Treaty Ports (Ireland)

Treaty Ports (Ireland)

After the Irish War of Independence when the Irish Free State won independence in 1922, three deep water Treaty Ports at Lough Swilly, Berehaven, and Queenstown (modern Cobh) were retained by the United Kingdom as sovereign bases. This was a condition of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 1921. [ [ Text of Anglo-Irish Treaty, 6 December 1921] ]

The existence of the ports was one of the causes of the Irish Civil War, where those who regarded the Treaty as a betrayal of Irish Republicanism fought against the forces of the nascent Free State. [ [ Transcript of Dáil session from December 1921 - Debate on the Treaty] . Robert Erskine Childers TD: " [Treaty Ports are] the most humiliating condition that can be inflicted on any nation claiming to be free.".]

The ports remained under the control of the UK until the passing of the Eire (Confirmation of Agreements) Act 1938 which gave effect to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1938. That Agreement also concluded the Anglo-Irish Trade War. The ports were returned to Ireland. From an Irish point of view, the handover of the ports in the leadup to World War II was felt to be vital to consolidate Ireland's neutrality during "The Emergency".

Some in Britain, including Winston Churchill, considered the handover a short-sighted decision, since at the start of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1939, the convoy escort refuelling facilities which Berehaven and Queenstown would have provided were 370 kilometres (200 miles) further out into the Atlantic than those which were available in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The bases became less important after the Allies established bases in Iceland following the British occupation in 1940.

Churchill criticises return of Ports

The Anglo-Irish Agreements of 1938 (signed by the Irish and British on 25 April 1938) were severely criticised by Winston Churchill M.P. The following are extracts from his Churchill's speech, one of the few M.P.s who was critical of the Agreement. Churchill warned of the folly of handing over the Treaty ports to the Irish Free State a warning which, it is interesting to recall, was supported by only a handful of Members of Parliament. [BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS THE RT. HON. WINSTON S. CHURCHILL C.H., M.P. NEW YORX , G. P. PUTNAM S SONS COPYRIGHT, BY WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, Printed and bound in United States of America By The Haddon Craftsmen, Inc., Camden, N. J., a collection of speeches by Mr. Winston Churchill on National Defense and Foreign Policy from 1932 to 1938] The speech was made in the House of Commons on 5 May 1938 while the Eire (Confirmation of Agreements) Bill was being debated:


:When I read this Agreement in the newspapers a week ago I was filled with surprise. On the face of it, we seem to give everything away and receive nothing in return...But then I supposed there was another side to the Agreement, and that we were to be granted some facilities and rights in Southern Ireland in time of war. That, I notice, was the view taken by a part of the Press, but soon Mr. de Valera in the Dail made it clear that he was under no obligations of any kind and, as the Prime Minister confirmed ...On the contrary, Mr. de Valera has not even abandoned his claim for the incorporation of Ulster...

:We are told that we have ended the age-long quarrel between England and Ireland, but that is clearly not true, because Mr. de Valera has said that he will never rest until Partition is swept away. Therefore, the real conflict has yet to come... [The Anglo-Irish] Treaty has been kept in the letter and the spirit by Great Britain, but the Treaty has been violated and repudiated in every detail by Mr. de Valera....The ports in question, Queenstown, Berehaven and Lough Swilly, are to be handed over unconditionally, with no guarantees of any kind, as a gesture of our trust and good will, as the Prime Minister said, to the Government of the Irish Republic.

:When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr. Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty...The Admiralty of those days assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered...If we are denied the use of Lough Swilly and have to work from Lamlash, we should strike 200 miles from the effective radius of our flotillas, out and home; and if we are denied Berehaven and Queenstown, and have to work from Pembroke Dock, we should strike 400 miles from their effective radius out and home. These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence.

:In 1922 the Irish delegates made no difficulty about this. They saw that it was vital to our safety that we should be able to use these ports and, therefore, the matter passed into the structure of the Treaty with out any serious controversy. Now we are to give them up, unconditionally, to an Irish Government led by men I do not want to use hard words whose rise to power has been proportionate to the animosity with which they have acted against this country, no doubt in pursuance of their own patriotic impulses, and whose present position in power is based upon the violation of solemn Treaty engagements.

:But what guarantee have you that Southern Ireland, or the Irish Republic, as they claim to be and you do not contradict them will not declare neutrality if we are engaged in war with some powerful nation? Under this Agreement, it seems to me...that Mr. de Valera’s Government will at some supreme moment of emergency demand the surrender of Ulster as an alternative to declaring neutrality.

:Mr. de Valera has given no undertaking, except to fight against Partition as the main object of his life. It would be a serious step for a Dublin Govern ment to attack these forts while they are in our possession and while we have the right to occupy them. It would be an easy step for a Dublin Government to deny their use to us once we have gone...You are casting away real and important means of security and survival for vain shadows and for ease.

Churchill also remarked that the concessions under the Agreements of 1938 were “astonishing triumphs” for Irish leader, Eamon de Valera. Churchill also asked would it not be"far better to give up the £10,000,000 [a one-off Irish payment under the Agreement] , and acquire the legal right, be it only on a lease granted by treaty, to use these harbours when necessary?" Mr Churchill also made a remark concerning the name by which the Irish state would henceforth be described in the UK (Eire) - "I have not been able to form a clear opinion on the exact juridical position of the Government of that portion of Ireland called Southern Ireland, which is now called Eire. That is a word which really has no application at the present time, and I must say, even from the point of view of the ordinary uses of English, that it is not customary to quote a term in a foreign language, a capital town, a geographical place, when there exists a perfectly well-known English equivalent [Ireland] . It is usual to say "Paris" not "Paree"."


ee also

* Irish Naval Service
* Plan W

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