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Pushing out the boundaries of Dominion Status

1926 saw further important steps taken in the development of Irish statehood, both within the framework of Anglo-Irish relations and on the wider international stage.

Throughout the 1920s, the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, led by President W.T. Cosgrave, strove to use the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty to assert national sovereignty. For the new State, this meant registering the Treaty with the new League of Nations, which it succeeded in doing in 1924 over the objections of the British government. It also meant pushing out the boundaries of Dominion status, an inevitability acknowledged later by one constitutional scholar who suggested that the Free State was “bound indeed to transform the entire framework of dominion association by its revolutionary origin and nationalist aspiration”.

1926- Pushing out the boundaries of Dominion Status

Thus the Irish took the lead in seeking to reform Dominion status, with the Imperial Conference of 1926 marking a key rendezvous in this process. The focus of Irish engagement at the 1926 conference was to seek to define the nature of the Commonwealth, so as to clearly establish the freedom and equality of the Dominions. They were joined in this effort by South Africa, with Canada also exerting a critical bellwether influence in favour of reform proposals. A biographer of Kevin O’Higgins, a key figure in the Irish delegation, noted wryly that “many of the balls fired at the conference by the Canadians were, unknown to the other delegations, manufactured by the Irish”. The success of their common efforts was reflected in the Conference’s Balfour Declaration, which described the Dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to each other in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs…”

The practical, legal meaning of this Declaration would be worked out in further conferences over the following years, culminating in the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This made clear the prerogative of Dominions to enact legislation on all matters affecting them and to repeal the applicability of existing Westminster legislation, with future legislation to apply only on the basis of consent. Over the following decade, the Statute of Westminster opened the way for the further loosening of ties between the new State and Britain, and the eventual replacement by the de Valera government of the 1922 Constitution in 1937 and a hollowing out of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Cooperation within the Commonwealth and as members of the League of Nations drew the Irish Free State and Canada closer together. 1926 saw the Free State make a first unsuccessful attempt to seek election to the League’s Council. The following year, Irish support helped Canada gain election to the Council, undermining British assertions that only they could represent the Dominions there, and in 1930 the Irish Free State took its own place on the Council. The growing importance of the Irish-Canadian bilateral relationship was underlined by the visit of President W.T. Cosgrave to Ottawa in 1928. Plans were made thereafter for the opening of a residential diplomatic mission in Ottawa, though these were not realised until 1939.

The strength of the relationship developed with Canada during these years testified to historic bonds of kith and kin, as well as shared interests and values. When Ireland finally left the Commonwealth in 1949 with the passage of the External Relations Act, it was Canada, along with Australia, who would help resist pressure within the Commonwealth for retaliation on trade preferences and migration issues.

Ambassador Jim Kelly

About the Author

Jim Kelly took up duty as Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada in September 2016. He previously served as Deputy Permanent Representative at Ireland’s Mission to the United Nations in New York (2008-13), and also served at Ireland’s Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels (2001-05) and at the Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark (1995-98). The balance of his diplomatic career to date has been spent at Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade HQ in Dublin where he has held a wide range of positions across the Department’s Political, Anglo-Irish, European and Development Cooperation Divisions.

1926 Handwritten letter from Ernest Blythe to Anne Blythe (Dublin)

Geneva 1926: Ernest Blythe, wearing nothing but a thick coating of cold cream, writes home

There are many treasures in the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy. Some of the best show the human side of diplomacy. This letter from Ernest Blythe to his wife, written on the day in 1926 that Germany was admitted to the League of Nations, is a real gem.

No. 27 UCDA P24/2252


Geneva, 8 September 1926


I am sitting in my room writing this with nothing on the upper part of my body but a thick coating of cold cream. The Assembly after voting the admission of Germany this morning adjourned from 12 o'clock till four. We immediately rushed to the bathing place and were in the water about ten minutes past twelve. We did not put on our clothes again till about a quarter to three. In consequence my shoulders and the upper part of my back have the colour of lobster and the feel of a hot linseed poultice. I am in hopes that the cold cream will make it possible for me to lie down after a while. When we had finished our bathe we got at a stall in the enclosure, i.e. lunch consisting of sausage, potatoes and onions cooked as in Irish stew, bread, a cup of black coffee and two bananas. We paid about two francs and a half for it and ate it sitting in our bathing pants on the sand. The bathing is the mixedest possible. The men's boxes up at one end of the enclosure and the women's at the other; but wives seem to dress and undress in the men's boxes. None of the women wear dresses with skirts and most of them have no backs. Girls up to fourteen or so wear six inch pants like the boys and can only be distinguished by their bobbed hair. In the water and on the sand are to be seen a good many Chinese or Japanese and a big number of Indians. Scores of the Europeans are burnt so brown that from the back they cannot be distinguished from Indians.

Yesterday's meeting of the First Commission was very funny. The President, a Swiss named Motta,1 made a long speech in French about the admission of Germany and the impossibility of proceeding with the Commission's work until the German delegates had taken their seats. While it was being translated he thought of a few more things to say and said them. While they were being translated he had a number of other bright ideas and let us have them. So it went on until he and the translator had each spoken about five times. Then M. Motta said that if nobody else wished to contribute to the discussion he would adjourn the Commission till Friday.

The Assembly business this morning was the admission of Germany, which was voted unanimously after a few well-justified protests about the way in which the Council had insisted in coupling it with the increase in the number of non-permanent seats from six to nine. In the evening session the Assembly was discussing the report of Council on the work of the League for the last year. There were a number of long speeches which as far as I could see were made in order that they might be reproduced in the home newspapers of the delegates who made them. I left after about an hour and a half.

The social side of the League is just beginning to operate. The Swiss Federal Council is giving a reception for all delegates (et dames) on Friday night. We are invited to a Canadian luncheon on Tuesday, and are ourselves arranging a couple of dinners for next week - one to the British Commonwealth delegates and one to members of the Second Commission, of which Desmond is chairman. We are leaving this Hotel for the Hôtel de la Paix tomorrow or Friday. Address letters there.

How did Lennox Robinson's play go off.


1 Guiseppe Motta (1871-1940), Department of Finance, Berne (1912-1919), Swiss Political Department, Berne (1920-40), President of Switzerland five times between 1915 and 1937, Vice-President (1914, 1919, 1926, 1931, 1936).

Niall Burgess, Secretary General, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.