The Irish Free State and the London Naval Conference

By Alison Martin

It has already been previously established that the Free State government’s main concern at the 1927 Coolidge Naval Conference, was to ensure that the Free State’s delegation was represented separately from Britain.

The Free State did not have its 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. In the immediate aftermath of the 1927 naval conference, the Free State government did not demonstrate any concern about its failure. However, over the next few years, some government ministers demonstrated more interest in the disarmament cause.

At the Ninth League of Nations Assembly on 10th September 1928, Ernest Blythe, the Vice-President of the Executive Council, declared that ‘the General Disarmament Conference has been too long postponed’. He was certainly correct to draw attention to that fact that little progress had been made in this direction. This was despite the efforts of the Preparatory Commission, which had been holding meetings over the past two years. Patrick McGilligan, the Free State’s Minister for External Affairs, adopted a similar line at the League Assembly the following year. In his speech on 11th September 1929, he stressed that a world disarmament conference should be held as soon as possible. Moreover, McGilligan emphasized that if this did not happen promptly, the public would lose faith in the League.

It was not just the Free State, which took an increased interest in international disarmament towards the end of the 1920s. The Labour government, which came to power in Britain in June 1929, showed more interest in disarmament than the previous administration. In the summer of 1929, the new British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald met the US President, Herbert Hoover and the two men agreed to convene another naval conference.

This time it would be held in London. The British Commonwealth, France, Italy, Japan and the US were to be represented. As the Irish Free State had been represented at the 1927 Coolidge Conference, the government assumed that it would be expected to send representatives to the upcoming conference. On the 16th December 1929, McGilligan sent a dispatch to Lord Passfield, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. He informed Passfield that he that been appointed to attend the conference along with FitzGerald, now Minister for Defence and Timothy Smiddy, who in February 1929 had been appointed as the Irish High Commissioner in London.

Interestingly though, in his dispatch McGilligan also sought assurance that there would not be a return to the ‘Washington panel system’. Once again it seemed that the government’s main concern was safeguarding the Free State’s constructional position at the conference. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that McGilligan was interested in the efforts to bring about naval arms control. It has already been established that the agreements reached at the Washington Conference, had failed to halt the naval arms race. It would seem that McGilligan had this in mind, when in the lead up to the conference he wrote ‘we have a special interest in joining any movement destined to lessen the danger of a war between the United States and Great Britain’.

Despite displaying an interest in the disarmament efforts, in the end McGilligan did not attend the conference. No explanation was given for this and Smiddy was left to represent the Free State. When the subject of representation at the conference was raised in the Dáil, McGilligan maintained that he had been sending Smiddy instructions. As Minister of External Affairs, there were many issues, which required McGilligan’s attention. Nevertheless, the fact that he did not attend may indicate that the government did not place a lot of importance on the conference. To put this in perspective though, New Zealand, India and the Union of South Africa were also solely represented at the conference by their High Commissioners in London.

Days later, McGilligan recounted the statement which Smiddy had made at the opening of the conference. The statement read ‘I need hardly say how wholeheartedly my government desire to see a successful issue to this conference. Without armaments ourselves, we believe in the fundamental goodwill of all governments finally to bestow peace on their peoples.’ This was certainly an eloquent statement but it is difficult to determine how much significance to place on this. It is possible that Smiddy had just been sent to the conference in order to maintain the Free State’s good standing with the League. After all, disarmament was one of the League’s aims. On the other hand though, it must be remembered that McGilligan did seem to have some interest in the disarmament efforts and was sending instructions to Smiddy.

From the outset, it was clear that this conference had a good chance of success, especially as on this occasion the major powers showed more willingness to compromise. After months of discussion, the Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armaments, commonly known as the London Naval Treaty, was signed on 22nd April 1930, by representatives from all of the nations in attendance.

As Smiddy had signed on behalf of the Irish Free State, it is worth examining the treaty’s terms. The US, Britain and Japan agreed on a tonnage ratio of 10:10:6.5 for cruisers and 10:10:7 for destroyers. As France and Italy could not agree on their respective ratios and were unwilling to accept inequality, they refused to accept limitations on these categories of ships. They were however, allowed to sign the treaty’s other articles. Britain, France and Japan placed a limit of 57,000 tons on their respective submarine fleets. Moreover, the ban on the building of capital ships established at the Washington Conference was extended for another five years. The treaty marked the first time that all categories of warships had been restricted by an international agreement.

By signing the treaty, the Free State had demonstrated a willingness to support the naval disarmament efforts. It is possible however that the Free State had signed the treaty because the other nations had supported it and the government had no objections. The Free State did not ratify the agreement until December, whilst Britain and America had already done so by July. The Dáil had adjourned on 17th July and did not reconvene until 19th November. Moreover, the government did not have any emergency ratification powers. Arguably though, if the government had regarded the ratification of the treaty as a priority, then it could have been summoned a special meeting of the Dáil.

The treaty could not come into effect until the Free State had ratified it and most other nations with the exception of Italy and France had done this by October. To be fair, McGilligan did try to impress upon W.T. Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council, of the need to ratify. On 18th October, McGilligan wrote to the aforementioned, in order to ask if the Executive Council could advise ratification without having to submit it to the Dáil. Hence it is clear that McGilligan was eager to speed up the ratification. Crucially though, McGilligan was concerned that if the Irish government did not hasten to ratify, it would risk offending the US government which had invested heavily in the conference. He also warned Cosgrave that if the other countries proceeded without the Free State, it could give the false impression that they had been ‘included in the British ratification’.

In order to determine whether the government was interested in the naval treaty, it is worth examining a discussion which took place in the Dáil on 11th December. At the end of a speech advocating the aforementioned agreement, McGilligan declared that as ‘a small nation, we must, of course, have a very deep interest in anything that will lead to the preservation of peace as opposed to the emergence of war conditions’. McGilligan felt that the Free State should support the efforts towards disarmament. However, as has already been noted, there were other reasons why he was eager for the Free State to ratify the treaty. Despite its admirable intentions, the treaty was met with some apathy in the Dáil. Martin Corry, the Fianna Fáil TD, asked if the government planned ‘to take one and a quarter inches off the gun on the Muirchú that fires no shells?’.

McGilligan however, refuted any suggestion that the Free State did not need to be interested in the treaty, because it did not possess a navy.

In the end the Free State eventually ratified the treaty, with its ratification being deposited on 31st December 1930.

- Advertisement -spot_img

You may have missed...