Analysis: while determined to remain neutral, Ireland could not remain aloof from the potentially devastating implications of the Cold War

By Eoin Kinsella, Royal Irish Academy

As a new world order emerged from the ashes of World War II, Ireland's diplomatic service swiftly adapted to the reality of a global stage dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. These were two superpowers with sharply opposing ideologies and growing nuclear arsenals. In recognition of the need to repair relations that had been damaged by its neutrality during the war, Irish foreign policy shifted towards multilateralism and engagement, epitomised by an application to join the United Nations in 1946. However, the realities of Cold War politics intervened, with Irish membership of the UN blocked by the USSR until 1955.

The impact of the Cold War threads subtly through Volume XII of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, which covers the lifetime of the 17th Dáil (October 1961 to April 1965). While determined to maintain its neutrality (an attitude that caused difficulties for its first application to join the EEC), Ireland could not remain aloof from the potentially devastating implications of the Cold War.

The realities of Cold War politics intervened, with Irish membership of the UN blocked by the USSR until 1955
 

Mindful of the need to maintain good relations with Western powers, yet determined to forge an independent path, Irish policy at the UN in the late 1950s and early 1960s was underpinned by a concerted push for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. That policy bore fruit on December 4th 1961 when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 1665 (XVI) – commonly known as the 'Irish resolution' – which called upon all member states to agree to prevent the spread of nuclear capability to states not already in possession of a nuclear arsenal. Two years later, Ireland was a firm supporter and signatory of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere or underwater.

In January 1962, Ireland began a temporary, year-long membership of the UN's most important body, the Security Council. The defining event of its tenure, and one of the most important in the Cold War, arrived in October 1962 when the Kennedy administration dramatically confronted the government of Nikita Khrushchev over the build-up of Soviet military strength in Cuba. Issuing an ultimatum for its withdrawal, American forces initiated a blockade of the island and sought international approval.

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From BBC Learning Zone, the history of the Cuban missile crisis

Taoiseach Seán Lemass was quick to assure the American administration of Ireland's support, an assurance that was immediately drawn upon. Both Lemass and Frank Aiken (Minister for External Affairs) were absent from Dublin in late October, leaving Sheila Murphy, Assistant Secretary at the Department of External Affairs, to handle the initial Irish response.

Murphy dealt with requests from the United States, Britain and Canada for copies of all manifest data and for searches to be made of all Cuban and Eastern Bloc flights that landed at Shannon airport en route to Cuba. The latter request raised some delicate legal matters regarding the authority under international treaties of the Irish government to conduct searches, with the resolution of the crisis in early November effectively rendering the point moot.

Just a few months later, in February 1963, the Soviet trawler Paltus was taken into custody in Waterford harbour and its crew arrested for illegally fishing within Irish territorial waters. The fallout required some careful diplomatic manoeuvring. Following receipt of a note on the incident from the Soviet Embassy in London, the Department of External Affairs' response had to be carefully worded to avoid any 'recognition by implication’ of the Soviet annexation of Latvia. Ireland had tacitly recognised the Soviet Union when supporting its admission to the League of Nations in 1935, but maintained no diplomatic presence in Moscow or, indeed, in any country east of the Iron Curtain throughout the 1960s.

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From British Pathé, "Red Trawler Arrested" report on the Russian trawler Paltus taken into custody in 1963 for illegally fishing within Irish territorial waters 

Though Dublin may not have been a hotspot of espionage during the 1960s, and Ireland hardly a high priority target for either side’s covert operations during the Cold War, Ireland’s diplomatic corps were required to tread carefully in their dealings with Russian diplomats.

In the final days of December 1963, Boris Zhiltsov, a third secretary at the Russian embassy in London, spent some time in Dublin. Shortly after his departure, the Department of Justice wrote to Hugh McCann, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, to say that Zhiltsov had been observed acting suspiciously. Moreover, Justice had recently learned that Zhiltsov (aka Boris Skoridov) held the rank of Major in the Russian intelligence service. It was advised that Ireland’s ambassador in London, Con Cremin, should be informed ‘so that Zhiltsov may be treated with circumspection in any dealings with him’. 

Ireland's diplomatic corps were required to tread carefully in their dealings with Russian diplomats

In early 1965, the first secretary at the Irish embassy in London, Andrew O’Rourke, was invited to lunch by Vyacheslav Dolgov, an attaché in the Soviet embassy’s political section. While much of their conversation was relatively mundane, O’Rourke reported that Dolgov repeatedly emphasised Moscow’s interest in developing deeper relations with the Irish government, and hinted at their willingness to see a diplomatic mission established in Moscow.

O’Rourke’s response – that as a small nation Ireland could not maintain a diplomatic presence in every country – was the standard response offered to countries with which the Irish government had no desire to establish formal relations. It was not until 1974 that an Irish embassy was established in Moscow.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol XII, 1961–1965, will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in November.

Dr Eoin Kinsella is an author and historical consultant, and was an assistant editor for Volume XII of the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ