No. 68 NAI DFA Secretary's Files P12/14/1
LONDON, 22 May 1941
When I asked this morning for an interview with Mr. Churchill he saw me straight away in the Cabinet Room of the House of Commons (temporary building).
I told him that I came on the instructions of Mr. de Valera for the express purpose of acquainting him with the grave concern which the Irish Government felt at the revival of the idea of applying military conscription to Northern Ireland. I reminded him of the consideration which the British Government had given to this question in May 19391 and how they had decided to drop the clause in their Military Service Bill which extended conscription to Northern Ireland.
The Irish Government had no wish to impede the British. On the contrary their action had shewn consistently a full and generous measure of helpfulness. I detailed the various ways in which we had assisted them – noting in passing that their response to our efforts to meet them on food questions had not been encouraging. Nevertheless in other matters we had promptly given information for which they had asked, and, speaking for myself, I thought we had not only gone to the extreme limit of benevolent neutrality but had sometimes passed it.
In return for this we were presented with a problem of the gravest character because if they decided to impose conscription on Northern Ireland it would bring about a situation the end of which no one could foresee. It would surely be an outrage to seek to force the nationalists of the Six Counties to fight for a freedom they had never known. Impartial English investigators had stated in unequivocal terms their conclusion that the nationalist minority were denied the fundamental rights of citizenship. Owing to the highly partisan selectivity of supporters of the Six County Government to fill the ranks of the Home Guard, the B. Specials, and the A.R.P. organisation, the comparatively small number available as conscripts would be men of the nationalist minority and Mr. Churchill could be assured that most of these would go to prison rather than obey the order of a Parliament which in their view has no right over them.
Evidence of the feeling in Ireland could be seen in the statement issued by Cardinal MacRory together with the Northern Bishops and also the statement of the Northern Labour party.2
Speaking for myself only, I inquired whether if the recruitment of the Six Counties were being impeded by fear on the part of men of unemployment after the war that difficulty could not be met by giving them, as volunteers, the guarantee of reinstatement after the war which the British Government were giving to the conscript.
Mr. Churchill said that he would of course bear in mind the Irish Government's view of this question which was still under consideration.
We could not expect him to be impressed by the likelihood of a disturbance in the North of Ireland. There were disturbances of a graver character all over Europe. We must remember that Éire was not the only place where self-government obtained and its leaders were not the only men of strong will and purpose. If the democratic Government of Northern Ireland asked the British Government to impose conscription he did not see how they could refuse. Membership of the Home Guard and the other organisations would afford no ground for exemption. Further, nothing would be placed in the way of the members of the minority of the Six Counties wishing to cross the Border into Éire. 'If' he said, 'they want to run away we will put no obstacle in their path'. I retorted with some heat that we had not anywhere shewn a disposition to run away, least of all when in his own day our small forces had fought the might of the British.
Mr. Churchill instantly agreed that in the past we had never run away. He spoke vehemently about our fame all over the world for valour – we were 'one of the world's finest fighting races' – and how lamentable it was that we had put ourselves out of the world fight for freedom through the ignoble fear of being bombed. He had always shewn a warm friendship for Ireland. He was conscious of what Ireland had suffered in the past but it was heartbreaking to him to see us with our glorious record standing aside from this life and death fight for freedom. He had always been in favour of a united Ireland. He was still in favour of it. What chance was there now when their friends in the North of Ireland were fighting with them and we were standing aside? He was afraid we were perpetuating Partition.
It must be remembered that feeling in Britain was strongly against us and that particularly on the part of those English people who in the past had fought for Ireland. He had been restrained about our attitude. But he had only to broadcast for ten minutes and we would see the reaction in Britain.
'You should tell your Government that we are fighting for our lives, and owing to the imprudence of Mr. Chamberlain we are denied the use of the ports which were given to you'. I enquired whether 'given' was the correct expression, when in fact they were merely restoring to us what was our own. To this he made no answer but referred again to his support of our cause in the British Parliament, how he and others had taken a great risk in securing the passage of a Treaty only to find it later so unjustifiably repudiated.
In my conversation with Lord Cranborne I had referred to the effect of American opinion on so catastrophic a proposal as we were now discussing. Mr. Churchill referred to this and said they were fully informed about America. They knew the great American public were behind the American Government in supporting this fight the British were making against aggression. As his tone rather implied that we did not know America I remarked that Mr. de Valera knew and was well known in America and that we had of course our own sources of intelligence. 'I daresay Mr. de Valera has' Mr. Churchill answered 'and I have no doubt that he will do us as much harm as he can'. I pointed again to the help we had been giving, to Mr. de Valera's statement long before the war that we would never allow our territory to be used as a base of attack on Britain and to the increasing feeling of sympathy for the British in their difficulties which was growing amongst our people for the first time certainly in my own recollection of the last thirty years.
Mr. Churchill said that we were keeping out of the war because we thought the British would lose. They would not lose. It would be a long fight but they would win. 'You talk of your Government's wish that our relations should be those of good neighbours. How does that fit with the present position?' I reminded him how we had tried time and time again to buy munitions, particularly for air defence but the British had given us scant help. The war had shewn the tragedy of their own lack of arms he said but added 'If you came in we would share and share alike'.
'Do I understand you to say that if we proceed with conscription in Northern Ireland such assistance as you have been giving us will stop?' I said I was not authorised to say that and if Lord Cranborne had so reported it was due to a misunderstanding on his part. Mr. Churchill said 'Although I cannot give you arms when we and our allies are still desperately short of them I have decided to agree to your having certain aeroplanes,3 but that would need to be reconsidered if you should stop any help you are giving us'. I said that there was no change in our attitude. (Lord Cranborne told me later that in his note to Mr. Churchill setting out our representations he had said that he thought I gave 'a gentle hint'. He had since told Mr. Churchill that this was incorrect).
The members of the Cabinet were kept waiting over twenty minutes for their daily meeting until the finish of this interview which ended on the British Prime Minister 's saying he would inform his colleagues of the view of the Irish Government.
[signed] J. W. DULANTY
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