Roy Johnston reviews Con Cremin: Ireland's wartime diplomat by Niall Keogh, Mercier Press, ISBN 1 85635 4970, €20 pbk
THIS METICULOUSLY-researched book is essential reading for anyone interested in Ireland's international relations, particularly how Ireland survived the second world war.
Cremin joined the Dept of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in 1935, where he served his time with F H Boland, then handling League of Nations affairs, and incidentally provided lessons in ancient Greek for de Valera.
He was posted to Paris in 1937, serving till 1940, then to Berlin in 1943; he moved on to Lisbon in 1945, back to DFA 1946-50, then Paris again 1950-54, the Vatican 1954-56 and then, finally, London 1956-58. (I encountered him briefly in Paris in 1952, in the company of Muriel McSweeney, who was active on the diplomatic circuit on issues relating to Vatican influence, the then current one being Dr Browne and the Mother and Child Scheme; he handled us civilly, but I don't recollect the details.)
During his first Paris period he managed to persuade the Germans that the Irish College in Paris was Irish-owned, despite the French claiming it was British. As a result the Germans did not sequester it. He fixed up with Irish passports some Irish who had been in France with British passports.
He had a key role in the subsequent relations with the Vichy regime, before being sent to Berlin. Whilst in Berlin he made unsuccessful efforts to get visas for individual Jews, at the instigation of Bob Briscoe TD.
When in Berlin he was crippled by the obsolescence of Irish coding procedures; the Germans read all his stuff, and he knew they did. Continuing his attempts to rescue Jews, he managed to convey to the DFA the fact that extermination was going on. He was well informed about the various conflicting end-game concepts being considered in leading Nazi circles.
There are references to Sean Russell and Frank Ryan; the latter was known as Frank Richard, with the result that knowledge of his death was garbled. There is a cryptic footnote (179 on p292) about Francis Stuart, who "...was a brother-in-law to MacBride and when he was director of intelligence of the IRA he was largely responsible for their contacts with the Germans..". (This suggests that there is more work to be done on MacBride's role in the IRA during the war.)
The Portugal posting was unevenful, except perhaps as regards Cremin's role in discouraging a visit by de Valera, desired by Salazar. Then on home ground Cremin was critical of the composition of the 'Save the German Children Society' which had covert fascist and anti-semitic connections, though basically being well-intentioned.
Cremin was critical of MacBride, regarding him as naive. In his second Paris stint he reported competently on the complexities of French politics, and on the issue of German rearmament in the NATO and proto-EU diplomacy then taking shape in the Cold War.
Cremin's spell in the Vatican was a quasi-vacation for him, but he did get involved in the issue of partition, and how the Vatican channels of communication related to Northern Ireland. This remains anomalous. There was also the Ballina teachers dispute in 1956; the INTO complained to the Nuncio who referred them to McQuaid. Cremin's role was that of problem-identification; resolution was some time in coming!
Cremin's final London period, though dominated by Cold War issues, included the emergence of the d'Alton proposal for a united Ireland in return for joining the Commonwealth and NATO. This had the effect of stirring up some discussion, and a revival of interest in the role of Northern Ireland in political circles. The Anti-Partition League appears in the record, and some assessment of the emigrant Irish, though there is no reference to the Connolly Association.
Cremin's final appointment was to the UN where he worked from 1964 up to his retirement in 1974, where his role in putting Northern Ireland on record in the UN was significant. This latter period perhaps calls for further analysis.
All in all, we have a book which is perhaps not for the general reader, but rather for the specialist seeking for insights into the Irish diplomatic role in European affairs.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Roy Johnston