1923: Ireland joins the League of Nations
One hundred years ago, on 10 September 1923, the Irish Free State – not even one full year in existence – joined the League of Nations. On that day, a delegation led by William T Cosgrave, president of the Executive Council, entered the Palais des Nations in Geneva and asserted Ireland’s national sovereignty by joining the League, even though the country remained legally a British dominion. This act was immensely important as a sign of Ireland’s vision of its own reality and of its commitment to the international community.
In the summer 1970 issue of Studies, Patrick Keatinge, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at TCD and one-time Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, wrote a lengthy essay explaining Ireland’s relationship with the League and how it looked to further the causes of both sovereignty and security through it. In the excerpt below, Dr Keatinge gives the background to Ireland eventually joining the League in September 1923.
Photo: Members of the Irish delegation to the League of Nations, September 1923. The delegation was mostly made up of members of the Cumann na nGaedheal political party.
IRELAND AND THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
1916-1923: JOINING THE LEAGUE
The quest for membership of the League of Nations was not an easy one, no matter how desirable it appeared to Irish eyes. And it was for several groups in Ireland an important objective well before the League was established in 1919. During the Great War the feeling that diplomacy could no longer be left to the traditional diplomats had resulted in the formation of promotional groups, such as the League of Nations society started in Britain in 1915. By the beginning of 1918, at least, a similar organization was operating in this country-the Irish League of Nations Society. Possessing an address at 65 Middle Abbey Street and a committee liberally studded with M.P.s and J.P.s, this body seems to have been associated with the Westminster Nationalist Party. It subscribed to the general aims of its British counterpart in so far as it made broad proposals about the structure and functions of a post-war peace-keeping institution, but it also pursued a more specific objective-that Ireland should be represented at any postwar settlement or in any institution arising out of it.
It was on this point that the Nationalist Party’s attitude came closest to that of its principal rival, Sinn Fein. At the beginning of 1917, the reviving republican movement began to place great hopes in the post-war peace conference; after Count Plunkett’s electoral victory in April 1917 the question of appointing delegates was tackled and throughout the summer of 1917 and on into 1918 Arthur Griffith stressed that ‘the immediate objective is the Peace Conference’. Although this policy, with its dependence on international help, was not altogether in line with the original principles of Sinn Fein, it is not difficult to see why it was adopted. For a movement which had suffered the martyrdom of 1916 and whose leadership was dispersed and restricted, whose following in the country was growing but not yet tested, it was a reasonable departure to take.
Nevertheless, if it was understandable to try to gain equality with Britain by gaining membership of the post-war League-for this is what representation at the Peace Conference implied-some rather unrealistic assumptions lay behind the official Sinn Fein attitude. There was in the first place the assumption that states in general, if not Britain in particular, were sensitive to a vague concept of international justice. Perhaps too much weight was placed on the Allies’ commitment to the ‘rights of small nations’, forgetting that the ‘small nations’ most readily referred to by the Allies were those which lay in the hands of the Central Powers. There was also the assumption that after the war the British government would not have the nerve to try and settle other people’s problems without first settling its own; as late as September 1918 L.G. Redmond-Howard writes confidently that ‘one thing at least is certain, and it is this-that England cannot go to the Peace Conference with the Irish problem unsolved’.
This optimistic mood prevailed amongst all sections of Irish nationalist opinion as the Great War came to a close, the more so after President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” of 8 January 1918 had focused the attention of the world on the international role of the United States. It was not unreasonable to suppose that American influence would continue strongly in European politics after the war, and for Irishmen it was not unreasonable to suppose that a state where Irish influence appeared to be such an important electoral factor would intervene on behalf of Ireland rather than against her. Thus, following the sudden end of the war, and the general election which led to the dramatic appearance of the First Dáil, the Irish nationalists made a serious effort to participate in the Peace Conference. Delegates were appointed and in its ‘Message to The Free Nations of the World’ the Dáil called upon ‘…every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognizing Ireland’s national status and by her right to its vindication at the Peace Conference’.
Alas, these high hopes came to nothing. Sean T. O’Kelly’s delegation received as little attention as that of the Indo-Chinese nationalists, who included the man later to be known as Ho Chi Minh. On the 11 April 1919, with the League’s Covenant virtually drafted, the Dáil reconsidered the position. While ‘there was unanimous agreement on the principle of a world League which would include Ireland’, there were strong reservations about the form the new League seemed to be taking. Mr de Valera described it as ‘simply the form of tyranny . . . an association to perpetuate power for those who had got it’, while Harry Boland condemned it on the grounds that ‘any scheme built up by the British Government and by the Cecils must necessarily be evil to Ireland’. Nevertheless, the Dáil did approve the motion that ‘we are eager and ready to enter a World League of Nations based on equality of rights, in which the guarantees exchanged neither recognize nor imply a difference between big nations and small, between those that are powerful and those that are weak’. The proposer, Michael Collins, commented that ‘if President Wilson got the support he desired the hypocrites would be dished’.
Unfortunately, President Wilson was not inclined to dish the hypocrites whom Collins had in mind; indeed he looked on the machinations of the Irish-American groups which attempted to influence him as being a tiresome but secondary matter. The high point of this pressure came on the 7th of June, when the Senate voted by sixty votes to one that Ireland’s case be heard by the Peace Conference. Wilson was unmoved and though he and his supporters subsequently argued that Ireland’s case could at some time in the future be considered by the League of Nations this was of little interest to Irish republicans. It was of even less interest to his opponents in the Senate, and when, by the Spring of 1920, the United States’ jilting of the League was finally confirmed, it was clear that not only would Ireland remain outside the League, but her principal source of international support would be in a similar position.
This was a considerable disappointment to the Sinn Féin movement. The League of Nations became yet another instrument of British imperialism and was either ignored or attacked as a vast confidence trick. Francisque Gay, a French writer who favoured both Irish nationalism and League internationalism, sadly measured the unpopularity of the League in a tour of the best Republican salons; one French supporter of the Irish cause ’une religieuse de haute culture’- claimed, he wrote, that little else could be expected of an organization run by Freemasons in the city of Calvin. But if it was far-fetched to see the League as a Protestant plot it is nonetheless hard to deny R.M. Henry’s verdict in 1920, that the ‘League of Nations which the Peace Conference set up was expressly constructed to prevent interference with the Sovereign rights of its chief members as they existed at the time it was constructed’. In June 1921 this seemed to be borne out in the first dispute to come before the League’s Council, when the right of the Aaland islanders to secede from Finland and join Sweden was denied. By this time, of course, the idea of Irish membership of the League seemed little more than an historical aberration; in the context of the Anglo-Irish war it was yet another bitter deception to add to an already overburdened list of grievances and, for some Irish republicans, this view of the League was to persist throughout its existence.
Nearly three years after the Peace Conference, however, Ireland won an ambiguous form of Independence in the Treaty of December 1921. The subsequent split in the republican movement caused some polarization in attitudes towards Irish membership of the League, the opponents of the Treaty seeing Free State participation in international affairs as a farcical perversion of their original aims. On the other hand, the supporters of the Treaty in the Provisional Government were in favour of reverting to the policy of gaining international support for Irish aims and to them the League of Nations appeared as an obvious arena in which to pursue that policy.
Indeed, in the summer of 1921-before the Treaty was negotiated- Michael MacWhite had been sent to establish an office in Geneva and shortly after the Treaty was signed, on 17 January 1922, he interviewed the League’s Secretary-General, Sir Eric Drummond, on the requirements and procedure for applying for membership. By the summer of 1922 the provisional Minister for External Affairs, Mr Gavan Duffy, was determined to apply for membership, as much for the contribution he felt Ireland could make to the League as for the advantages she might gain from membership. In a memorandum dated 20 June 1922, he wrote that ‘Ireland in the League of Nations will be invaluable, because she may be expected to say plainly the things that everyone is thinking and that other powers are too cowardly to be the first to say’. Gavan Duffy may on this account be credited as one of the first supporters of an ‘active’ Irish policy in the League, while even after his short term of office he continued to raise the issue in the Dáil.
On 18 September 1922, the question of Irish membership was discussed briefly by the Dáil in the throes of civil war. Gavan Duffy claimed that ‘our application would be the test of the sincerity of England’, but the Government did not want to be rushed and Desmond Fitzgerald, Minister for External Affairs, amended the motion, to apply for membership ‘as and when the Government finds it advantageous’. He explained that it would be better to wait for the final acceptance of the Free State Constitution in order to avoid any anomalies, and it was in this form that the motion was carried by 44 votes to 19. It was, in fact, nearly seven months before the application was formally submitted, on 17 April 1923, and it was not until the 3rd of August that the necessary legislation -the League of Nations (Guarantee) Bill- was considered in the Dáil. On this occasion the Dáil establishing a tradition in dealing with foreign affairs outside the British Isles- had even less to say and the Bill was quickly passed. Thus, on 10 September 1923, Mr W.T. Cosgrave went to Geneva to receive for the Irish Free State membership of the League of Nations and was, in the words of the League historian, F.P. Walters, ‘accepted with universal pleasure’. He returned to Dublin to face the transitory euphoria of a civic reception and the protests of a defeated republican minority.
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