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Speaking For Ourselves - League of Nations Conference on the limitation of naval armaments

Support for disarmament and arms control has been part of Irish diplomacy since the very beginning. When Ireland joined the League of Nations in 1923, we declared ourselves to be disarmed and Irish representatives provided firm support for efforts in the inter-war years to promote disarmament in the interest of peace. In June 1927, the League of Nations hosted a meeting of the conference on the limitation of naval armaments. Like many a conference on disarmament in Geneva, delegates to the Naval Disarmament Conference, including Ireland, ended by regretting the lack of agreement and hoping for another opportunity to make progress – described by The Irish Times as an expression of “pious hopes and equally pious regrets”. What was important was not what we said but rather that we said it, thereby asserting our international status. For this was the first time that Ireland, still a Dominion, spoke for herself at an international negotiation. The Minister for External Affairs had already informed London that, on this occasion, following the Imperial Conference Declaration on equal rights, only separate full powers to negotiate and sign would suffice. From now on, as the Secretary General pointed out in a Memo, the States of the Commonwealth were to be represented completely and exclusively by their own plenipotentiaries, appointed on the advice of their own governments. Therefore, for the first time in our history, at the June meeting, the State would be represented on this basis of complete independence. As the crisp telegram instructions from HQ to our representative at the League, Michael MacWhite, make clear - “Saorstat representative alone can speak for Saorstat” (Irish Free State).

1927: Speaking For Ourselves - League of Nations Conference on the limitation of naval armaments

Code telegram from Joseph P. Walshe to Michael MacWhite (Geneva) 

We can only imagine how MacWhite felt in that moment just before he spoke for his country at the conclusion of this meeting and after the British representative had already spoken, apparently assuming that he had spoken for us too. MacWhite does record in his report back to HQ that he had gathered from those present that his statement had made a profound impression on the audience, not so much for what it contained but for what it implied and particularly because he had stood apart. There is nothing quite like speaking for your country, especially on disarmament issues, or causing that little ripple of surprise. We’ve become quite good at it since then. Our current Disarmament and Non-Proliferation team are proud to continue this strong tradition of independent thinking as we progress Ireland’s agenda at the United Nations, in New York, Geneva and for the past two weeks in Vienna, from where I write, (coincidentally on Michael MacWhite’s birthday) and where we have been reviewing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As part of our commitment to the NPT and in order to reinforce and implement its Article VI, Ireland is among a group of states leading negotiations which will resume in June this year at the UN on a new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading to their total elimination. Over 130 other States and our partners in civil society will engage in these important negotiations. Ireland’s voice will, as always, demonstrate courage, vision and determination. 100 years on, Irish diplomats are still working at every opportunity on peace, prosperity and disarmament and we are still speaking for ourselves.

Helena Nolan

About the Author

Helena Nolan is Director for Disarmament & Non-Proliferation since September 2015, where she leads a dedicated and talented team. Helena joined DFAT in 1990, after beginning her career as an EO in the Department of Education in 1983 and she has also served on secondment at the Office of Science & Technology in the Department of Enterprise, as well as on assignments in Dar Es Salaam, London, Armagh and Kuala Lumpur. More recently, she was Director for Training & Development, where she led on a number of change initiatives for the Department and established the Gender Equality Network. She will commence her new role as bilateral Ambassador to Belgium and NATO PfP this Autumn.


 1927: Speaking For Ourselves - League of Nations Conference on the limitation of naval armaments