ALONE among the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Eire has not followed Great Britain into the war against Germany. This is bound to leave a deep imprint on the relations between the two countries. Indeed, Irish neutrality may well have an important influence on the course of the war. The strategic proximity of Eire to Britain and to the principal British sea lanes must inevitably create problems never before confronted by English statesmen.

Not least among the factors complicating Anglo-Irish relations is the partition of Ireland into two unequal parts -- the twenty-six counties of Eire and the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Six Counties are in most ways an integral part of Great Britain. They are at war with Germany. Recruiting goes on there actively: two old and famous regiments have headquarters there, and another -- the North Irish Horse -- is being revived. Goods come and go to Great Britain free of customs duty, as they go from Glasgow to London. Yet there is one difference: conscription is not imposed in Northern Ireland, and will not be without the consent of the parliament at Belfast. In law, no doubt, the Imperial Parliament has the right to impose it; in practice it wisely abstains from doing so. And the Belfast parliament will be held back from imposing it by the knowledge that one third of its population, the Catholic minority numbering some 400,000, would resist it by all means.

Yet that same Catholic population -- like the entire population of Ireland, Catholic or Protestant -- detests the names of "Hitler" and of "Nazi" as fervently as any community in Great Britain. None the less, the Catholics who comprise nine tenths of all the inhabitants of Eire have decided to be neutral. I must endeavor to make plain what this means.

The Irish Times -- a leading Dublin paper which up to the Irish Revolution was Unionist -- said wittily and wisely that Eire is, by her own choice, an "honorary member of the British Commonwealth." She has the privileges of membership and pays nothing for them. Or, to put it otherwise, she has the rights which the other Dominions have but of which they have not chosen to take advantage. True, General Hertzog, while he was Prime Minister, proposed that South Africa should remain neutral, but he was overborne in his parliament, and now General Smuts governs in his place, backed by Colonel Reitz, one of the men who fought hardest against the British forty years ago. The two Dutchmen are of course supported by the British elements in South Africa, and doubtless all have been moved by a fear lest dissension on this matter should prevent South Africa from attaining complete unity. Colonel Reitz, a frank soldier, said in public that after the final conquest of the Boers England had shown great generosity, and that the Boers would be unworthy of themselves if they did not repay it by service.

I myself think that since the Treaty of 1921 was signed England has dealt with Ireland not less generously than with the Boers. But South Africa has had nearly twelve years longer to shake off the old bitterness; and it is not every country that has the equal of General Smuts for guidance in an emergency. Mr. de Valera has shown at Geneva qualities both distinguished and generous that set him at least on a level with General Hertzog; but he, also like the Boer nationalist, was committed by his past record to a somewhat exaggerated detachment from English interests. And unfortunately among those Irish nationalists who might be inclined to recognize -- like Colonel Reitz -- that England had shown good will towards the newly established freedom, no man stood out conspicuously. Certainly there was none among them big enough to disregard a charge that he was consulting England's welfare rather than Ireland's. And so, by general consent, nationalist Ireland decided for neutrality, even though sympathy with Poland has been universal and the detestation of Hitlerism intense. As to Russia, her admirers are few indeed either among Catholics or Protestants.

Nevertheless, Mr. de Valera himself admitted in debate that a considerable element in the country desired that Ireland should range itself, as South Africa has done, actively on the side of Great Britain. He cited as holders of this view two members of the Senate, Sir John Keane and Mr. MacDermot. Both of these are (by Irish standards) rich men; both took part in the last European war -- Sir John Keane holding an important command; and they may be regarded as representing the old Unionist element in what is now Eire, which comprised about one tenth of the population but a much larger proportion of the property. They may be taken also as representing the ex-service men, of whom there are not less than 200,000 survivors. How many men Ireland sent to the last war is uncertain; but we know from the records compiled by the committee charged with the task of organizing a national war memorial that the dead were in round numbers 50,000, which implies a total of something like half a million serving -- and all served as volunteers. Thus it will be seen that there must have been a very considerable body in favor of declaring openly against Hitler.

But Mr. de Valera insisted that there was also a section which, even if it did not approve Hitler, counted England as the traditional enemy to be struck whenever there was a chance -- and recent performances of the Irish Republican Army give only too good proof of this view. He himself, even at the time he ended the long "economic war" with Britain early in 1938 by making a friendly agreement with Mr. Chamberlain's Government, stated publicly that no reconciliation could be complete as long as the partition of the country endured. In his view, that partition was imposed by England, is maintained by England, and could be ended by England. He has expressly disclaimed the very idea of using force to join the North to Eire. But he and his partisans hold that England should in the first place withdraw her troops from Ulster, and in the second, discontinue the financial assistance which in varying forms is given to that part of the United Kingdom. He declared frankly that unless and until this is done it would not be possible for him to offer the full support of Ireland in a crisis. There is nothing unexpected in his attitude or in the approval given it by the Dublin parliament, even though it places Eire in a situation which must lead to many awkwardnesses.

Consider the facts. Irishmen and Irishwomen, as citizens of the British Commonwealth, may freely enter Great Britain to seek any form of employment, either in public or private service; and thousands of them do so. Recruiting for the British forces is not permitted in Ireland outside the Six Counties and no British officer or sailor or soldier is allowed to appear in uniform in Eire. But for years there has been a stream of men going from Ireland to enter the British Navy and still more the Army; they have been welcomed, for an admixture of Irish has been found highly useful in all regiments; and the Irish Government has done nothing to discourage this process, which probably has accelerated in recent months. Nobody has raised the question whether Ireland's neutrality is compromised by this action of individual citizens.

On the other hand, Irishmen employed in Great Britain who by their age would have become liable to conscription have been free to return to their own country; and enough have returned to aggravate the already serious problem of unemployment. These facts however are not likely to lead to much heartburning. Certainly very few in Ireland will be sorry; indeed, a great many must have exulted on learning that the first officer to gain distinction in this war was Acting Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Doran, decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading the air raid on the Kiel Canal immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. His name marks him for Irish; and not a few other names, unmistakably Irish, have appeared in the early reports of fighting.

But the fact remains that all along the Irish coast soldiers in Irish uniform are on guard; and it is their duty not merely to repel all attempts at a landing by Germans, but to take in charge and intern any British ship of war or aircraft that may touch an Irish harbor or Irish soil. How far the civilian population may assist them in their duty, one cannot be sure. A story reaches me that a British plane made a forced landing somewhere in the country and was immediately surrounded by people ready with offers of help, and even of petrol, till finally it could take the air again, without any official cognizance of what had happened. Whether this be true or an invention I cannot say; but it corresponds to my estimate of what would probably occur. The Civic Guard, our Irish police, would more likely have their attention directed to any other place than that in which they could make the seizure. I am not even sure that an active member of the I. R. A. would want to put a plane and its crew out of action. Englishmen, as individuals, are well liked in Ireland; and as between Herr Hitler and Mr. Chamberlain, Irish sympathy would not hesitate.

On the other hand, during the last war it was generally believed that German submarines were often supplied with petrol and other provisions at out-of-the-way places on the west coast. It was then the task of persons acting for Great Britain to prevent this. That duty now falls on the Irish armed forces; and in my opinion, for what it may be worth, the work will be more efficiently done. Nevertheless, the British Navy is denied the use of all Irish ports except those within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland; and this includes three naval bases which were considered so important that when the Treaty of 1921 was drawn up, control of them was still reserved and British occupation continued. These were the harbors of Lough Swilly on the north coast of Donegal, commanding the route passing to the north of Ireland; Bere Haven in the extreme southwest, commanding the passage round Cape Clear and along the south coast; and finally Queenstown (now Cobh) in the southeast, a port of call for much Atlantic shipping. All these three "Gibraltars," as they came to be called, were protected by modern forts and heavy artillery.

The continued occupation of these by British troops was resented as a diminution of Ireland's independence; and last year, as part of the agreement between Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. de Valera, they were handed over, with all their equipment, to the Irish forces. British detachments remained for a period, but only to train Irish gunners in the manipulation of this complicated machinery. How much these bases were worth to the British Navy in the last war and how much it will be handicapped by lack of them in this one, is a matter for naval strategists to decide; but certainly both Bere Haven and Lough Swilly saw many assemblies of British vessels. Mr. de Valera, as was natural, claimed much credit for regaining these alienated parts of Irish soil; but one effect of that success must be to hamper the work of a navy which is protecting the most vital interests of Irish commerce. Ireland cannot protect herself at sea; the British Navy not only can, but does.

Nevertheless, ugly as the situation is in this respect, it might have been uglier. I hold that Mr. Chamberlain was wise to make the concession -- for this reason: if those three bases were still in British occupation, it would have been necessary to establish military control of the areas surrounding them in order to prevent such things as signalling the movement of British ships to the enemy. This would have entailed military control over the large counties of Donegal and Cork. But any attempt by British troops to exercise such control would have been regarded as a first step to reconquest; and an Irish war would inevitably have broken out. To have left this military control to the Irish forces would have implied that their support or at least their highly benevolent neutrality could be counted on; and such an assumption is more than Mr. de Valera feels able to offer.

There is no need to enlarge upon the possibilities of friction, of which one inevitable result must be to widen the gulf between Protestant Ulster and the rest of Ireland. Nevertheless, reviewing the facts, I do not think it likely that relations between Great Britain and Eire will be worsened by the war; and this implies of course that I see no prospect of an attempt by the Irish State to attack Great Britain, directly or through Ulster.

There is undoubtedly one element among the Irish -- in Eire, in Ulster, in the United States and in Great Britain itself -- which supports or approves the action of the I. R. A., and which would, by its own logic, omit no chance to break the power of Britain in order that an Irish Republic might be proclaimed and Ulster be forced into it. This faction cannot be called negligible for it commands the service of fanatics who will with apparent cheerfulness risk and accept heavy sentences. Yet its activities seem notably to have lessened of late. For one thing, Mr. de Valera has imprisoned several of the known leaders in Ireland on the charge of being connected with an organization dangerous to the state. For another, its most conspicuous exploit has probably disgusted many of its supporters: a bomb set in a crowded English market place at Coventry which killed and maimed large numbers of ordinary men and women. There is a limit to what even sincere fanatics will approve. In any case, the numerical strength of this element is not important; and when Mr. de Valera proclaimed the I. R. A. an illegal organization and forbade all its public appearances, no reaction followed. Danger lies only in the chance that England may feel driven to resent some consequence of Ireland's neutrality, and may take some action which appears to infringe Ireland's claims to independence. This course would be exploited to the utmost by the I. R. A., who could then appeal to such among Mr. de Valera's partisans as wish to regard themselves as honest if somewhat temerarious patriots.

Happily, hopes for avoiding such an eventuality have strong grounds. For one thing, Ireland cannot, even if she desires, give much support to Germany: only a few small vessels fly the Irish flag and they, like other neutral ships, come under observation of British patrols. The main intercourse between the countries is carried on by regular steamship lines, at least two of which were under the Irish flag before the war began. However, on the outbreak of war both were confronted with a strike of seamen who refused to sail except under the British colors, insisting that only in this way could they be sure of provision for their wives and families in case their ship went down. Further, it is vital for Ireland's interest that sea communication with England should be kept open; for, as Mr. de Valera has recently impressed upon the Irish parliament, half of what Ireland imports comes from Great Britain, and nine tenths of what she exports goes there. Consequently, the chief interest of Ireland, next to assuring her own prosperity, is that Great Britain should be well off; indeed, her own prosperity depends upon a prosperous Britain.

Even as a neutral, Ireland feels the same pinch that Britain does. Indeed, she feels it more now than when she was part of the United Kingdom. In the last war Irish farmers made money as they had never made it before. It was then to England's advantage to encourage this source of supply within her own dominion. Today the same considerations of self-interest operate, except that now there is no reason why she should be more concerned to secure the inflow of Irish butter and bacon than of Danish. In reality, however, the thing is much more easily done, and the whole of Anglo-Irish commerce runs under the English flag.

But the first question for Ireland is whether she can supply herself. Normally, she imports a great deal of her wheat and maize across the Atlantic; but England does also and she will naturally see first to her own consumers. Mr. de Valera has endeavored to increase wheat growing as part of his effort to make Ireland self-sufficient. You certainly can grow wheat in Ireland, just as you can grow plums; but they can be grown a great deal more cheaply and better in other countries, whereas oats and barley, like apples, will do as well in Ireland as anywhere. The fact remains that Ireland grows grass best of all, which naturally gives an edge to cattle and horse breeding. The inducements to tillage are therefore few.

Mr. de Valera has never considered how to exploit Ireland most profitably as if it were a huge farm. He has wanted to give the maximum of varied employment to Irish people, and so has established a very drastic protective system, which of course has raised the price of everything that the farmer has to buy -- including maize for stock feeding. Then came the "economic war," when Mr. de Valera refused to continue payments which England considered to be due under the treaty arrangements and which had been paid by Mr. Cosgrave's Government. England collected the money by levying duties on imports from Ireland, mostly of farm produce. Ireland retaliated. Harm was done to both sides, but the Irish farmer was hit the hardest; and Ireland became, and still is, under-stocked in cattle, while pig feeding and poultry raising have also slumped. At present, the Irish farmer in the Six Counties, with a smaller amount of good land, is better off than his competitors in the Twenty-Six. It is a curious fact that the Northern Ministry of Agriculture has not found it necessary to make tillage compulsory, whereas Mr. de Valera (only a few days after he had expressed a hope that such a step could be avoided) imposed the obligation on all farmers to till 12½ percent of their land. Further, he tells the farmers that the essential products on which they must concentrate are wheat and sugar. Now the cultivation of beet for sugar was introduced into Ireland only after it became self-governing. His essentials are thus not the things which Ireland produces best, and Irish farmers by no means look forward to a golden harvest. Yet in spite of all, Ireland will undoubtedly be a great source of supply for Great Britain in meat and butter -- the meat going over largely on the hoof. Pig and poultry raising will no doubt also be developed. But Mr. de Valera's gravest problem will be that of employment; he has dotted the country with little factories of various kinds, and most of these depend on imports for their raw materials. Will he continue to get these imports so the factories can carry on? That is his agonizing question. Widespread unemployment would mean not only great expense but discontent, and discontent spells danger.

My hope is that the war will improve, and not weaken, the relations between Ireland and Great Britain, even though it would be chimerical to entertain the same hope in regard to the relations between Eire and Ulster. In the first place, Irish sympathies are on the general issue with the democratic cause. There is, of course, the element represented by the I. R. A.; but this organization certainly can be more easily controlled by Mr. de Valera than by a Prime Minister who could be reproached with having accepted a treaty giving Ireland less than full independence. Mr. de Valera resisted the treaty, and since he came to power has virtually abolished it, so that in fact Eire has all the attributes of a sovereign state. There remains the single grievance that an important province of the island is still excluded and that a vote of the majority for the entire island does not govern all Ireland.

Everything, in reality, turns on Mr. de Valera. The Irish parliament is unfortunately not rich in personal ability. It came out of a revolution; it has been manned almost exclusively by the class which made the revolution, -- and that was only a section even of nationalist Ireland. The wealthier and better educated elements in the country, whether Catholic or Protestant, are scarcely represented. What matters more, the outstanding men of the revolutionary party who opposed Mr. de Valera and who accepted the treaty are not alive. When the civil war began over the question whether acceptance of the treaty should or should not be final, Michael Collins was killed in a skirmish and Griffith, head of the Government, died almost at the same time. The task of governing fell to a group of unknown young men, among whom was one of genius -- Kevin O'Higgins, the ablest man that Ireland has produced since Parnell. But O'Higgins was murdered in 1927. Mr. Cosgrave, a model of courage and shrewdness, has never captured the imagination of the country; and he and all his colleagues are still unpopular from the executions which the civil war forced them to carry out. Further, he has not, like Mr. de Valera, the will to power -- the conviction that his leadership is indispensable to Ireland.

Much, then, turns on the character and abilities of one man. Mr. de Valera is liked to a surprising extent by the British statesmen who have met him. It was plain when the recent agreement was reached that he on his side had been impressed by Mr. Chamberlain's friendly disposition; and in the autumn of 1938, when it chanced that he presided over the League of Nations Assembly at Geneva, he supported in the strongest way Mr. Chamberlain's attempt to secure peace. In short, he supported the Munich Agreement and it is reasonable to assume that the flagrant breach of faith which followed was resented by him hardly less than by Mr. Chamberlain himself.

No one disputes his personal integrity; few even of those who have disapproved his whole policy would deny him a certain nobility of temper; very few indeed desire to see him replaced by another man in this emergency. But many hold that the crisis calls for a national government, and would wish to see some of Mr. Cosgrave's party -- such as Mr. Cosgrave himself, Mr. McGilligan and Mr. Dillon, son of the old Nationalist leader-- associated with the present ministry (to which they have promised full support). Beyond question, its intellectual quality would be raised; but Mr. de Valera, if I judge rightly, prefers to be completely master. His attitude will be that of a neutral pushing benevolence so far as is possible without compromising his independence of action.

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  • STEPHEN GWYNN, President of the Irish Literary Society; member of the Irish Convention, 1917-18; author of numerous historical and biographical works, as also of novels and poetry
  • More By Stephen Gwynn