The Irish Free State and the Coolidge Naval Conference

(20 June-4 August 1927)

By Alison Martin

During the 1920s, several conferences were held with a view to putting restrictions on the naval forces of the major powers. The Irish Free State did not have a navy at this point, nevertheless, the government still had some reason to be interested in naval disarmament. The scholar Gerard Keown has noted that small states ‘tend to be more interested in a stable international environment.’ Moreover, disarmament was one of the aims of the League of Nations.

In February 1927, the US President Calvin Coolidge called for a naval conference. He hoped that the terms of the Five Power Treaty could be extended to include smaller vessels. Coolidge had originally envisaged a meeting between Britain, France, Italy, Japan and his own country.

The British government initially consulted the dominions, before agreeing to attend. Interestingly, in their reply to Washington on 28th February, the British made it clear that they were still unaware of the Irish government’s opinion. Charles Hathaway, the Consul-General to the US legation in Dublin, pursued the matter. On 7th March, he informed Washington that Desmond FitzGerald, the Minister for External Affairs, had reassured him that the government ‘would wish the proposals well.’  He went on to report that FitzGerald was unable to see how the conference would affect the Free State as they had no navy.  Moreover, FitzGerald had expressed surprise that they had even been consulted.

L-R: Desmond FitzGerald and John Costello.

On 8th March, Joseph Walshe, the Secretary to the Free State’s Department of External Affairs, wrote to Diarmuid O’Hegarty to inform him that the Minister of External Affairs was of the opinion that the Free State should avoid the conference. However, if this was not possible only separate representation would be accepted. Evidently, FitzGerald was concerned that the set-up of this proposed conference would be similar to that of the Washington Conference, during which the dominions had been represented by a single British Empire delegation.

On 28th March, Tim Healy, the Governor General of the Irish Free State, communicated the aforementioned two options to London. It is understandable that FitzGerald would wish to safeguard the Free State’s constitutional position at the conference. Nevertheless, the fact that FitzGerald’s first thought was for the Free State to avoid attending, would suggest that he did not believe the government had any reason to be interested in naval disarmament.  

Eventually, the British government agreed to the dominions being represented individually at the conference. It was now apparent that the Free State was to be represented at a conference which the government appeared to have little interest in.  On 17th June, Walshe wrote to Michael MacWhite, the Irish Free State’s Permanent Representative to the League of Nations, instructing him to attend the conference.

This was to be a temporary arrangement, until the Minister of External Affairs and John Costello, the Free State’s Attorney General since 1926 arrived. Considering that the government was not interested in the conference, this was a fairly high-powered delegation.  Interestingly, Walshe informed MacWhite that the government ‘was not especially interested in the technical proposals’.

In some ways this is quite surprising.  As has already been noted, article six of the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated that the ‘defence by sea of Great Britain and Ireland’ would remain the responsibility of Britain. It was also made clear that discussions would be held after five years, as it was thought that by this stage Ireland would be able to undertake ‘a share in her own coastal defence.’  Crucially, these discussions never took place and Britain remained responsible for Ireland’s coastal defence.

The main point is that there was a possibility that a major reduction in British naval units would have an impact on Irish security.  It is evident from Walshe’s letter that the Irish government was concerned that if it made any technical suggestions regarding the size of the British Navy, then it would not be able to disclaim interest when asked to contribute towards its upkeep. As a result, Walshe instructed MacWhite not to make any technical suggestions.

In order to help further determine whether the Free State had any interest in naval disarmament, even from a general point of view, it seemed necessary to discuss the events of the conference. Kevin O’Higgins and Costello did not arrive in Geneva until 27 June, a week after the conference had opened. It would seem that this was unavoidable as O’Higgins had replaced FitzGerald as Minister of External Affairs four days earlier. Like FitzGerald, he was mainly interested in the constitutional aspect of the conference. 

L-R: Kevin O’Higgins and W.T. Cosgrave.

On the day of his arrival in Geneva, O’Higgins informed William Bridgeman, the First Lord of the Admiralty and head of the British delegation, that the Free State government was willing to support the British proposals as long as their constitutional position was safeguarded. This provides further evidence that the government was willing to support naval disarmament in principle. However, for the reasons already explained, it didn’t want to get involved in the technical aspects of the conference.  

At this point, it is worth briefly examining the proposals put forward by the major powers at the conference. The American delegation proposed that the 5:5:3 tonnage ratio agreed to at the Washington Conference, should be applied to cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Britain however, was reluctant to put limits on cruisers. Eventually, the British delegation put forward a thesis known as ‘the doctrine of requirements.’

The idea behind this, being that Britain required a fixed number of cruisers due to the scattered nature of her empire. The British delegation, asserted that they required a minimum of fifty-five small cruisers with six-inch guns and fifteen large cruisers. Unsurprisingly, the America delegation argued that this was excessive. For their part, the Americans claimed that they would need twenty-five cruisers but they also wanted the freedom to arm all other cruisers with eight-inch guns.

Britain refused to accept this and neither country was willing to compromise. The Irish delegates did not try to act as peacemakers. On 4th July, O’Higgins wrote to Cosgrave to inform him he had left Geneva early as there was ‘nothing which called for my attendance.’ It is sufficient to say that there were other matters which required his attention. Interestingly, O’Higgins added that if any agreement on naval reduction was reached, he would return in order to sign it.   

Even though O’Higgins had been prepared to sign a naval limitation treaty, this does not necessarily prove that the Cosgrave government was particularly interested in disarmament. It must be remembered, that this was the first time that the Free State had been represented at an international conference by its own plenipotentiaries in possession of full powers to negotiate for the state.

Nevertheless, O’Higgins may also have been aware that signing an international agreement would provide the Free State with an opportunity to demonstrate its sovereignty. In the lead up to the conference, Walshe certainly had such thoughts in mind. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.  Shortly after returning to the Free State, O’Higgins was assassinated on the 10th July 1927, by three IRA men acting on their own initiative.

O’Higgins had been attending a conference during which the major powers hoped to reach an agreement, which would lead to conditions more conducive to peace. However, his brutal murder served as a reminder of the difficult circumstances under which the Free State government was operating. As a temporary measure, W.T. Cosgrave took over as Minister of External Affairs in July. However, there is little evidence to suggest that he was particularly interested in the conference. MacWhite maintained a presence there. In the end though, the gap between Britain and America proved impossible to bridge. Consequently, no agreement was reached.   

Overall, it would seem that the Irish Free State played a relatively minor role in the conference. The Free State did not have their own navy at this point. Moreover, the Free State government was only too aware that if it made any technical suggestions regarding the size of the British Navy, it would not be able to disclaim interest when asked to contribute financially towards its upkeep. Kevin O’Higgins had indicated that he would be prepared to sign an agreement on naval reduction if it was reached.  Nevertheless, whilst the government may have supported disarmament in principle, their main concern at this conference was to ensure that the Free State’s constitutional position was safeguarded.   

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