David McCullagh reviews Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume XIII 1965-69, the latest in a series of publications as part of an ongoing public history project for the study of modern Irish history through diplomacy, created in partnership by the Royal Irish Academy, the National Archives, and the Department of Foreign Affairs.


Irish foreign policy in the second half of the 1960s was slapdash and hit-and-miss, with understaffing leading to poor performance.

A pretty damming assessment – especially as it was written by an official of the Department of External Affairs (as it then still was).

Admittedly, Tadhg O’Sullivan wrote the memo with the aim of securing more resources for his own section of the Department, but still, the document must have made for disturbing reading in Iveagh House.

He claimed that "the effort to conduct foreign affairs on a shoestring can lead to serious errors of judgment and to a dangerous over-extension of our resources", and warned that the situation was likely to get worse if Ireland was admitted to the EEC. [Document 306]

The memorandum is one of 544 original documents reproduced in the almost 1,000 pages of this, the 13th volume of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

The volume covers the years 1965 to 1969, the term of the Fianna Fail government led first by Seán Lemass and, from November 1966, by Jack Lynch.

Incoming Taoiseach Jack Lynch

While the Taoiseach changed, there was continuity in External Affairs, where Frank Aiken remained as Minister (and as Tánaiste), a seemingly immovable feature of Irish diplomacy (he had been Minister since 1957).

The period began with the confident expectation that Ireland would join the EEC (along with Britain) before the end of the decade, and that cross-Border relations would continue to improve.

Both assumptions were wrong.

France (or, rather, Charles de Gaulle) continued to block EEC entry, while the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland undermined the kind of co-operation envisaged by Seán Lemass.

Both he and Lynch aimed at building better relations with the Unionist government of Captain Terence O’Neill - much to the chagrin of Northern nationalists.

The very first document in the collection demonstrates the Government’s approach. A suggestion that Ireland should seek a seat on the UN’s sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities was rejected by Aiken, because of "our improving relations with the Six Counties". Membership would lead to "considerable pressure from groups in the Six Counties to espouse their cause in the United Nations. The possibility of accomplishing anything effective on their behalf would be slight and any activity of ours in this regard would be strongly resented by the Six County authorities." [Document 1]

Ian Paisley, pictured in 1966 (Image: Getty)

A suggestion from a leading anti-Partition campaigner in Britain for the establishment of an All-Party Advisory Group on a United Ireland was likewise rejected by External Affairs in October 1966. Aiken’s private secretary, presumably reflecting the Minister’s views, wrote that "an over-step of this kind at present would be inappropriate as to timing and might only play into the hands of extremists in the Six Counties". [Document 224]

The "extremists", including Ian Paisley, also threatened to derail Easter Rising commemorations. The Department worried that "community relations in the North have either greatly deteriorated or could very well do so in the near future as a result of bomb throwings, daubings, the commemorative ceremonies and the forthcoming General Election". [Document 167] It was a portent of things to come.

In November 1966, Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer commented to the Secretary of the Department, Hugh McCann, that while he was not opposed to closer links between Dublin and the Stormont authorities, "contact with the Nationalists should not be ignored as otherwise they would feel that they were forgotten about and would begin to despair". McCann replied that "we must have regard to the delicate position of Captain O’Neill vis-à-vis his extremists and we must not appear publicly to be conspiring with the Nationalists against him". [Document 237]

Paul Keating, Political Counsellor at the London Embassy, had his doubts about this policy, and argued for a renewal of links with the Nationalist MPs, despite the policy of friendship towards O’Neill: "While I agree that this prevents us from overt agitation on the Partition and discrimination questions, I feel it should not preclude us from more active links with both the Nationalists and other anti-Partition forces in the Six Counties." Keating made the important point that British supporters of the Civil Rights movement did not favour a United Ireland, they wanted a reformed Northern Ireland integrated in the UK. Keating argued that the Department should "maintain our anti-Partition and pro-unification base in the North and prevent it from being stolen for other causes". [Document 239]

In November 1967, McAteer renewed his complaints about the "widening gulf" between Northern Nationalists and the Government in Dublin, observing that "the Nationalists feel that they are now nobody’s children". [Document 359]

As late as October 1968, after the violent suppression of a civil rights march in Derry by the RUC, Aiken was still opposed to raising the incident, or partition in general, at the UN, arguing that "it would jeopardise the development of pressure on the Northern Government... any UN action would be likely to do more harm than good in the present delicate circumstances". [Document 470]

It would take a deterioration in the situation in the North, and a change in Minister, before policy took a more activist line.

A large proportion of the documents deal with Ireland’s attempt to get into the EEC, stymied by de Gaulle’s veto on British entry.

Minister for Industry and Commerce (and future President) Paddy Hillery

As a step on the road, Lemass pursued a free trade deal with Britain. Paddy Hillery, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, worried that the British would not offer sufficient concessions on agriculture to compensate for the losses industry might suffer: "there is no doubt that we will be taking a very big chance in opening our doors to them... It would be a disaster if ... industry not only failed to expand but actually shrank because of the British competition and agriculture was unable to take up the slack in employment and exports." [Document 83]

The negotiations were rocky – in November 1965, the Government expressed "considerable disappointment" at the progress, and sent a message to London that unless improved terms could be agreed, "the prospects for an agreement being concluded will be poor". The British claimed to be surprised, insisting they had "gone a long way to meet us in what was 'a terribly difficult position for them’. When and if countries such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore ‘woke up’ to what the British were offering to do for us, there would be ‘terrible trouble’..." [Documents 102 and 103]

The deal was eventually done in December 1965. Stormont officials informally asked Dublin for further concessions that would treat Northern Ireland more favourably than the rest of the UK, though they were careful to stress that "from the political point of view, it would have to be clear that there was no implication that the North was not part of the U.K." [Document 61]- a portent of the rows that would surround Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Lemass and later Lynch used the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement both to tie the Irish application to that of Britain, and to demonstrate Irish commitment to opening up the economy.

One of the arguments Irish diplomats made for Ireland joining the EEC at the same time as the UK was the land border on the island of Ireland "which would render the control of the free movement of persons and commodities virtually impossible" [537] - another hint of Brexit rows to come.

Charles de Gaulle with President Éamon de Valera during his visit to Ireland in June 1969.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In May 1967, de Gaulle poured cold water on the British application (and, by extension, that of Ireland), saying that Britain’s relationships with the Commonwealth and with the United States were incompatible with EEC membership. The value of Irish diplomatic missions abroad was evident in the rapid reporting from Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen on exactly how this development should be interpreted. [Documents 294 and 295]

The united front with the UK came under threat in July 1967, when British Foreign Secretary George Brown delivered a speech in The Hague, suggesting that Britain could join the EEC, with other applicant countries following later. Hugh McCann sniffily noted that "while we realised that, in the last analysis, Britain would always look after herself only", it might have been expected that the British government wouldn’t have raised the idea of delayed Irish entry in public. [Document 317]

The Irish repeatedly stressed they would accept all political obligations of membership – including on defence. According to External Affairs, "political union without the capacity and means to defend that union would be utterly meaningless... political union necessarily implies the formulation of a common defence policy... Equally clear is our willingness to participate in the common defence of the Community." However, it wasn’t clear that this would necessarily involve membership of NATO, and the Department noted in July 1967 that none of the existing EEC members had suggested NATO membership. [Document 325]

But that very month, the Belgian government told Lynch that they "wished to see members of the EEC also members of NATO". The point was answered by Lynch’s assurance that Ireland "is not neutral and is prepared to play a full political part in Europe in whatever way political unity may evolve and it was recognised that this could include defence". The Belgians were "very happy to hear this declaration"; the European Commission was similarly impressed, viewing this as "a most important statement". [Documents 326 and 327]

But EEC membership remained out of reach during this term of government – accession will no doubt form a major part of Volume 14 in the series.

Aiken’s attention was directed more to the UN than to Europe, and he doggedly pursued a new deal for funding peace-keeping operations, partly because Ireland was left footing the bill for sending troops to Cyprus, and partly out of principle.

The United Nations reaction to a reasonable request that costs should be repaid as promised was extraordinary. UN officials were "quite exercised" by the suggestion, while Secretary General U Thant was said to be "very much shaken" - which in diplomatic language meant furious. [Document 49] Aiken’s attempt to reform the system were ultimately unsuccessful, as tensions between the superpowers scuppered any agreement.

The attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria in May 1967 posed a significant challenge to the Department, given the presence of hundreds of Irish citizens in the area, mainly missionaries, and because of the stridently pro-secession stance pursued by some missionaries, particularly members of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

Aiken was opposed to secession, as it would lead to boundaries in other African countries being changed by force, which would lead to "no end to trouble". He was also worried that if Ireland, and particularly Irish missionaries, became identified with the Biafran cause, it would cause trouble for missionaries in other parts of Nigeria, and indeed throughout Africa. [Document 420] However, Aiken had to recognise that organisations seeking to help Biafra had "wide support", and the Department would have to be as helpful as possible to them: "we cannot have it said that we did not endeavour to assist them if they requested it in their humanitarian, if perhaps, somewhat misguided endeavour which has such widespread support from people in Ireland". [Document 453] Public opinion was asserting itself, a development which did not please the Minister.

There are plenty of other stories – the Portuguese representative in Dublin "quivering with emotion and... experiencing difficulty in restraining himself" as he complained about the failure to raise his status to Ambassador [Document 65]; the Irish Ambassador to Australia, Eoin MacWhite, encountering "the worst food and most incredibly bad hotels I have ever experienced" on a trip to New Zealand [Document 155]; and Ireland being praised by the Vatican for its "good work... in bringing out the Catholic viewpoint" on contraception in UN debates. [Document 141]

Then there was the complaint from the British Ambassador in April 1968 about the appearance on the Late Late Show of leading republicans Cathal Goulding (who he described as "a Communist operator") and Richard Behal. "He suggested that Mr. Gay Byrne organised these programmes merely to publicise himself and his programme without a due sense of responsibility towards the community." Hugh McCann explained "the delicate nature of the problem of seeking to influence what is put on by RTÉ and... doubted whether anything could be done in the matter". [Document 424]

And the revelation in December 1965 that the only daily newspaper sent to missions abroad was the (de Valera-owned, pro-Fianna Fáil) Irish Press. The rival Irish Independent was outraged, claiming that the Department was trying to brainwash Irish Embassies. Lemass wasn't impressed either at what he called "petty acts of discrimination". The Department quickly caved in, writing to the Editor of the Indo that it would from then on send copies of all the national dailies to its outposts abroad. [Documents 110 and 111]

Lemass also took up the cudgels for officials who travelled to London for the trade talks and had to pay their own way because the subsistence allowance was too low. The Taoiseach knew what he was talking about – he had to pay External Affairs £16 to cover extra expenses during a two-day trip to New York. The official allowance only just covered his hotel bill and, as he ruefully noted, "the meals (including those served in my apartment to Minister for External Affairs, the Ambassador and his staff) were on me". [Document 115]

It was another example of the penny-pinching highlighted by Tadhg O’Sullivan in the document quoted at the beginning.

But despite the accuracy of many of his complaints, these documents show that Irish foreign policy was not nearly as "slapdash" as he claimed.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume XIII 1965-69, edited by Michael Kennedy, Eunan O'Halpin, Kate O'Malley, Bernadette Whelan, Kevin O’Sullivan, Jennifer Redmond and John Gibney, is available now. Find out more about the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project here.