By Alison Martin
After years of work by the Preparatory Commission, the long-awaited World Disarmament Conference opened on 2nd February 1932. It was attended by representatives from sixty-one nations including the Irish Free State. Non-League members also participated, most notably America and the USSR.
This event came at a rather unfortunate time for the Free State, as a general election was planned for 16th February. On the opening day of the conference, the Glasgow Herald reported that the Free State Minister for External Affairs, Patrick McGilligan, was unable to attend due to the election campaign.
Taking his place would be Seán Lester, the government’s permanent representative to the League of Nations, along with John Hearne, the legal advisor to the Department of External Affairs. This arrangement may have been intended to be temporary. However, following Fianna Fáil’s electoral victory in the February 1932 general election, Eamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, also taking on the External Affairs portfolio.
The outgoing Cumann na nGaedheal administration had previously voiced support for the World Disarmament Conference in the lead up to the event. Therefore, it is worth attempting to determine whether the new Fianna Fáil administration would take much interest in the conference.
From the outset, it could of course be argued that the Free State government had little reason to be interested in the disarmament conference. After all, arguably the Free State could not disarm much further. By 1932, it had around 7,000 men in the regular forces and only a vague semblance of an air service. Arguably though, this put the Free State in a rather vulnerable position.
The historian Eunan O’Halpin has noted that by 1932 “the Free State had neither the resources, the framework, nor the doctrine to mount any serious defence of her territory.” In the case of future conflict, the Irish government may of course have believed that the Free State could rely on Britain to protect it from a potential aggressor. Britain would almost certainly have been compelled to do this in order to protect its own strategic interests. It is also possible that even at this stage the government had envisaged neutrality in the case of a conflict.
Overall though, it would have been in the Free State government’s interests for all countries to agree to reduce their armaments, as this would have undoubtedly increased global security and by extension increased the security of their own country.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major powers arrived at the conference with different solutions to the disarmament problem. On 5th February, André Tardieu the French Foreign Minister proposed the establishment of an international army which would be sponsored by the League of Nations.
All nations would be required to surrender their offensive weapons to this military force, thus ensuring the security of Europe. This proposal was rejected due to a lack support. As has already been noted, the Free State was in a different position to other countries when it came to disarmament but it is evident from Lester’s correspondence that the government ministers took very little initial interest in the conference.
On 21st March, Lester wrote to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs Joseph Walshe, in order to remind him that “many occasions will arise for taking a definite line.” He also asked if it would be possible to send additional delegates who would be acquainted with the views of the Minister of External Affairs. Clearly Lester needed further government guidance.
This information was not to be forthcoming however and as Lester had predicted, there were times when he would be required to express a point of view. By the following month, the major powers were discussing the idea of qualitative disarmament alongside other proposals. Essentially this meant that certain types of offensive weapons would be abolished rather than numerical limits being applied.
On 21st April 1932, Lester informed Walshe that during the previous day’s discussions he had felt the need to express an opinion on the British proposal. Lester reported that he had given general support to the proposal.
At the same time though, he had informed the other delegates that “the Irish government did not favour any systems to the exclusion of others.” Moreover, Lester had added that he was looking forward to hearing the proposals from other countries. It is evident from Lester’s letter that he was not sure what the government really thought of the British proposal.
Therefore, in the absence of information, he had given it a diplomatic appraisal. Eventually however, the proposal was rejected, as the major powers could not agree on the definition of offensive weapons.
From September 1932 until the end of 1933, the Irish Free State held the rotating presidency of the League Council. As Acting President of the Council, de Valera made the opening address at the Thirteenth League Assembly on 26th September 1932.
In this speech de Valera gave an overview of the recent successes and failures of the League. Interestingly he referred to the disarmament conference as ‘the outstanding event of the year.’ More importantly, he went on to state that it would be impossible for the League to survive ‘without progressive disarmament.’ De Valera certainly gave the impression that he regarded the conference as an important event.
Nevertheless, there was a clear contrast between his actions and what he had stated in public. Indeed, when Lester wrote to Walshe on 2nd November 1932 in order to ask if de Valera could come and speak at the General Commission of the Disarmament Conference, he politely declined. Moreover, this was not the first time that the President had turned down such an opportunity.
As time went on, it is clear from Lester’s correspondence, that he was increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress at the conference. In September 1932, the German delegation withdrew from the conference, as they believed they were not being treated equally.
The delegation eventually returned three months later. However, in October 1933, Adolf Hitler withdrew the delegation permanently and announced that Germany would be resigning from the League.
Japan had also resigned seven months prior to this. This had been double blow for the League. Aside from these difficulties however, it was already evident from early 1933 that the conference was floundering, as one disarmament proposal after another was rejected. In May 1933, Lester finally received some information regarding the plans of the Free State’s Department of Defence.
Nevertheless, he had still not been provided with all the information which he required. Lester was even required to remind Joseph Walshe that it would soon be time for the Free State to put forward the figures for its defence requirements.
On 12th May, Seán Murphy the Assistant Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, sent Lester a reply which was written on behalf of Walshe. Murphy stated that the Free State’s requirements had ‘not even yet been finally decided upon.’ Interestingly, there was no real sense of urgency.
Moreover, according to Murphy, de Valera was adamant that at no point during the conference ‘could the attendance of a delegation from Dublin be justified.’ As has already been mentioned, the Free State was in a fairly unique position when came to disarmament. The government may have agreed with the international disarmament efforts in principle. However, in common with other countries, they were also own preoccupied with their own domestic affairs.
Disarmament was a complex issue and in the end, the major powers could not reach an agreement. The conference adjourned in June 1934 and never reassembled.