my views about right and wrong. I would rather do the right thing no matter what the cost to me politically or personally'. And so the Prime Minister went on watching carefully the impression he was making upon me.
I was disappointed that Mr. King should have thus sought to cash in at once on his good offices to us. But I showed no sign of it. Mr. King's eagerness is perhaps best explained by his sense of the desperateness of the war situation.
'You know, Sir', I began, 'how fully your view that a statesman should do the right thing by his people as he sees it, in all the circumstances, would be shared by Mr. de Valera. He has never hesitated to stand, even against over- whelming odds, for what he believed to be the right course. The course he and his Government chose in September 1939 was the right course in the national interest as they saw it and as they see it today. But that was not an instance of holding on to a view that they believe to be right against a body of opinion, to the contrary. They had the support of the whole country. You mentioned the importance of Canadian national unity in your message to Mr. Churchill. No policy on any public question in Ireland in our time has so completely united our people as the policy of the Government with regard to the attitude to be maintained towards the war. If Mr. de Valera sought to change the policy now he would smash up his Cabinet and his party, and he would plunge the country into chaos'.
I then referred to Mr. King's suggestion that the bases might be given, not to Britain, but to the United States. I said that there was a widespread misconception that Mr. de Valera's attitude was inspired by anti-British sentiment. I greatly surprised the Prime Minister when I said in this connection: 'An official in a foreign office who works in close contact with his Minister, who travels with him in trains and on ships and stays with him at hotels gets a fairly good idea of the Minister 's outlook on things generally. If it happens that the work is concerned over a long period with relations with a particular country the official gathers impressions of his Minister 's general attitude to that country. During eight years of close day in and day out work with Mr. de Valera on acute Anglo-Irish problems I never once heard him utter an anti-British sentiment'. This appeared to impress Mr. King greatly. I then went on to repeat the point that from our standpoint the refusal to give bases to the United States was based on the same ground as our refusal to give bases to Great Britain. In either case we would have to give up the settled policy of neutrality. No Irish statesman could convince our people that that would be right. The people would not follow him. If Mr. de Valera tried to do it he would be put out of office and out of public life and no alternative Government would repeat his mistake.
'But, the unity of Ireland, wouldn't that be something worth while, and preparation against a German attack? You know that these people will overrun Ireland the moment it suits them to do it, even though you have helped them?'
'We haven't helped Germany as much as we have Great Britain.'
'Oh, well, what I mean is that the very fact of your not being openly against them is a help to them. At least they don't have to use up man-power and resources to hold down Irish territory'.
'Let me put it to you this way, Sir. You rightly emphasise the passionate desire of our people for the restoration of the Northern Counties. To us that is worth every sacrifice we can legitimately make for it. But we must not sacrifice the Nation itself. That is the alternative presented to our leaders in the proposal to give air and naval facilities on our territory to any of the belligerent countries. What is an Irish Prime Minister to do? His cities are defenceless against air attack through no fault of his own or his Government's. He had for years sought to purchase guns and other defence materials in England and the United States. Both these countries had steadily declined to facilitate these efforts. They persisted in that short-sighted policy based on a wrong attitude towards Ireland and her chosen leaders.'
Mr. King interrupted to say that the United States was unable to spare arms because of her defence programme.
I said: 'I speak of a time, Sir, before the defence programme in the United States. I speak of 1937 and 1938. And, you will recollect, that at that time Mr. de Valera had repeated again and again that he would not allow Ireland to be used as a basis for attack upon his friendly neighbour Great Britain with whom we had solved all our problems except that of partition. What more evidence of our intentions had these countries a right to expect of the Irish people? And why should we not have received facilities to put us in a position to defend that policy at our own financial expense? We wanted neither lease nor loan. And now we are blamed because we are not willing to bring destruction on ourselves by plunging the country into the war. We have no delusions. Let me suppose that it is part of the German plan to occupy Ireland. We shall resist them as best we can with every ounce of our strength. But what Government would take the responsibility of inviting the Germans to attack us and occupy our island? We may be invaded and destroyed: but we shall not commit suicide. The Government will not of its own initiative take any action the immediate result of which would be the mass murder of the remnant of the Irish Nation.'
Mr. Mackenzie King listened very courteously and sympathetically, – I must add patiently as well. 'My anxiety about Ireland' he said 'is that your position may not be misunderstood afterwards. Many people won't understand it, you know. And I would like to see Ireland at this stage – this may be the moment of your fortune and destiny – taking a stand on the right side. I couldn't appeal like this to every country: I can to yours because you are a generous big-hearted people. Well, let me see. You needn't put my request formally to Mr. de Valera. Just tell him I mentioned it to you in a personal conversation here in Laurier House. Put it like that'.
Mr. King then turned to a side table beside his chair and took up a small book which he handed to me. 'You know that' he said. It was Dr. Douglas Hyde's 'Songs of Connacht'. 'Read the inscription'. It was inscribed to Mr. King in President Hyde's own hand. Mr. King beamed with genuine pleasure. 'What a lovely little book', he said. 'Garland4 sent it to me. He told your President he was doing so and Dr. Hyde insisted on writing his good wishes to me. How very kind of him. But listen to this'. The Prime Minister adjusted his spectacles with great deliberation chuckling with glee. He found a page – after an absurd amount of trouble as the page had been carefully marked for the occasion – and read some verses. The sense of the verses was to the effect of the old adage that there is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at its flood, leads on to fortune. I do not remember the verses, or the reference to them, in the book (they had no resemblance except in meaning to the words of the adage just referred to). Mr. King exclaimed, as he snapped the book closed with one hand: 'That's the most apt quotation I know to describe Ireland's position today. Your own President'. We both laughed together, Mr. King no doubt at his own astuteness, and I – I hope he did not guess it – at the delightful irrelevance of the interlude.
The Prime Minister stood up and walked across the room to the fireplace. He took from the mantelpiece a small gold cup about the size of a teacup. It resembled the Ardagh Chalice,5 except that it had no handles; but the base was similar. 'Old English', he said, 'Massey6 picked it up somewhere in London and sent it to me. I brought it up from downstairs today to show it to you. Isn't it beautiful? You Irishmen appreciate these things. I knew you would like to see it. The design isn't as fascinating as the Ardagh Chalice design'. He made me examine it closely. It was hammered and not cut; very elegant. 'What was it used for Sir?' I asked. 'I don't know, it may have been just a drinking cup: how old is the Ardagh Chalice?' 'Late eighth century' I said 'it is much larger than this: I think the size and the handles may indicate that the faithful communicated in both kinds.' 'Did you say it was made of gold?' 'Not all gold, Sir, gold and silver and bronze, the bosses are enamelled and the spirals are beaded'.
Mr. King referred to the great civilization of the Irish monasteries and the monastic order. I said: 'You know, Sir, many of our people believe that the immediate future history and mission of Ireland will resemble that remote past to which you have referred. Men and women will have to go out into the streets and along the highways again, bare-footed, preaching the Gospel of Christ'. The Prime Minister said: 'Oh, I believe that. The Gospel will have to be preached again here in America also by plain simple men of great faith'. I followed this up by saying: 'Our people are praying that we will escape some of the consequences of the collapse of Europe as we escaped the consequences of the fall of the Roman Empire. If we do, it may be our destiny to play a great part in the regeneration of the continent when the time comes'. 'That certainly', said Mr. King 'is an arresting idea. Who knows? It may come to pass. The world has to be born again'. It was on that note that our conversation ended.
[signed] JOHN J. HEARNE
The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.
The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
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