Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Malcolm reads The Emergency by Brian Girvin

A while back, The Times published a Comment article by Tim Hames. This mocked a press conference given by Michael O'Leary, Head Bod of Ryanair. O'Leary had used a Churchill impersonator to deride the security restrictions on baggage, while threatening to sue the British Government. Hames suggested that Churchill's difficulties with Irish neutrality during the Second Unpleasantness made O'Leary's stunt:
exceptionally audacious. Mr O’Leary and his company are not British, but Irish. When Churchill was leading Britain through its darkest hours, Ireland’s stance was one of strict neutrality, although the decision by Eamonn de Valera, the Republic’s Prime Minister, to sign the book of condolence at the German Embassy in Dublin after the death of Hitler might indicate his sentiments.
Inevitably, this created a mild tizz within the Times readership. A recent book, The Emergency, by Brian Girvin was called in aid. [Incidentally, Malcolm feels definitely hacked off. He heaved €18.95 at a paperback copy; only to find the hardback on sale through Amazon at £14.98 and free postage.]

Girvin represents de Valera as the ultimate tricksy ambiguity. This seems to be the current mode for biographers, accelerated by how Alan Rickman did Dev for Neil Jordan's Michael Collins [1996]. Girvin's de Valera is obsessively irredentist:
There could be no compromise on this issue ... his determination to unite the island under his rule. All else except the continuation of national sovereignty, he continued, should be subordinated to this aim. What de Valera was engaged in here was not diplomacy but generating national unity and support for his own party. [Page 15]
[The context is a Dáil Éireann debate, 18 July 1945, on Ireland's constitutional position. Girvin cites the Official Proceedings of the Dáil as his source.]
De Valera's acolytes included some very dubious customers. Joseph Walshe was de Valera's secretary for External Affairs (though de Valera reserved the ministry for external affairs for himself). Girvin nails Walshe as:
a conservative who considered Portugal under Salazar the 'best ruled country in Europe' as it was 'under an admirable Catholic government' [pp 123-4].
Frank Aiken directed "censorship, internal security and neutrality policy" [p 72]. Aiken
believed that Britain would lose the war and may actually have hoped that this would happen [p 126].
Aiken, in de Valera's presence, told Malcolm Macdonald, the British Dominions Secretary (and therefore responsible for relations with Éire) that Éire would have joined Germany against Britain to regain the Treaty ports, had they not been handed over in 1938 [p 133, citing a PRO minute]. Incidentally, Girvin prefers "Ireland" to "Éire" throughout, neatly but imprecisely side-stepping issues raised by the 1937 Constitution.

Censorship gets a good chewing from Girvin:
it built on an existing framework of literary surveillance that had resulted in some 1,700 books being banned over aten-year period. In addition, radio broadcasting was in government hands, and more generally the 1930s had been characterised by state intrusion and control at all levels of Irish society. [Page 84]
This begins the first of a score of references, several a number of pages long. Malcolm sees Cumann na nGaedhael (the pro-Treaty Government of 1923-1932) establishing the Free State on the basis of an alliance of interest between the Roman Catholic hierarchy, business, and the burgeoning bureaucracy. So Radio Éireann was a civil service fiefdom since its establishement in 1927. State Censorship of Publications came in 1929 (films had been controlled since 1923, in effect nationalising regulation inherited from the UK).

Aiken's apparatchiks were Michael Knightly (the chief press censor), Joseph Connolly (Contoller of censorship) and Thomas Coyne (recruited from the Justice Department as assistant controller). Girvin says:
Walshe demanded that censorship be used to promote the virtues of neutrality ... he argued that by adopting this policy Éire could influence the belligerents. Irelands's place as a 'Christian state' placed it in a favourable position to cooperate with other small states and 'the Vatican in particular'. [page 85]
Their first major achievement was to suborn the Irish Times:
... the editor R.M. Smyllie seemed anxious to explore the limits of censorship ... but in January 1940 the censors demanded the Irish Times submit all matter for publication in advance. The Irish Times capitulated ... [page 89]
Censorship quickly became pro-active and manipulative. In November 1939, the farmers and the Department of Agriculture could not agree a price increase, so farmers withheld supplies. The news was suppressed for three days: Aiken defended this on the basis of public safety. Death notices for those serving in the British forces were stopped. Since de Valera closely identified himself with the national interest, so any criticism of him (and, consequent on that, of Fianna Fáil) was censored. Girvin quotes de Valera in the Dáil (3 April 1941):
It is not in the interests of the community that the head of the Government, in circumstances like these, should be represented by any body ... as being animated by hatred or any such motive against one belligerent. It is untrue to start with, and it is not in the interest of the State. As long as this Government is here, it is not in the interests of the State that that should be done. [Page 220]
Accordingly, opposition parties were effectively muzzled:
... Fianna Fáil decided in early 1941 that Ireland was blockaded, but Fine Gael, independent members of the Seanad, the United States and the British all denied this. However, the only version that appeared in the press was the government version. [Page 223]
Despite all this, Fianna Fáil lost ground and its majority, in the June 1943 General Election. Fine Gael could call for a coalition National Government, but otherwise had no distinguishing policy, except to remain in the Commonwealth. Instead, the Labour Party and Clann na Talmhan (the farmers' party) made significant gains.

De Valera then had three pieces of luck (and Girvin is less sound here, in Malcolm's view). Inflation lessened. The Labour movement in Éire split. The US denounced neutrality and demanded the expulsion of Axis diplomats. Fianna Fáil, gaining by abstentions, appeared as the only nationalist party in sight, and so won back its overall majority in the 1944 Election. Aiken was promoted to Finance Minister in June 1945.

Girvin's conclusion is closely argued and effective. The issue that still has resonance is the denial of Treaty ports:
In 1943 the United States joint chiefs of staff agreed that American lives would be saved if ports and airbases were available to the Allies in Éire. De Valera never believed this and Joseph Walshe encouraged him in that view. Robert Menzies [Australian Prime Minister] discovered this when he met de Valera in April 1941 to discuss the ports. He was shocked at de Valera's indifference to the war and his apparent ignorance of the strategic importance of Ireland. [Page 321]

Girvin mentions, but does not consider in depth, the working arrangements between the Irish and British military. Below the level of high politics, dirty trade-offs happened. The more obvious ones were the "Donegal Corridor" and the differential treatment of internees. There was the flying-boat base at Foynes, on the Shannon Estuary. Boeing Clippers operated regular flights through Foynes: the figure of 1,400 aircraft movements and 15,000 passengers seems generally accepted (405 of the flights were made by Captain Charles Blair, later the husband of actress Maureen O'Hara). Most of those passengers were political (including Anthony Eden) or military.

An article by D. de Cogan and J. A. Kington in the Royal Meteorological Society's periodical Weather [November, 2001] discusses Foynes, and notes that the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty reserved anchorages, airfields, radio transmitters and submarine cables to British control. The 1938 settlement surrendered only the ports. [Professor] Hubert Lamb (later founder of the Climatic Research Unit at the UEA) had conveniently resigned, on grounds of conscientious objection, from the British Met. Office, in time to become officer-in-charge at Foynes in 1940. Britain, therefore, had access to weather data from Irish stations through the Irish Meteorological Service. Readings from the Blacksod lighthouse, Mayo, for Sunday 4th June, 1944, were what allowed Eisenhower to decide, "Let's go" for the Normandy Landings. Malcolm, instinctively suspicious, wonders whether re-occupying the Treaty ports by force ( a continuing thread in Girvin's book) might well have endangered more than it could gain. So, was Churchill stayed from precipitate action by some sage advice? Sphere: Related Content

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