Cumann Seandalaiochta agus Staire Phort Lairge

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Irish Foreign Policy was a central expression of National Independence from Britain between 1922 and 1948 by Jackie Sandford

   This essay will discuss how the foreign policy of the post-independence Irish Free State, 1922-1948, was defined by its relationship with its former imperial master, Great Britain. It shows how the pro treaty majority party, Cumann na nGaedheal, utilised its ‘freedom to provide freedom’ to augment Ireland’s dominion status through the conduit of the League of Nations and the Imperial Conferences of the Commonwealth. Subsequently, it addresses, post 1932, the more antagonistic policies of Eamonn de Valera and the Fianna Fail Government relating to the ‘economic war’, the 1937 Constitution, and the deletion of the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. It, also, demonstrates the near unanimous support of the Irish people during WW II for a policy of neutrality and not entering the war in support of Britain. Finally, it shows how the Inter-Party Government of1948, led by Fine Gael’s John A. Costello, declared a long aspired for Republic and the ramifications of that decision.

   Before addressing Post 1922 Irish Foreign Policy decisions it would be valid to look at past legacies which informed the tenets of post-independence Irish Foreign Policy. While Kennedy and Skelly claim that “the history of Ireland since 1916 is in many respects the history of Irish foreign policy”,[1] Fanning goes further back, contending that the tenets of Irish Foreign Policy (including neutrality) evolved prior to the creation of the Irish Free State as an autonomous polity within the British Commonwealth. The Irish tendency of canvassing the support of Britain’s of Britain’s international enemies, dates back to the nineteenth century and earlier. The primary reason for Irish antagonism was and is geographic. Ireland is a smaller and weaker offshore island behind a stronger and more powerful neighbour (See additional details).[2] As the twentieth century progressed, the traditional policy of Irish nationalism allying itself with Britain’s enemies, pragmatically moderated to one of neutrality, which was seen as a proclamation of Independence.

     The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 legislated for the creation of an Irish Free State, as a self- governing Dominion within the British Commonwealth, rather than the republic that was fought for since 1916 and before. Following a decision to accept the terms of the agreement, an incestuous Civil War ensued, ironically, on an objection to an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown rather than on the issue of partition which was later to become a corner stone of Irish Foreign Policy.

    Post-Independence Irish Foreign Policy was conducted, Tonra wrote, according to the narrative of the Irish Nation. Within this story, history was extensively defined in British terms. Thus, the new State’s initial foreign policy priorities focused on establishing the exact correlation between the embryonic Irish Free State and the British Empire.[3] From its foundation, the foreign policy of the Irish Free State was shaped to fit the requirements of this narrative, with, initially, a particular emphasis on undermining the perceived constitutional ambiguity relating to its assertions of independence. It was imperative that the Irish State should be enabled to distinguish itself from being viewed as an English dependency.[4]

      To this end, in order to promote assertions of independence and a separate national identity, Irish Foreign Policy focused on passports, flying own flag at sea and creating a diplomatic service. It was, also, a priority, due to the fractured essence of the State’s foundation which qualified the allegiance of a significant amount of citizens, to reinterpret its affinity to the British Crown and abolish constitutional equivocation to independence. In order to further the expression of independence from Britain, the policy was intent on validating the State’s legitimacy abroad. This, it contended, would assist domestic legitimacy if perceived to be a valued and energetic associate of the international community of nations. Finally, it intended to protect and vindicate the honour of the state. This would be achieved by defending the country and its people from external invasion. Furthermore, pertaining to the partition of the island, the policy committed to pursuing the unification of the national territory.[5]

    Anti-Treaty antagonists, who constituted a large minority of the population, considered the policy to be a false representation. Thus, External Affairs was undoubtedly the most significant governmental department of whose international position was disputed. Cumann na nGaedheal, which ruled for the first decade of the new state, maintained, as Michael Collins did, that the Treaty provided ‘freedom to achieve freedom’. It wanted to portray that the status of dominion need not deter a country from expressing its independence and that it was not inferior to Britain in matters of international affairs.[6]

    Gavan Duffy, the first Minister for External Affairs, did not trust England and he feared the Commonwealth, which was undoubtedly under the imprimatur of Westminster. His initial goal was membership of the League of Nations which he believed would provide Ireland with a platform to propagate her sovereign freedom.[7] On joining, President Cosgrave, in his inaugural speech at its Geneva Assembly, September 1923, emphasised that Ireland joined the League not as a Dominion but as ‘Soarstat Eireann...a fully self-governing state’[8].

    Shortly afterwards, the Irish Free State attended its first Imperial Conference, in late 1923. These Conferences were viewed, as ‘the chief buttress of imperial unity and the tangible expression of imperial co-operation’.[9] The Irish delegation made little contribution, other than urging support for the League’s values as a footing for Commonwealth collaboration in foreign policy. It was, however, a valuable reconnaissance which was put to good stead, as accomplishments in 1926 and 1929 testify.[10]

     The League was appreciated by the Free State: membership represented an assurance and a declaration of its independent nationhood. Geneva was a more neutral environment, not conducive to unwelcome Commonwealth influences, where the Irish could play a more independent role. Membership, also, provided an important sense of security for an Ireland so recently departed from British domination. However, there was another agenda: the Free State indicated a desire to catalogue the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an international agreement under Article 18 of the Covenant. The action was opposed by Britain who asserted that the Treaty was an inter se agreement within the Commonwealth. This action exemplified a declaration of independent Dominion action and an expectation that the Irish Free State envisaged recognition as a treaty-making state rather a mere supplementary of Great Britain. The Treaty was registered, by the League, on11 July 1924 to the annoyance of Britain.[11]

      This year also saw a further expansion of the state’s independent identity, with the appointment of a Minister Plenipotentiary to Washington, on this occasion with the approval of Britain. In addition to its own diplomats, the Irish claimed its own citizenship, its own passports and its own flag. However, Free State passports, first issued in April 1924, failed to include the words ‘British Subject’ as insisted by Britain and were not recognised by the Foreign Office depriving holders of security in areas without Free State representation.[12] There were problems relating to the flying of the Irish Tricolour at sea, which required a change in imperial shipping legislation to rectify. Despite vigorous engagement by the Free State at the 1926 Imperial Conference, it was not until 1929 that the concept of shared recognition of dominion merchant shipping was assented to, permitting Irish ships to fly the national flag.[13]

     However, perpetuating a vigorous Irish Nation Narrative demanded more than embassies, flags and passports – issues that only seemed exemplify the limited nature of Irish independence. In 1926 the Free State, despite opposition from Britain, put itself forward for election to the council of the League. While unsuccessful, they were happy with their resulting support.[14] They had to wait until 1930 to mount a successful campaign.

    1926, also, saw an Imperial Conference in London. The Irish delegation was ostensibly led by Minister for External Affairs Desmond Fitzgerald but its agenda was propagated by the more forceful Minister for Justice Kevin O Higgins. The Free State was until now an uncharted entity on the world stage. Sensitive of their recent independence, mocked by opponents at home as a British subordinate, they highlighted anomalies and anachronisms of the colonial epoch which they believed undermined their sovereignty and sustained their antagonists. The British Government and its monarch continued to be embedded in the structure of the state.[15] The ambition was to achieve co-equality with Britain in matters of foreign affairs and to see ‘that these nations known as Dominions were full sovereign States, exercising the full rights of sovereign States in the world’.[16] The final Conference Report (Balfour Declaration) declared that Dominions are ‘equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs’.[17] However, in his conclusion, the Committee chairman was to differentiate between equality of ‘status’ and equality of ‘function’.[18] Thus, Britain was to retain supremacy in the sphere of diplomacy and defence.

    In August 1928, President Cosgrave signed the Treaty for the Renunciation of War. The significance of this agreement was that it was the first occasion that Dominions inscribed separately, their signature assenting only to their own area of jurisdiction. This restriction equally pertained to Great Britain.[19] The following year, the Irish Free State, became the solitary Dominion to sign without reservation, Article 36 - the ‘Optional Clause’ – of the Permanent Court of International Justice. This Clause compelled member states to tender their international disagreements to the obligatory jurisdiction of the Permanent Court, a prerequisite which the Commonwealth believed might run counter to inter se agreements between Dominions.[20]

    The Committee on the Operation of Dominion Legislation 1929 acknowledged what was already an accepted entitlement when it ‘declared and enacted that the Parliament of a Dominion has full power to make laws having extra-territorial operation’.[21] It, furthermore asserted that laws enacted by the Westminster Parliament may no longer be imposed on any Dominion, except at the request and sanction of that Dominion.[22] The Free State arrived at the 1930 Imperial Conference of1930 with an agenda: to legitimise the accomplishments of 1929, to formally document the progress of ten years, and to absolve previous dissentions through a cooperative constitutional agreement. There were also some additional items outside of the O.D.L. Report that they wished to address, including the Appeal to the Judicial Committee and the Oath of Allegiance. While the Irish did not succeed in removing all anomalies, they hoped these may be addressed during the period of time before the Statute would become law and, thus, recommended the 1930 Conference Report.[23]

     The year 1931 concluded with the proclamation of the Statute of Westminster, a Bill affording statuary provision to an epoch of Commonwealth evolvement; the previous decade of which had been characterised by appreciable Irish effort. The Irish Free State had been unstinting in its determination to deter the British Government from having an input in the statutory business of the Dominions and had contributed generously to the development of the Statute from 1926 onwards. The Irish, further, hoped that the last vestiges of official involvement would be erased prior to the enacting of the legislation. This, however, did not materialise. The Cumann na nGaedheal Government advised the British, to no avail, that the removal of the Oath of Allegiance was a significant political topic in Ireland and failure to remove it would lead to the election of Eamonn De Valera and a Fianna Fail Government. The Oath was not deleted and the forecast was validated.[24]

   Within days of coming to power De Valera brought forward a Bill to abolish the Oath of Allegiance, in addition to deleting the passage in the 1922 Constitution which specified that any requirement of the constitution incompatible with the Treaty was invalid. He also contested a number of significant remittances to Britain, leading to, what was termed, a six year ‘economic war’. The word ‘economic’ may be a misnomer because the dispute also pertained to political, constitutional and defence concerns.[25] The new government demanded the retention of land annuity payments, elimination of the office of Governor General, deletion of the entitlement of judicial appeal to the Privy Council and the restoration of the ‘supposed’ Treaty-Ports from British military governance.[26]

   However, significant constitutional difficulties remained unanswered prior to the drafting of a new constitution in the spring of 1935. The synopsis of the document conferred the sovereignty of the state exclusively in the Irish people, without recognition of the Anglo-Irish Treaty or the state’s dominion status. The state was only to be associated with the Commonwealth through international relations, referenced by a component of standard legislation. This was to result in the adoption of De Valera’s long-championed concept of ‘external association’ which he had originally proposed in preference to the 1921 Treaty.[27] The new constitution was approved by referendum in July 1937 and was enacted into law by the close of the year. Some months later the six-year disagreement concluded allowing Ireland and Britain to sign a new Anglo-Irish treaty. The economic disagreement was resolved and the 1921 Treaty ports were restored unconditionally, paving the way for the adoption of Irish neutrality the following year. Unfortunately, for De Valera, there was no satisfactory outcome pertaining to partition.[28] Surprisingly, Ireland did not formally declare a Republic. Holding back, De Valera believed, retained an important political connection to Northern Ireland.

    From the time Fianna Fail first entered the Dail in 1927 De Valera championed a policy of neutrality, when he stated ‘that if there were to be another Imperial is the wish of the Irish people to be neutral in that war’.[29] This policy was further buttressed consequent to the failure of the League of Nations, when he opined that henceforth neutrality was the most judicious policy for small states.[30]

       The handing back of the Treaty-Ports was the prerequisite to Irish neutrality. The result of that arrangement, according to de Valera, was to transfer to the Irish State overall administration of these safeguards, and thus and acknowledge and institute Irish sovereignty over the twenty six counties and its territorial waters.[31] De Valera prioritised the pre-eminence of sovereignty over neutrality, as his principal political ambition. This was accounted for by the fact that a dedication to the latter was effectively a by-product of a preoccupation with the former.[32] Thus, F.S.L. Lyons contended that Irish neutrality during World War 11 ‘was the outward and visible sign of absolute sovereignty’.[33]

    Ireland’s neutrality as practiced during this period had the overwhelming support of the Irish people and mirrored a virtual complete lack of public support for participation in the war. The only political figure to propagate Irish involvement was James Dillon T.D. and he only appeared above the parapet after the United States’ enforced involvement.[34]

     Garret Fitzgerald, whose writings generally indicate a personal predilection for Irish collaboration with the Allies, enumerated the reasons for Ireland’s neutrality. Firstly, it was an assertion of sovereignty. Secondly, there was a dread of participation in the hostilities, particularly bombardment from the air. Thirdly, and probably most pertinent, was a fear that involvement on the side of the Allies, (essentially Britain) only sixteen years after the end of an incestuous civil war fought on the Anglo-Irish Treaty may lead to the reigniting of domestic unrest.[35] There was another reason, as enunciated by the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe in1941: ‘Small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume the role of defenders of just causes except their own’.[36]

      Fianna Fail’s Post War policy did not deliberately embrace isolationism. In 1946 Ireland applied for membership of the United Nations, only to have its application vetoed by the Soviet Union. Soviet justification pointed to the lack of a diplomatic relations with the USSR, in addition to Irish wartime neutrality, although a more convincing explanation was probably that Ireland was seen as pro-American. Consequent to the failed attempt to join the UN (in addition to a later decision not to participate in NATO) Irish foreign policy returned to the conventional issues of Anglo-Irish relations and partition.[37]

    After sixteen years in power, the Fianna Fail government fell in February 1948. The new inter-party administration, led by Fine Gael, propagated a sustained campaign against partition. De Valera freed from the trappings of office, visited Britain, the United States and Australia emphasising the immorality of partition. The newly elected inter-party government, determined not to be outdone initiated its own international anti-partition campaign.[38] Taoiseach John A. Costello promised to impact on Britain’s ‘pride, prestige and pocket’ until the demise of partition.[39] Costello was not a proponent of the ambiguity in the External Relations Act. While visiting Canada in September of that year, to the amazement of his hosts, Costello declared that the External Relations Act would be repealed and, additionally, that Ireland would be exiting the Commonwealth. In November, he introduced the Republic of Ireland Bill in the Dail, featuring a reciprocal agreement with Britain and the Commonwealth for citizenship and trade functions.[40] According to the 1948 British Nationality Act, citizens of the new Republic were not declared aliens and maintained residential and voting entitlements.

      However there were other repercussions, on May of the following year Britain issued its own Ireland Bill, which affirmed that Northern Ireland (or any part thereof) would never exit the United Kingdom without the imprimatur of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, thus, relocating the prohibition on Irish unity from Westminster to Belfast.

    In conclusion, this essay has shown how Irish Policy was a central expression of national Independence from Britain. Subsequent to the passing of the Treaty, the Cosgrave administration laboured, through the conduit of the League of Nations and successive Imperial Conferences, to expand Ireland’s independence. With the election of Fianna Fail in 1932 the same narrative continued but in a more antagonistic manner, leading to the Irish Nationality Bill 1935, the External Relations Bill 1936 and the ratification of a new Constitution by the Irish people in 1937. Neutrality in World War II, supported by the vast majority of all political persuasions, further emphasised Ireland’s independence from Britain. Following the defeat of Fianna Fail in the General Election of 1948, the Fine Gael led Inter-Party Government under Costello declared a Republic and removed Ireland from the Commonwealth, ironically, fortifying partition.



[1] Michael Kennedy and Skelly, Joseph Morrison, “The Study of Irish Foreign Policy from Independence to Internationalism, in M. Kennedy and J.M. Skelly  Irish Foreign Policy 1919-1966: From Independence to Internationalism, (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000) p. 13

[2] Ronan Fanning, Irish Neutrality: A Historical Review, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1982) p. 27

[3] Ben Torna.  Global Citizen and the European Republic. (Manchester 2006) P.16

[4] Ibid. p.22

[5] Ibid. p. 22

[6] Conor Cruise O’ Brien, ‘Ireland in International Affairs’, in Owen Dudley Edwards (ed) Conor Cruise O’ Brien introduces Ireland  (London 1969) p.106

[7] D. W.Harkness, The Restless Dominion, (Gill & Macmillan Dublin  1969) p.31-32

[8] Constitution of Irish Free State, Article 2

[9] P.N.S. Mansergh, Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, 1931-9, p.34

[10] Harkness, The Restless Dominion, pp. 37, 55,


[11] Ibid. pp. 55-63.

[12] Ibid. pp. 55, 56, 70.

[13] Tonra, Global Citizen and European Republic, p. 23

[14] Telegram, Irish Free State Delegation to Department External Affairs, 17 September 1926 ‘recieved’ (Fitzgerald Papers.)

[15] Harkness, The Restless Dominion, p.86.

[16] Dail Eireann debates, XVI, col. 259. (Fitzgerald)

[17] Cmd. 2768, 1926: Imperial Conference, 1926.  Summary of Proceeding. P. 13

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harkness, Restless Dominion, pp. 140-141.

[20] Ibid. pp. 141-142.

[21] Cmd. 3479, 1929-30, Report of the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation  and Merchant Shipping  Legislation, 1922 p.17.

[22] Harkness, The Restless Dominion, p. 159.

[23] Ibid. pp.176, 228.

[24] Ibid. p 229-239.

[25] Deirdre McMahon, Ireland and the Empire-Commonwealth, p.156.

[26] Tonra, Global Citizen, and European Republic, p. 25.

[27] Ibid. p. 25-26.

[28] McMahon, Ireland and the Empire-Commonwealth, 1900-1948 in Judith M. Brown and W.R. Louis (eds) The Oxford History of the British Empire; Twentieth Century Vol. 4 (Oxford History of the British Empire S.) pp. 156-157.

[29] Dail Debates, XXVII, cols. 430-502: November 21 1928.

[30] Dail Debates, LXII, cols. 2649-2746: June 18 1936.

[31] Maurice Moynihan (ed.), Speeches and Statements of Eamonn de Valera 1917-73, (Dublin and New York 1980) p. 34

[32] Fanning, Irish Neutrality; p. 30.

[33] F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland since the Famine, (London, 1973 ed.) p. 554.

[34] Garret Fitzgerald. Irish Times, May 6 1995.

[35] Garret Fitzgerald. The Origins and Present Status of Irish ‘Neutrality’. Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 9 (1998) p.14

[36] Joseph Walshe to John Hearne, 1 January 1941, quoted in Keogh, Ireland and Europe 1919-1989, p.119

[37] John Coakley and Michael Gallagher, ed. Politics of the Republic of Ireland. (Routledge, London and New York, 2005) p.434

[38] Ibid. p. 29.

[39] Dail Debate, 115: 807

[40] Dail Debates, CXIII, cols.380-83. 24 Nov. 1948.


Primary Sources


  • Cmd. 2769, 1926: Imperial Conference 1926Summary of Proceedings
  • Cmd. 3479, 1929-30: Report of the Conference on the Opperation of Dominion Legistlation and Marine and Shipping Legistlation 1922.
  • Constitution of Irish Free State (Article 2)
  • Dail Debate, XVI, col. 259. (Fitzgerald)
  • Dail Debate, XXVII, cols. 430-502. November 21 1928. (de Valera)
  • Dail Debate, LXII, cols. 2649-2746. June 18 1936. (de Valera)
  • Dail Debate, 115: 807 (Costello)
  • Dail Debate, cols. 380-83. 24 November 1948 (Costello)
  • Garret Fitzgerald, Irish Times May 6 1995
  • Telegram, Irish Free State Delegation to Department of External Affairs, 17 September 1926, (Fitzgerald Papers)
  • Walshe, Joseph, to John Hearne, quoted in Keogh, Ireland and Europe 1919-1989. P.119


Secondary Sources 

  • Coakley, John and Michael Gallagher, (ed,) Politics of the Republic of Ireland, (Routledge, London and New York, 2005)
  • Fanning, Ronan, Irish Neutrality: A Historical Review, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1982) pp. 27-38.
  • Fitzgerald, Garret, The Origins and Present Status of Irish Neutrality, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 9, (1998) pp. 11-19.
  • Harkness, D.W. The Restless Dominion, (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 1969)
  • Kennedy, Michael and J.M. Skelly, The Study of Irish Foreign Policy from Independence to Internationalism, in M.Kennedt and J.M. Skelly, Irish Foreign Policy 1919-1966: From Independence to Internationalism. (Four Court Press, 2000)
  • Lyons, F.S.L. Ireland since the Famine. (London 1973)
  • Mansergh, P.N.S. Survey of Commonwealth            Affairs. 1931-39. (Oxford 1952)
  • McMahon, Deirdre, Ireland and the Empire Commonwealth 1900-1948, in Judith M. Brown and W.R. Louis (ed.) The Oxford History of the British Empire: Twentieth Century Vol. 4 (Oxford History of the British Empire S.) pp. 139-162.
  • Moynihan, Maurice.  Speeches and Statements of Eamonn de Valera 1917-73. (Dublin and New York 1980)
  • O’Brien, Conor Cruise, Ireland in International Affairs, in Owen Dudley Edwards (ed,) Conor Cruise O’Brien Introduces  Ireland, (London 1969) pp.104-134.
  • Tonra, Ben, Global Citizen and the European Republic, (Manchester 2006)
  • Tonra, Ben, et al (ed.) Irish Foreign Policy, (Gill and Macmillan 2012)

Friday, October 14, 2022

Upcoming Lecture : Private Creameries, a little-known aspect of County Waterford rural economy 1886-1937 by Proinnsias Breathnach


The popular perception of creameries in Ireland associates them with cooperatives. However, most of the early creameries were privately-owned, and as late as 1920, almost half of all of Munster’s creameries were still in private ownership. This was particularly the case in County Waterford where, of the 30 creameries established between 1886-1900, 28 were privately-owned. This illustrated lecture gives a detailed account of the initial waxing of the county’s private creameries and their subsequent decline, with the last private creamery closing in 1937. There are fascinating stories behind many of these creameries and the people involved, such as the remarkable Dungarvan-based entrepreneur Annie Sheehan. These stories will be a key focus of the presentation. Ultimately, the late-arriving cooperatives came to exert control over the industry, with a lot of state support, bringing an end to this little-known facet of Waterford’s creamery history.

Proinnsias Breathnach is originally from Dungarvan, where his first paid summer job as a school student was in Dungarvan Co-op. He studied for his BA degree in Geography and Economics at University College Dublin, moved to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada for his MA and completed his PhD (on the diffusion of the cooperative creamery system in Ireland up to 1920) in what is now called Maynooth University. He began lecturing in Geography in Maynooth in 1972, and although now officially retired, remains attached to the university with emeritus status. His specialist field is economic geography, with a particular focus on the spatial aspects of economic development, especially industrial geography, foreign investment and regional development. He is currently working on a book on the historical geography of creameries in Ireland.

The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society, Ireland.
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