The Department of External Affairs (DEA) was a Saorstát political institution formed in 1924, built upon the foundations of prior Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

This of the civil service, while overtly discriminated against by their peers in domestic branches of the Irish government as a department lacking direction and purpose, would later play a pivotal role in asserting Irish sovereignty on the world stage.

The DEA would utilise international organisations like the League of Nations and Commonwealth of Nations to whittle away at the legislative vestiges of British control in Ireland, and is therefore significant to developing an understanding of the Saorstát. The Department of External Affairs, despite its status in a fledgling Irish political apparatus, would—under the direction of it’s Secratary Joseph Walshe—serve to dictate Anglo-Irish relations throughout the 20th century.

The adamant Irish posturing for greater political independence within the Empire would spearhead the creation of dominion legislative independence, with the assistance of disgruntled British Dominions like South Africa and Canada in achieving such measures.

The persistence of the DEA at the British Imperial Conferences to adopt greater autonomy and distinguish the Free State from Crown and Commonwealth was spearheaded by the Pro-Treaty Cosgrave government, which believed that the Saorstát was capable of using international diplomacy to its advantage.

The final rulings of Irish involvement at the conferences were embodied in the 1926 Balfour Declaration and later 1931 Statute of Westminster, being key legislative achievements to freeing the Free State and thus simultaneously disjointing the Empire at the same time through the explicit ruling that Dominions were independent states, within a community of nations of which the English parliament could not legislate for.

Few British politicians were cognisant of the threat that an Irish Dominion may become to the integrity of the British Empire and Imperial unity, with the famous Anti-Treatyite Englishman Erskine Childers warning that “this Irish war, small as it may seem now, will, if it is persisted in, corrupt and eventually ruin not only your Army but your Empire itself.” Churchill himself expressed concern with the introduction of such legislation like the 1931 Statute, believing that such a ruling would provide the Free State with a basis to abrogate the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Such words may be taken at face-value as mere exaggeration or intimidation, but through an analysis of the Irish participation in the Imperial Conferences, and the foreign policy goals of the Department of External Affairs, the validity of the Irish threat to Imperial cohesion is clear. Under the direction of Joseph Walshe, the DEA was capable of utilising both Commonwealth and international institutions, such as the League of Nations (LN), for the purposes of reinforcing Ireland’s claim to national independence, as well as to consolidate international recognition outside of the British Imperial system, thereby distancing itself from British political influence within the Commonwealth.

To understand the legislative achievements of early Irish foreign policy, the following questions must first be asked: what were the specific foreign policy goals of the Saorstát?

What were the goals of the Irish Delegation at Versailles and how did the Anglo-Irish Treaty alter the diplomatic strategy of the Free State?

It is strange to suggest that Irish involvement within the British Empire would facilitate its ability to detach from such an institution, but with the culmination of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, and the alliances formed between the Irish delegation and those of other Dominions, it is irrefutable that such is the case. However, not only was Ireland’s right to legislative autonomy asserted at these conferences, but also that of the other Dominions–a welcome development amongst the other Dominions, who had through prior experience within the League of Nations with British perfidity, sought to distance themselves from Britain.

The Irish threat to the Empire from within is evident by the gradual detachment of the Dominions from Britian that would be facilitated by the landmark legislative products of the Imperial Conferences. Whilst Australia, New Zealand and Canada may have retained the Queen as a symbolic head of state to this day, they are indisputably independent from Britain. The Cold War decolonisation movement and the substitution of British political domineering for American financial imperialism by all Dominions acts to affirm the fragility of the British Empire engendered by the Balfour Declaration and Statute of Westminster.

The use of international political organisations acted to legitimise the Saorstát, and preemptively prepare it for a political and legislative opportunity that may bolster the independence of the new Irish state, such were the primary considerations of early Irish foreign policy, from which the  1948 Republic of Ireland Act would be the ultimate achievement, marking the definitive break of the Free State from the Empire. 

The Paris Peace Conference and the Formation of the Department of External Affairs

“The Nation of Ireland having proclaimed her national independence, calls through her elected representatives in Parliament assembled in the Irish Capital on January 21st, 1919, upon every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her right to its vindication at the [Paris] Peace Congress.”

  • Message to the Free Nations of the World, Dáil Éireann, 1919.

The advent of the Paris Peace Conference served as an ideal opportunity for the youthful Irish state to assert the sovereignty of the Irish nation, in hopes of securing international recognition through the conference. The inexperienced nature of Irish political organisation of the time induced an overlap of formal and casual communication strategies between members of the Irish government and establishing positive relationships with other European nations.

Joseph Walshe was first introduced to the Irish civil service through an open offer by Sean T. O’Kelly during his stay in France throughout the Conference. Walshe’s introduction to the Irish civil service was opportunistic and completely incidental, yet his strong academic credentials and legal expertise was a necessary boon, serving as a safeguard for the professionalism and capabilities of the Department..

Various strategies to appeal to the Major Powers at the Paris Peace Conference were employed, with a particular emphasis on President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in hopes that its terms, specifically that of the fifth point could be applied indiscriminately to the Irish nation:

The fifth point mandated “[a] free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.”

Despite the efforts of Irish diplomats in America and the sympathy of the Irish-American community, the post-war Anglo-American concord fostered a reluctance to extend the measures of the fifth point to Ireland at risk of upsetting Britain. Irish political aims were warmly received by Americans within the U.S. government, with personal promises assured to the Irish DFA that Ireland’s motions would be brought to President Wilsons desk in hopes of persuasion, though fruitless, such an endeavour was indicative of the early Pro-Irish sentiments of the American political establishment.

Several letters were sent from the Irish Delegation to the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, in hopes that his sincere hatred of Britain may persuade him to support Irelands claims. However, despite the popular sentiment promoted for the Irish cause by diplomatic rendezvous with Parisian journalists, the French government was unwilling to support the goals Irish Delegation, given the pre-ordained agenda of conference participants and the point-blank refusal of the British Delegation to permit Irish involvement.

Yet despite the conference’s refusal to consider the Irish Question, the Irish Delegation were not hindered in their efforts to assist the likeminded nations of the Empire. Sean T. O’Kelly wrote during his tenure in Paris that the Irish delegation was “in constant communication with the Egyptians and S. Africans… We have been so far acting in an advisory capacity to the Egyptian and S. African delegations, who look to us for aid and assistance in drawing up their documents and presenting their claims etc., to the conference and the press.”

With the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, Joseph Walshe would become the Secratary of the Department of Foreign Affairs through the Anti-Treatyite Robert Brennan, who having been offered the role himself was obliged to refuse by virtue of his standing on the Treaty. Walshe, an adamant supporter of the Treaty and utilising Commonwealth institutions to assert Ireland’s claims, would with his legal background and public servant mentality, be perfect for the role.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Commonwealth of Nations and the League of Nations

The terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty changed Irish diplomatic goals from achieving international recognition towards a gradual policy of distancing from Britain. The aims of the Irish state were now to accumulate more sovereignty than that which had been granted in the 1921 Treaty; this policy would manifest itself through the legislative opportunities of the Imperial Conferences to rupture the political unity of the British Empire. This Commonwealth oriented, largely cooperative foreign policy stategy was popular among Free Staters, but would later change under Dev to overtly seeking a dissolution of the articles binding the Free State to Britain.

The second article of the Anglo-Irish Treaty would explicitly define Ireland’s relationship to the British crown as follows: “Subject to the provisions hereinafter set out the position of the Irish Free State in relation to the Imperial Parliament and Government and otherwise shall be that of the Dominion of Canada, and the law, practice and constitutional usage governing the relationship of the Crown or the representative of the Crown and of the Imperial Parliament to the Dominion of Canada shall govern their relationship to the Irish Free State.”

This would place the Free State, as Canada and the other Dominions, subject to the highest court of appeal in the British Empire, the Judicial Committe of the Privy Council (JCPC). In theory, the committee was capable of appointing judges from each of the Dominions, but in practise was largely comprised of English judges as a means of ensuring British lordship over its extra-territorial possessions.

The Irish LN policy was used to supplement Imperial Conference goals by seeking ratification of International Treaties and affirming Irish distinction from Britain and the Commonwealth through League policy measures and statements. Such dissatisfaction with British Imperial oversight was rife amongst other colonies, particularly South Africa–who was at this time pursuing its own policy of distancing itself from England–and Canada, who sought independence from British political and legislative power over the Canadian government. Yet all Commonwealth nations were to sit within a British Bloc within the League and expected to vote in support of all British proposals by way of their suzrain statuses.

Britain refused to pledge its support to Canada’s aims to join the League’s Council, a decision that would contribute to the souring Anglo-Canadian relationship. Irish support for Canadian candidature, and the resulting success of Canadian aims would as an earlier benchmark for Irish-Canadian cooperation at the Imperial Conferences. The continued perfidity of British treatment of the Dominions within the League of Nations and Commonwealth systems would suggest to the Dominions, whether they knew it already or not, that Britian’s interests were not their own, and that Britain could never be a trustworthy or capable representative of their domestic or foreign policies.

The Imperial Conferences, the Statute of Westminster and Dominion Independence

The Department of External Affairs was essential in paving the legislative “path to freedom” through its achievements at the British Imperial Conferences. The 1926 and 1930 Imperial Conferences are of specific interest given their production of landmark legislation ruling in support of Dominion sovereignty in the Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster. The Department of External Affairs’ policy of utilising Commonwealth institutions for the purposes of coordination and cooperation to achieve Irish independence was a characteristic of the Cosgrave government, which was a sentiment mirrored in Walshe himself.

Preceding the 1926 conference, Walshe expressed concern over British federalist sentiment in regards to the empire, arguing that “[t]he stage of evolution at which the Dominions have arrived, the anxiety of the British to bring the Dominions more and more into their foreign policy, and the continued instability of Europe combine to make this Conference incomparably more important for the Dominions than any one that has preceded it.”

Cognisant of the distaste of British imperial overreach amongst the Dominions, the Irish delegates were keen to find allies in likeminded disgruntled Dominions such as Canada and South Africa, to such an extent that it must be noted that “many of the balls fired at the conference by the Canadians were, unknown to the other delegations, manufactured by the Irish.”

Kevin O’Higgins would attend the conference as a part of the Irish Delegation and would be  responsible for the insertion of a comma between King George V’s title as King of Great Britain and Ireland, so as to assert Ireland’s distinction from Britain as a political entity. O’Higgins had taken a keen interest in Walshe’s work at the DEA during his service as Minister for External Affairs in 1927 shortly before his assassination. The support of such an important figure within the Irish political machine was a welcome addition to a department that seemed to be under a continual threat of merger by domestic branches of the civil service unknowledgable the DEA’s importance.

The following excerp from the 1926 Baflour Declaration dictates clearly and distinctively the relationship between Britain and the Dominions in a watershed moment for Irish foreign policy: 

“The Committee are of opinion that nothing would be gained by attempting to lay down a Constitution for the British Empire. Its widely scattered parts have very different characteristics, very different histories, and are at very different stages of evolution; while, considered as a whole, it defies classification and bears no real resemblance to any other political organisation which now exists or has ever yet been tried. There is, however, one most important element in it which, from a strictly constitutional point of view, has now, as regards all vital matters, reached its full development—we refer to the group of self-governing communities composed of Great Britain and the Dominions. Their position and mutual relation may be readily defined. They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to 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

A foreigner endeavouring to understand the true character of the British Empire by the aid of this formula alone would tempted to think that it was devised rather to make mutual interference impossible than to make mutual co-operation easy.

Such a criticism, however, completely ignores the historic situation. The rapid evolution of the Oversea Dominions during the last fifty years has involved many complicated adjustments of old political machinery to changing conditions. The tendency towards equality of status was both right and inevitable. Geographical and other conditions made this impossible of attainment by the way of federation. The only alternative was by the way of autonomy; and along this road it has been steadily sought. Every self-governing member of the Empire is now the master of its destiny. In fact, if not always in form, it is subject to no compulsion whatever.”

Such a groundbreaking declaration would naturally serve to raise a litteny of economic and legislative questions across the Empire, which were to addressed in a failed 1929 imperial economic conference. The 1930 Imperial Conference would the successor to the 1929 conference, which sought to apply a proper legal framework to the political questions spurred by the Balfour Declaration. The 1929 conference failed as a result of persistent Irish and South African pressure for greater political freedoms, of which other parties were reluctant to accept.

Regardless, the 1930 Imperial Conference would produce the Statute of Westminster, ratified in 1931, and which addressed desires for greater autonomy amongst the Dominions in the following key rulings:

“No law and no provision of any law made after the commencement of this Act by the Parliament of a Dominion shall be void or inoperative on the ground that it is repugnant to the law of England, or to the provisions of any existing or future Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom, or to any order, rule or regulation made under any such Act, and the powers of the Parliament of a Dominion shall include the power to repeal or amend any such Act, order, rule or regulation in so far as the same is part of the law of the Dominion.”

“No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the commencement of this Act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion, unless it is expressly declared in that Act that that Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof.”

Despite the apparent grand success of the articles contained within the Statute of Westminster to Irish foreign policy goals, Walshe was concerned that the Statute would be inapplicable to the influence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), believing that it may become more of a hindrance than a help to Irish foreign policy as the statute standardised the relationship between the British Empire and the Commonwealth, but without addressing the oversight of the JCPC.

These concerns would be nullified following the JCPC’s rulings in favour of Dev’s removal of the Oath of Alliegance from the Irish Constitution despite its status as a direct violation of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was ruled in 1935 by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, on the appeal of the British government, that both the Free State abolition of the system of appeal to the JCPC and the removal of the Oath of Alliegance were valid under the Statute of Westminster.

The Abdication of King Edward VIII and the Republic of Ireland Act

Following the instatement of Fianna Fáil in the 1932 General Elections and Éamonn de Valera’s ascension the office of President of the Executive Council (PEC), he would recognise the importance of the DEA’s operations. Dev resorted to hold simultaneously his position as PEC and that of the Minister for External Affairs. Such a decision was initially of discontent to Walshe, especially given his perception of de Valera’s policies as “anti-clerical” and “pro-communist.” Walshe’s long-held distast for Dev and Fianna Fáil came to an end after coming to the realisation that he and de Valera saw eye-to-eye on many of the diplomatic operations and strategies of the Department of External Affairs. Walshe’s personal outlook on Irish foreign policy seems to have changed in this period of transition, in which his personal friendship with de Valera undoubtedly was a contributory factor.  

“From the outset, Walshe had to adjust to fundamental differences between the Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil governments. While Cosgrave had sought the development of the Irish Free State through the Commonwealth, de Valera was intent to advance through a revolutionary departure from it.”

  • Aengus Nolan, Joseph Walshe: Irish Foreign Policy 1922-1940.

For Walshe, Dev’s assumption of leadership meant that he “would continue to influence, guide and implement foreign policy, but ultimately de Valera would direct it.” Such a result was perfectly acceptable to the department and ushered the beginnings of a foreign policy that was overtly hostile towards the Empire and the Commonwealth.

Walshe’s efforts to remove the seal of the British crown from Irish external affairs documents was another, symbolic yet significant obstacle to Irish sovereignty. The presence of the British Crown seal on Saorstát documents affirmed its submission to British suzerainty, and was therefore objectionable to an Irish government determined to remove all obstacles to advancing the cause of Irish indpendence.

Walshe’s compromise with the British government was to replace the imperial seal with a national seal bearing the image of a harp and the current monarch’s head, whilst to permitting the presence of the King’s personal seal on documents already bearing his signature, a proposal that did not delegitimise the aims of the Irish government.

The importance of the seal was reiterated by Walshe, who sincerely believed that its removal added legitimacy to the claims of the Saorstát by removing the internal and external paradoxes suggested by the oneness communicated by British seals. By breaking the symbolic unity of the British and Irish governments suggested by the seal, the Free State had at that time advanced to a stage unparalleled throughout the Empire.

Walshe’s personal tendency to exaggerate the importance of the department’s achievements was naturally on display at the time of the event. Walshe went as for to tell the Irish government that: “If legislation and a full explanation is necessary you will have an opportunity of making a first-class political and international statement. You will be able to say that you have eliminated the last shadow of control of the British Government over the Irish Free State – that there is now no flaw internally or externally in the independence of the Saorstát.”

The 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII initiated a constitutional crisis throughout the Empire, as his resignation had, under the Statute of Westminster, to be ratified internally by each of the Dominions. Dev used the king’s abdication as an opportunity to remove all direct references to the authority of the king and Governor General from the Free State Constitution, choosing to retain only indirect mention of the Crown and Commonwealth in a manner which neither implicitly nor explicitly suggested Irish alliegance.

Such careful wordcraft is exemplified by the rushed 1936 External Relations Act, that whilst acknowledging the succession of George VI, did so in manner that stripped the Crown of its authority, stating that: “It is hereby declared and enacted that, so long as Saorstát Eireann is associated with the following nations, that is to say, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa, and so long as the king recognised by those nations as the symbol of their co-operation continues to act on behalf of each of those nations (on the advice of the several Governments thereof) for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements, the king so recognised may, and is hereby authorised to, act on behalf of Saorstát Eireann for the like purposes as and when advised by the Executive Council so to do.”

The British request to Saorstát Eireann to validate George VI’s ascension was ultimately accepted, though in an opportunistic transfer of the authorities of the king and Governor General, to the office of the Irish President. Though the 1936 External Relations Act would later be repealled by the 1948 Republic of Ireland Act, it was undoubtedly a stepping stone to Irish freedom. The Republic of Ireland Act served to definitively end Ireland’s legal dependency on the Commonwealth and British Crown, opening the stage for Saorstát Eireann to function as an independent state.

The capitulation of the Free State to British wishes, despite its divestation of Crown authority, cultivated an expectation of goodwill from the British government on future measures, such as the adoption of the 1937 Irish constitution and Britains 1938 cessation of the Treaty Ports. The cumulative product of the Department of External Affair’s cooperation and adversary within the Imperial system was to facilitate the legal basis from which Dev could instate the doctrine of Irish neutrality in an increasingly unstable Europe.


While the successes of the DEA are to be appreciated as essential to developing the independent authority of the Free State, it should be noted that between 1919 and 1948, Irish Foreign policy towards British often took on a compromising nature. The extent to which the Free State was capable of attaching its own resolutions to such compromises varied between the Commonwealth sympathisers of the Cumann na nGaedheal government and the departure from Commonwealth cooperation of the Fianna Fáil government.

It was from a mentality of pragmatism and compromise that the Free State was born, and through an Anglo-Irish legislative give-and-take that it would be sovereign. The compromising tendencies of the Free State have continued to guide its political establishment well into the twenty-first century, where direct political submission to Britain has now yielded to an Anglo-American financial, and cultural overlordship.

Early Irish foreign policy maintained a mixture of pragmatism and opportunism in its strategy, pursuing whichever route would most quickly bear fruit. The problems of the Free State have continually manifest themselves in a manner consistent with those of its early years, in which national policy was dictated according to the whims of the daily government.

Such a foolish obedience to political causes ‘greater’ than ones own has seen a radical departure from sound governance to an illogical domestic and a malignant foreign policy doctrine amongst the Irish political establishment. The persistence of the weak-willed characteristics of the Free State, and their subsequent encompassing of all aspects of the Irish political life lends to a sober realisation; the Irish Free State has become a vacuous administrative husk masquerading as a nation-state, that continues to adjust its policies not according to deep-held political conviction, but in conformity with the spirit of compromise and sycophancy to a greater political authority than ones own nation.

Despite being mired with faults, the rebellious and sovereign stages of the Free State’s political development staved off the worse aspects of the Irish colonial mentality, which in a world rife with globalism has come to embody all aspects of Ireland’s insipid political classes.

Posted by Ryan Kiersey

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