It all started with a Canadian fisheries treaty with the United States in 1923. Normally, when Canada concluded fisheries agreements, they were signed on Canada’s behalf by the British Ambassador to the United States. But in this case, for the first time the signature of a Canadian minister, Ernest Lapointe, was attached to the treaty. And this precedent opened the door for the nascent Irish Free State to operate a foreign policy independent of the United Kingdom.
As pro-Treaty forces gained control of the Irish government following the Civil War, the policy of the ruling party, Cumann na nGaedheal, and the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, W.T. Cosgrave, was to critically engage with the Commonwealth. Cumann na nGaedheal essentially controlled a one-party state because the party receiving the second most votes in the initial elections, Sinn Féin, refused to take its seats. Cumann na nGaedheal worked to develop precedents, international relationships, and participation in transnational organizations which would allow Ireland to assert itself as a legitimate, independent nation on equal standing with the other nations of the world.
Governed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and Commonwealth policy, the Irish Free State was initially denied diplomatic status equaling that of other independent countries. Still, early on, Cumann na nGaedheal’s policy was to gain the right to form diplomatic legations for the Irish Free State. In the United States in particular, the party emphasized the need to counter strong anti-Treaty sentiment amongst Irish-American nationalists, and to maintain nationalist networks that were a key source of funds for Ireland. Washington was the first place targeted to establish a Free State legation, and in 1924, Timothy Smiddy presented his credentials as the first Irish minister to the United States. Within the next few years, Canada and South Africa followed suit in opening their own legations as the dominions challenged the centralized control over imperial foreign policy. Ireland soon established further legations in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Vatican.
The League of Nations, which the Irish Free State joined in 1923, was another key venue to assert independence in foreign policy. The Free State government decided to register the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the secretariat as a way to highlight the equality of Ireland with every other member of the League. The Treaty was successfully registered in 1924, confirming that it was an agreement between two equal members of the League. While continuing to assert their autonomy from British foreign policy, the Irish sought to appear as a principled, disinterested, unselfish, and honest nation on the world stage. They supported disarmament, multilateralism, the rule of law, League arbitration of disputes, strengthening the position of small states, and protection of minorities. The League of Nations agenda meshed with the idealized foreign policy to which Ireland aspired. Symbolizing their strengthening position in the European system and international community, Ireland was elected to a non-permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations in 1930.
Engagement with the Commonwealth was also a key strategy of Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedheal. The Irish Free State pushed the boundaries of dominion status, acting as a catalyst to the evolving status of Commonwealth countries in this period. The dominions supported one another in their efforts to gaining greater autonomy. The Imperial Conference of 1926 produced the Balfour Declaration, which declared the dominions to be “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” Also a result of the Imperial Conferences in 1926 and 1930, the 1931 Statute of Westminster was a keystone in the achievement of autonomy for the countries in what was now known as the Commonwealth.
When Fianna Fáil took power in 1932, they continued Irish participation with the League of Nations but changed the approach to engagement the Commonwealth.
While much of Irish politics was still concerned with the rift over the Treaty in the first decade of the Irish Free State, Cumann na nGaedheal emphasized political and social stability. The party’s time in government was essentially conservative, with an emphasis on strong governance rather than social welfare, economic development, or seriously challenging the border issue. Their failure to revive the Irish language is often cited. Still, the pace of development and evolution in Ireland’s status in its relationship with Britain and the wider world in the first ten years of the Irish Free State is striking and it is interesting to consider the potential impact of alternative paths that could have been followed.
Gerard Keown, First of the Small Nations: The Beginnings of Irish Foreign Policy in the Interwar Years, 1919-1932 (Oxford, 2016).