From Waterford to the World: Edward J. Phelan’s Journey to International Diplomacy

The importance of Ireland’s entry into the International Labour Organisation, the ILO, and the League of Nations one hundred years ago was highlighted at the Irish Labour History Society Conference which was held in September and supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. At the conference, Gerry Finnegan with twenty years’ experience of working with the ILO described the assistance that was provided to the Irish government by an experienced British civil servant in their efforts to have Ireland recognised as an independent state internationally. The League, which had been founded at the conclusion of World War I was an intergovernmental organisation established to maintain peace by the settlement of international disputes. The ILO, also set up by the Treaty of Versailles was based on the belief that lasting peace can only be accomplished if it’s based on social justice. Although the League no longer exists, many of its ideologies live on today in the United Nations. It was only after the Second World War that the ILO became a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Ireland’s influential international voice as recognised by its election to the United Nations Security Council in 2020 stems from its steadfast commitment to peace, justice and human rights. The path to Ireland’s global peace efforts can be traced back to the foundation of the state and the importance of being recognised as an independent nation. That path to international recognition was carefully directed by the Irish Government but not only by Irish officials. There was also the guiding hand of a British official, who happened to be an Irishman, that was perhaps of even greater importance. Edward J. Phelan played a prominent, albeit a silent role, in assisting Ireland to gain membership of the League of Nations. From a Waterford perspective Phelan is a statesman to be proud of – he was born in Tramore in 1888 and his father, a seafarer, came from Cheekpoint.

Although his early years were spent on the Waterford coast, Edward moved to Liverpool when he was seven years of age. His family retained a strong sense of their Irish identity and returned home to the south east every year. Phelan was educated at Liverpool University and joined the British Civil Service. His first posting was to the Board of Trade where he investigated social issues including the cost of living, rent and housing conditions. He subsequently played a leading role in developing the British proposal for the establishment of the ILO which was submitted to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Phelan knew the ILO in depth having participated in the drafting of its Constitution and it was this knowledge and experience of British officialdom that he brought to bear while guiding Irish officials towards gaining international recognition by the League of Nations.

By the early 1920s with the League of Nation’s headquarters located there, Geneva was the primary meeting place for nations. The newly founded Irish state with ambitions to join the League appointed Michael MacWhite as their representative. He was introduced to Phelan who was residing in Geneva, was the third highest ranking official of the ILO and the President of the influential International Club of Geneva. In essence, Phelan was a major figure of the international diplomatic scene. MacWhite wrote to the Irish Government and described Phelan as a man of ‘outstanding ability’ whose knowledge enabled him to coordinate the different services of Britain, France and other continental countries. Shortly thereafter a delegation from Dáil Éireann met with Phelan in Paris. For Phelan this was a groundbreaking meeting and he pledged his informal support for the new Irish Government in their efforts to join the League of Nations. It must be remembered that Britain, at this time, had argued the Irish Free State was a dominion and not an independent country. With Phelan’s experience and influence as seen by his correspondence to the Irish Government, on September 10th 1923, the Irish Free State took its place among the nations of the world. The importance of international recognition of the Irish Free State cannot be understated and was indeed an acknowledgement that Ireland was a sovereign entity. The subsequent registration of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the League meant the members regarded the Irish Free State as a sovereign nation on a par with the United Kingdom. A position that was finally accepted by the British in 1926.

Following his efforts for Ireland, Phelan continued to work for the ILO. He was appointed Assistant Director in 1933 and Deputy Director in 1938, became Acting Director in 1941, and in 1946, was appointed Director-General with retrospective effect from 1941. During the war years, the ILO did all that it could to keep its objectives for social justice alive. Prevented from working in Europe during the war, advisory missions on social insurance were sent to countries in Latin America and elsewhere. The information programme was continued through the International Labour Review and various special publications. Close contact was maintained with Washington and London, where plans were developed for a new international organization to succeed the League of Nations. In April 1944 at a meeting in Philadelphia and at the height of the second world war, the International Labour Conference – composed of tripartite delegates from 41 countries – agreed on seven Recommendations designed to deal with emerging problems in the fields of social security and employment, as well as social policy in dependent territories. The Declaration of Philadelphia was adopted and entrusted the ILO with a special responsibility to the peoples of the world to examine and consider international economic and financial policies in the broader context of policies governing wages and working hours.

In June 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was adopted and a new pattern of postwar international organization began to emerge. The International Labour Conference met in Paris and set to work to revise the Constitution to meet the demands of the postwar era. In 1946, negotiations began between the ILO and the United Nations. The resulting Agreement was the first of its kind to be concluded between the United Nations and a specialized agency, and served to a large extent as the model for subsequent agreements. Another significant achievement under Phelan’s leadership of the ILO, was the adoption of Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and the right to organize by the International Labour Conference in 1948. Edward Phelan died in Geneva on 15 September 1967. At the annual Edward Phelan Lecture at Galway University in 2015, President Higgins stated Phelan was a man who worked ‘steadfastly to forge international labour standards that were grounded in a universalist vision of social justice’. Edward Phelan from Waterford, remains an individual to be proud of.


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