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AFTER sixteen years of troubled life, the Irish Free State executed its own death warrant on December 29, 1937. Its successor, though it includes but twenty-six of the thirty-two Irish counties, is officially entitled "Eire, or in the English language, Ireland." According to Article 2 of the new constitution, "the national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas." Article 3 brings us back to earth by affirming that "pending the re-integration of the national territory" the laws of the Parliament of Eire shall extend only as far as did those of the Irish Free State. This casuistry epitomizes the Irish problem of today; for the leaders of the twenty-six counties, while perforce accepting the present reality of the partition of Ireland, will sacrifice none of their permanent ideal of a unified country. Moreover, to minds like Mr. de Valera's the unaccomplished ideal is far more important than the existing reality. Such facts as these largely explain the inability of Great Britain and Ireland hitherto to reach a lasting settlement; for the British temperament, by contrast, is always ready to accept a practical compromise, to forget the past and to let the future take care of itself.
The original proposal was to call the state simply "Eire." The Dail and the Irish public, however, reminded the Government that their national heroes had fought and died, not for Eire, but for Ireland, and that Ireland, not Eire, claimed the love of the scattered Irish people. This was a shrewd blow for political realism. The ideal of a "united Ireland" makes an appeal, not only to Irishmen wherever they may be, but even to Englishmen who would merely scoff at the notion of a "complete Eire." The political commentator, however, is threatened with perpetual confusion between the political Ireland of twenty-six counties and the physical Ireland of thirty-two. In this article, therefore, the name "Irish Free State" is generally used to denote the twenty-six-county state, whether before or after its change of title.
The Irish Free State was always a misfit in the British Commonwealth. It was a misfit, not because its creation was a bad compromise at the time, but because it represented an attempt to assimilate to the self-governing Dominions -- Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand -- a country that had scarcely anything in common with them beyond its newly created status. Ireland was a mother country of the Empire, a land of emigrants rather than immigrants. She had a history, not of gradual devolution from British control, but of gradual and enforced submission to that control followed by violent reaction against it. Her "Dominion status" was the result, not of the peaceful workingout of British principles of self-government, but of a "dictated" armistice. She was a predominantly Catholic country, finding special difficulties in her relations with a compulsorily Protestant monarchy. Moreover, she was and is a European country, physically unable to detach herself from the political and strategic problems of the Continent or of her greater neighbor.
The mingling of such unlikes in the general category of "Dominions" had a twofold effect. On the one hand, the development of Dominion status was accelerated and distorted by the pressure from the Irish Free State for forms of autonomy that other Dominions often did not particularly want. British opinion (as shown, for instance, by the debates on the Statute of Westminster) was sometimes uneasy at according its near, and suspect, neighbor rights that could be granted to a distant Dominion -- Canada, say -- without any sense of danger. On the other hand, the lumping together of disparate "Dominions" obscured the realities of Great Britain's relations with Ireland and also with the distant members of the British Commonwealth, by pinning to the whole set of problems the label "Dominion status."
This helps to explain the complete disappearance of the Irish problem from British politics from 1922 onwards, save for a brief interval in 1932 when the controversy over the oath of allegiance and the land annuities stirred a faint ripple on the parliamentary pool. The English always avoid facing a problem if they conveniently can; and this problem, after dominating politics at Westminster for a century, could be comfortably shelved and forgotten by the process of bundling it in with the general question of British Commonwealth relations. British lack of interest in the Irish problem in the past decade and a half has often exasperated and baffled the leaders of the Free State, where Anglo-Irish relations have naturally stood head-and-shoulders above all other issues of the day.
The scene has now radically changed, partly through the way in which the Irish Free State has outstripped the oversea Dominions in constitutional development. Under Mr. de Valera, it first did away with the Governor-General, and has now replaced him by an elected President. It has relegated the Crown to the status of a convenience in external affairs. The British official view, supported by all the other Dominion Governments, is that the new Irish constitution does not alter the Free State's position as a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and that Irish citizens are still, outside their own country, "British subjects." But it is now impossible for the most ostrich-like British observer to lump the Irish Free State and the oversea Dominions together. Indeed, the Irish experience itself has shown that the problem of Dominion status, as a problem in constitutional autonomy, has practically ceased to exist; for these Irish reforms were carried out in accordance with legal rights established by the Statute of Westminster and confirmed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. On the economic side, of course, the Free State has been completely differentiated from the oversea Dominions by its exclusion from imperial preference in the United Kingdom market.
But an even more powerful force has been at work to undo the consequences of identifying the Free State with the other Dominions. That is the change in international politics since 1931. Wars and threats of wars have led us, in the first place, to see that constitutional formulæ are much less important in British Commonwealth relations than more material questions. What are the actual foreign policies and defense policies of the Commonwealth nations, and what may they be expected to do in a crisis? These questions obviously cannot be answered in terms simply of Great Britain on the one hand and the Dominions on the other, but must be faced in respect of each self-governing country of the Commonwealth separately. In the second place, both Britain and Ireland have been compelled to view the problem of their mutual relations in the light of the international risks they run in a rearmed world. That problem is no longer merely a conundrum in constitutional symbolism, but an urgent exercise in strategic danger and political and economic interest.
Ireland's external interests and policy, in regard to such matters as the League of Nations, the European problem, the colonial problem, world economics, and national and collective defense, are determined by the facts of her history and geography. She is a small European country, a Catholic democracy, a country in reaction against "imperialism," an agricultural country set upon achieving a more balanced economy, a small Power in the strategic lee of a great Power.
She is a dissatisfied Power only in her relations with Great Britain, not in relation to the world at large. Abroad she is essentially on the side of peace and order. Some of Mr. de Valera's utterances at Geneva have had the quality of moral and political vision that in the earlier days of the League we learnt to expect from Scandinavian statesmen like Branting. The Free State has been ready to take its share of the risks and sacrifices necessary to maintain world order. It was with the great majority of the League in imposing sanctions against Italy in 1935, and to his credit as a statesman Mr. de Valera refused, though taunted by the Opposition, to use the occasion to make a deal with Great Britain. But its attitude towards intervention in foreign conflict has always been restrained. When the 1937 Assembly of the League was debating its resolution on Spain, Mr. de Valera led the opposition to the clause containing a veiled threat that if nonintervention were not rapidly made a reality the League Powers might abandon it. In this case the insistence upon non-intervention as a national policy, even though it was internationally but a gesture, was partly due to a cleavage between internal and external considerations. While factors of foreign policy would normally range the Free State with France and Great Britain, the sympathies of the mass of the Irish Catholic population were with General Franco, who was then the main beneficiary of intervention in Spain. There is in Catholic Ireland a constant distrust of Soviet Russia, which has its effect on the Irish attitude towards France and the whole European problem.
But there was also another underlying reason for Mr. de Valera's attitude towards non-intervention -- the position of the Irish Free State as a small Power among great Powers. This is brought out by the fact that no less than fourteen of the smaller member-states of the League joined her in abstaining from voting on the clause in question, not counting two which voted against it. The difficulties of the League since 1935 have caused many of the smaller Powers to look for their salvation in permanent neutrality instead of collective security; for they always regarded the League rather as a means of preventing war than as a means of securing them allies at the price of drawing them into "collective wars." This tendency has touched not only the Irish Free State but also the other countries of the British Commonwealth.
An even more striking instance was Mr. de Valera's recent decision to accredit an Irish Minister to the King of Italy as Emperor of Abyssinia. This might perhaps be regarded as a flagrant violation of principles of international conduct to which the Free State had solemnly subscribed. It certainly caused embarrassment in British circles, since the new Minister would present his credentials (under Irish law) in the name of His Britannic Majesty, whose constitutional divisibility would not be apparent to foreign eyes. Some people suspected anti-British mischief as Mr. de Valera's motive, but it must not be overlooked that his policy was supported in the division lobby by Mr. Cosgrave's party, and opposed only by Labor. A clue to a sounder reason may surely be found in the fact that a few days later the Netherlands Government suggested to the other Oslo Powers that they recognize Italy's Abyssinian Empire de facto. Here was another case in which the small countries felt the discomfort of maintaining an idealistic position which they had not the physical means to defend, and which they suspected the larger Powers of maintaining for not entirely altruistic reasons.
The outlook of Mr. de Valera's Government on international affairs makes them look with favor on the present British policy of seeking a reconciliation with Germany as part of a general settlement. In this they conform with the trend of opinion in the oversea Dominions, which feel that they have no direct concern with problems of frontiers and minorities in eastern Europe, and would like to see a limit set on Britain's commitments -- and their own. The Irish Free State recognizes even more plainly than they that it cannot escape being involved in any general European war, if only because of its strategic relation to Great Britain. But it has also a special reason for leaning towards a settlement with Germany. Not being then in existence, the Free State had no part or lot in the Versailles Treaty. Indeed, it retains a grievance against the Peace Conference for refusing to accept an independent Irish delegation. Mr. de Valera was a rebel against the victorious British; he would be only human if he felt a more than average sympathy with the defeated Germans.
This factor naturally has its reflection in the Irish Free State attitude towards the colonial question. But here a more powerful influence comes into play. Seeing itself as a nearly emancipated victim of British imperialism, the Free State is opposed in principle to the subjection of other races and peoples to imperialist power. This is largely a theoretical attitude, of course; for Irishmen, as one of the principal emigrant peoples, have played more than their full part in constructing the British Empire. But it undoubtedly affects the Irish approach to international problems involving the relations of dominant to subject races. A remarkable instance of such a reference to Irish parallels occurred in the debates at Geneva last September on the future of Palestine. Mr. de Valera objected strongly to agreement in advance that the solution of an acknowledged problem lay in partition. That, he said, was the cruellest wrong that could be done to any people. He was not the first commentator to apply to the plan of the Palestine Royal Commission a lesson drawn from the experiment in Ireland, but he was certainly the most inflexible in his deductions. The partition of Ireland, in fact, was a compromise between conflicting rights, and the proposals for Palestine are another; compromise, dear to the Englishman as the condition of democratic politics, has little appeal for the Irish temperament. It was significant that in his intervention over Palestine Mr. de Valera, shying from the logical conclusion that the present Jewish minority should be handed over to the Arab majority in a single self-governing State, had no alternative solution of his own to offer, but threw up his hands at the truism that irreconcilables could not be reconciled.
The different incidence of principle and expediency in the minds of the parties has helped to determine the course of the Anglo-Irish economic dispute. Originally, this was closely entangled with the dispute over constitutional forms, partly because the question of the tribunal to adjudicate on the quarrel raised the whole issue of Ireland's position in the Commonwealth, partly because the compensatory duties imposed by Great Britain, though primarily intended to raise the lost revenue, had at least the appearance of an attempt at economic sanctions against a constitutional pact-breaker. Today, in British eyes, the constitutional dispute and the economic dispute are no longer indivisible, and the latter seems clearly open for separate settlement by compromise on "business lines." It may be as well to recall its outlines. Under two inter-governmental agreements, the Irish Free State had been paying the British Exchequer certain annuities, totalling roughly £5,000,000, the bulk of which represented the service of loans raised to enable Irish tenant-farmers to buy their land. When Mr. de Valera came into office in 1932 he denied the validity of the agreements, asserting that the Irish Free State had been relieved of responsibility for any portion of the British National Debt, and claiming, indeed, that Great Britain owed Ireland £300,000,000 for part over-taxation, and an unspecified sum for losses caused by the devaluation of sterling. The British Government retorted by imposing on cattle and other staple Irish agricultural exports special import duties calculated to yield the same sum as the land annuities; in this they have fairly accurately succeeded. Great Britain also refused to negotiate with the Irish Free State at the Ottawa Economic Conference, on the ostensible ground that it was no use making a fresh agreement with a country that had just broken an old one. The Irish Free State thus fails to enjoy imperial preference in the United Kingdom market. Mr. de Valera's response was to impose high retaliatory duties on coal and important manufactures from Great Britain. He did not remit the entire land annuities to the extenant-farmers, but continued to collect half of them for the benefit of the Irish budget. Part of the proceeds, however, was used to subsidize exports in order to gain an entry into the British market despite the high duties.
In purely economic and financial terms, therefore, the situation was almost farcical. The Irish farmer complained that he was paying the annuities twice over -- once to the Free State Government, and once to the British Government in the duties on his exported product. In the Irish budget, the credit of the retained annuities was offset by the debit of the subsidies plus the missing customs and other revenue attributable to the lost trade with Great Britain. British agriculture received an extra measure of protection from Irish competitors, but suffered restraint on its supplies of virtual raw material -- Irish store cattle. The British budget found itself all-square on the direct transaction, but paid the penalty of unemployment and loss of profits in the export trades and other economic activities indirectly affected. In brief, a fiscal quarrel reached a position of stalemate, with profit to neither side, at the expense of a natural and valuable economic exchange.
It is hard to imagine two countries better suited for free and complementary trade than the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom. They are such close neighbors that transport is no hindrance; indeed, in view of the cheapness of water-borne transport and the existence of great ports and distributing centers like Liverpool and Dublin, the costs of transport may actually be less than they would be if the Irish Channel were dry land. The fiscal land-frontier between the two countries is geographically and economically artificial; the amount of smuggling that goes on across the boundary between the Free State and Northern Ireland is a tribute to the volume of profitable trade that would take place if there were no artificial barriers. Ireland has little coal; England, Scotland and Wales have plenty. Ireland has an insufficient home market for mass-production industries; Great Britain has an ample one. Great Britain must import huge quantities of agricultural produce; Ireland must dispose of a large agricultural surplus. Ireland, besides being a cattle-breeding ground for English pasturage, and probably the best horse-breeding country in the world, could and should be a market garden and dairy for the English urban masses. In finance, the tourist industry and other economic activities there is the same complementary interest.
It is true that the pursuit of "a better balanced economy" is a fixed objective of Irish Free State policy. But Mr. de Valera's policy of industrial protection has itself been severely handicapped by the Anglo-Irish economic dispute, with the consequent impoverishment of Irish agriculture and high cost of imported goods. The figures tell a remarkable tale. Between 1926 and 1931 the net output of industrial establishments in the Irish Free State rose from £23,078,000 to £25,602,000, and the volume of employment they afforded from 89,800 to 96,200. From 1931 onwards there are no complete figures, but on the basis of the returns from 23 principal industries we may estimate that by 1935 the net output had risen to £31,000,000 and the numbers employed to 155,000. Here was an extraordinary advance. But what was the price? The same table in the Statistical Abstract for the Irish Free State shows that the average wages paid to those employed fell from £120 per annum in 1926 to £115 per annum in 1931 and £97 per annum in 1935. In terms of purchasing power, the wage index (1926=100) was 118 in 1931 and 96 four years later. Since the above figures represent average wages, it is easy to imagine that the lowest wages paid were not far above subsistence level. Yet, despite the lack of obvious financial temptation, people were leaving the countryside for urban employment. Between the censuses of 1926 and 1936, the total population of the Irish Free State fell from 2,972,000 to 2,966,000. Meanwhile the population of greater Dublin (including Dun Laoghaire) rose from 426,000 to 507,000, and there were increases also in Cork, Limerick and Waterford and many smaller towns.
The fall in the population is by itself sufficient tribute to Irish economic difficulties. It was certainly not due, in a predominantly Catholic country, to that deliberate regulation of the size of families which is spelling the numerical decline of other Western peoples, nor was it due to migration to the New World; it resulted, in the first place, from the extraordinarily late age of marriage -- a direct result of economic pressure -- and, in the second place, from migration to Great Britain. Since the onset of the world depression Great Britain has been an immigrant country on a considerable scale. A continuation of the migration from Ireland at its present rate of roughly 30,000 per annum will postpone for a number of years the decline in the total British population which is otherwise imminent.
The economic folly of the fiscal dispute is recognized by informed public opinion on both sides. The recognition has been concretely expressed in the series of so-called "coal-cattle pacts" between the Free State and British Governments. These warily relaxed the restrictions on certain special items of trade, without, however, touching the main issue. On the British side at least there has grown up a desire for a permanent and comprehensive settlement, going beyond the purely financial issues and taking in the whole trade relationship between the two countries. At this point, however, the problem is complicated by the entanglement of the economic issue with constitutional principles, on which Mr. de Valera will not yield.
The fact that at the same time Mr. de Valera was withholding payment of the annuities he abolished the oath of allegiance to the King to be taken by members of the Dail confused the constitutional and financial issues in the public mind. They were also directly connected through Mr. de Valera's refusal to accept the arbitral procedure mapped out by the 1930 Imperial Conference for disputes between member nations of the Commonwealth. He insisted that the choice of chairman for the arbitral tribunal should not be restricted, as in the 1930 project, to citizens of the Commonwealth. The question of principle is plain. To accept a foreign chairman would be to admit that inter-Commonwealth disputes were not domestic -- as between one community of His Majesty's subjects and another -- but international in the full sense. This was an admission which the British Government was not prepared to make, but it was vital to Mr. de Valera's theory of "external association" as the relation between Ireland and the other Commonwealth countries. That theory, which he first adumbrated in the famous "Cuban interview" of 1920, is now fully embodied in the new constitution of Ireland. Before long, no doubt, British opinion will become accustomed to the new position, and the former question of principle will die a slow but natural death.
What remains as the practical bone of contention between Great Britain and the Irish Free State? Mr. de Valera himself has reduced it to two issues -- the partition of Ireland and the British naval occupation of Irish ports. In British eyes, the rights and wrongs of separating Ulster from the rest of Ireland in 1922, as a province of the United Kingdom, seem less important now than the practical problem of getting Ulster to accept any alteration of her present status. That appears to be a problem for Irishmen themselves to face; and although Mr. de Valera placed partition in the forefront of the subjects he intended to discuss with British Ministers at their meeting in January, even he has shown signs of recognizing the same truth. At least he has acknowledged in practical form that to set up a republic now would be to slam the door against the "reintegration of the national territory." Under the new constitution, Eire is a republic neither in title nor in substance.
The issue of national defense is peculiar in that on the Irish side, it brings into the same camp with Mr. de Valera some of the leading exponents of the ideal of Irish unity under the British Crown; while on the British side it raises a far more determined front than do the constitutional issues, simply because it involves national security.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 provides that the Irish Free State shall afford the Imperial Forces, both in peace and in war, certain harbor and other facilities at Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly; also that the defense force of the Free State shall not exceed in proportion to the British military establishment the ratio between the populations of Ireland and Great Britain. It is the former clause, not the latter one, that is at the root of the trouble. The Treaty provided that after five years the Free State might assume a share in its own coastal defense -- a right which has not yet been exercised. British maintenance parties are still in occupation of the harbor defenses of the three ports mentioned, and British warships are stationed there.
It is not surprising that this should be regarded in Ireland as an intolerable encroachment on national sovereignty. It would probably be so regarded, in these days, even by so loyal and British a Dominion as Australia. It puts in pawn Ireland's freedom to be neutral in the event of war between Great Britain and a European Power. On the other hand, from the British viewpoint these naval facilities are vital to the strategy of national defense. Over one-third of the tonnage sunk by German submarines in the war of 1914-18 was lost off the coast of Ireland. That area holds the greatest of all the maritime dangers for Britain's vital oversea supplies. Moreover, a guard on the coasts of Ireland is essential to British defense. The possibility of a foreign landing in force is not perhaps so serious as that of gun-running to aid or foment disorder in Ireland, including of course the northeastern counties.
Mr. de Valera has offered a pledge that, once the sovereignty of Ireland as a nation were fully recognized, he would never allow the country to be used as a base of hostile operations against Great Britain. In British eyes, valuable though this may be, it is not enough. It is not enough, first, because Ireland is not believed to have the means to see that the pledge is effectively carried out, since she has no navy, scarcely any air force, and only a small though efficient army; secondly, because it does not provide for the needs of British naval defense on the high seas. British opinion has nevertheless been moving in the direction of a fresh agreement with the Free State which would take account of her national susceptibilities. It is more and more clearly recognized that a hostile Ireland would be every bit as dangerous to Great Britain as the risk of foreign intervention by way of the Irish coasts, and that a friendly Ireland would be as valuable a defensive asset as rights to land troops and defend ports which might possibly have to be maintained by force of arms against Irish opposition. The famous Simonstown agreement between Great Britain and the Union of South Africa suggests, to some British observers, the lines of a possible compromise. Under that agreement, South Africa assumes responsibility for the whole of her coastal defenses, but she maintains no navy and her naval defense proper is undertaken by Great Britain; for this purpose the latter retains on South African soil the great naval base of Simonstown.
The essential basis of the Simonstown agreement is the assumption that in any war in that part of the world South Africa and Great Britain would both be engaged, and engaged on the same side. Unless and until Germany rebuilds a great High Seas Fleet, or Japan breaks through the Singapore barrier, the agreement does not compel South Africa to participate in more distant wars. The Irish case is rather more difficult. Its solution turns on this question: Is there likelihood, to the point of certainty, that in any European war in which Great Britain was engaged, and in which the forces opposing her were so strong that they could deploy naval or air forces off the Irish coasts, Ireland would also be engaged, and engaged on the same side? That is the key question in Anglo-Irish relations today, and therefore in the relations of Ireland to the whole British Commonwealth. If it is to be answered in the affirmative, not only must the vital interests and international ideals of each country be closely studied by the other; there must be continuous and cordial collaboration between them in all matters of foreign policy. Many British and Irish people believe that the vital interests and ideals of Great Britain and Ireland are fundamentally the same, and that the recent demonstration of Irish constitutional independence makes such collaboration not more difficult, but easier to attain.
This view is borne out by the announcement of the London negotiations between British and Irish Ministers made while this article was in preparation. No such development was possible while Mr. de Valera's intentions regarding the Irish constitution were unformulated or unfulfilled; for if the British Government had been asked for their view beforehand they could only have expressed objection. They were not asked, and wisely said nothing, with the result that the practical issues between the two countries can now be freely discussed on their merits. By the time this article is read, the fruit of those conversations will probably be known; but whatever the result, the fundamental facts of Ireland's position in the British Commonwealth will remain the same, for they are products of history and geography which no statecraft can exorcise.