Leopold H. Kerney

Written and compiled by Eamon C. Kerney

Libel Action

This would have been the end of the matter but for the fact that in 1953 a series of articles on Irish neutrality were published by T. Desmond Williams first in the Leader and shortly after in the Irish Press which printed them as a sensational item. Williams had worked for British intelligence during the Second World War and subsequently for the British Foreign Office from September 1947 to September 1949. He was appointed Professor of History at U.C.D. in 1949. Part of his task, working for the British, was to examine captured German documents and in this connection he seems to have come across a number of reports relating to Clissmann's and Veesenmayer's visits to Spain and apparently almost exclusively on the basis of these he wrote the relevant portions of these articles. It was striking that in no case did he quote any references to his sources, perhaps being prevented by the British authorities from doing so. There is not a single verbatim quotation from any of these and we have to accept his word for their nature and interpretation. It is of interest to note that while these documents were eventually published by the British and American Governments under the title Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918 to 1945, it had been decided as a matter of editorial policy to confine the period to 1933 (Hitler's coming to power) to 11th December 1941 (Germany's declaration of war on the U.S.), this being covered in 13 volumes. This is almost entirely outside the period during which Kerney had contacts with Clissmann and Veesenmayer. Williams had been appointed as one of the editors of this work and the 1942 period was outside the scope of his remit. Perhaps this was another reason for not quoting references. He may, of course, have come across some of this material while working for British intelligence at an earlier date when the object may have been to find incriminating evidence relating to German prisoners. While it has to be acknowledged that official documents were not freely available at the time, there was nothing to prevent him checking his sources with the former Irish Minister to Spain who was then living in retirement in Dublin, nor indeed with Helmut Clissmann who was likewise living in Dublin. It is not clear whether he worked from the original German texts or from a translation provided by British services. In either case errors in interpretation can easily occur in translation, a point made by Clissmann that when he was being interrogated and was confronted with English translations of his reports he considered these to be inaccurate. [48] As noted previously some of the German reports may have ended up severely distorted partly due to the summarising and editing process and also no doubt due to the fact that those writing and transmitting the reports had their own objectives in mind and would not be averse to colour their reports accordingly. On the basis of this completely one-sided view Williams produced a heavily biased account of the events of 1941 and 1942 which was riddled with inaccuracies and, with only the slightest of reservations, made scathing comments attacking Kerney's integrity. It is amazing that on the basis of documents, details of which have apparently never been revealed, Williams should have proceeded to indulge in character assassination of this kind.

Needless to say, this called for a response. In the first instance Kerney asked the Dept. of External Affairs to release his report on the 1942 discussion which would have gone some way to contradicting Williams, but, not wishing to be involved, this was eventually refused, pleading the national interest which at that time was of course a bogus reason. The attitude of the Department was apparently not to lift a finger in support of their former employee notwithstanding that he had recently been severely ill with a heart condition. He remarked at the time that it would be to his opponents' advantage if he were to succumb to his illness. There was thus no option but to take a legal action against Williams, the Irish Press and the Leader, in spite of being severely hampered by the Official Secrets Act. This dragged on until the 4th November 1954 when the defendants decided to settle the matter out of court. Kerney was not a vindictive man. It had been put to him that the Leader was a minor newspaper which could easily be bankrupted and that heavy damages against Williams could ruin his career. He consequently requested only nominal damages from them but not so from the Irish Press by which he felt he had been stabbed in the back. He had been one of the original shareholders and had always supported it; it was the newspaper read by most of his friends. As far as he was concerned the most important point was that his good name should be cleared and what he wanted most of all was a full apology and retraction of the damaging allegations made.

This was obtained and a statement read in court which was published as follows: "Mr. James McMahon S.C. .....who represented the Leader and Professor Williams, said he was instructed to state that Professor Williams wished to withdraw unreservedly the imputations on Mr. Kerney and to state that any such imputations were based on statements now proved to be wrong. Professor Williams accepted Mr. Kerney's account and regretted the imputations and apologised for them." [49] This would appear to have settled the matter once and for all, but - incredibly - historians since that time have repeatedly glossed over or ignored this libel action and its outcome and have uncritically accepted Williams' unreferenced, unquoted sources, not even at face value but at the value which he assigned to them without any justification. They have relied almost entirely on Williams' account although this should have been discredited by his own admission that his conclusions were erroneous. Perhaps the only excuse that could be made for Williams was his relative youthfulness and inexperience at that time. Far from endangering Ireland's neutrality by his one conversation with Veesenmayer, Kerney made it clear that any initiative by Germany would not be welcome in Ireland and if necessary would be resisted by force. How this was reported to various quarters in Germany was beyond his control.

Kerney had been out of Ireland for most of his life and while, after 1919, he struck up friendships and acquaintances with various people connected with the nationalist movement, his contacts would have been generally brief and this would also have been the case with de Valera. What impressed him most regarding the latter were his policy statements and speeches which he had studied carefully. These would have been his main source of information and it certainly seems that he was not briefed as to how de Valera's neutrality policy evolved after the start of the war. He was consequently left to put his own interpretation as to what was national policy at any particular time. His conversations with Clissmann were totally informal; he would merely have expressed his own personal opinions and he kept no record of them. When, however, German documents were purported to attribute various statements to him he was able to deny categorically that he could have made some of these, some of which were quite outlandish. This was in fact confirmed by Clissmann himself. [50] It must also be said that Kerney had enemies in Ireland, in particular Joe Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, who had been hostile to him since the days of 1919 and 1921.

Williams wrote in his articles that "it is rumoured in fact that he (de Valera) was very angry ..... and that subsequently the latter (Kerney) was sharply rebuked for his indiscretion." [51] Other historians have since repeated that Kerney had incurred de Valera's wrath on this matter. This is in fact totally without foundation; Williams' "rumour" probably originated from Walshe. In connection with Kerney's visit to the Department in 1943, F.H. Boland wrote in 1954 that "the then Secretary (Walshe) told me at the time that the Taoiseach had spoken to Kerney very seriously indeed." [52] However, Walshe was not present at that meeting and Kerney's notes on the matter are very explicit: the matter of the Veesenmayer meeting was not mentioned at all on that occasion, nor was it raised by any official of the Department during Kerney's visit. [53] It did not provoke any rebuke, sharp or otherwise. [54]

[48] Kerney Private Papers: Notes by H. Clissmann dated 8th October 1954
[49] Irish Press, 5th November 1954
[50] Kerney Private Papers: Notes by Helmut Clissmann dated 23rd April 1954
[51] Irish Press, 11th July 1953
[52] NAI, D/FA File A47
[53] Kerney Private Papers: Notes by L.H.Kerney dated 11th October 1954 and personal diary of 1943
[54] Kerney Private Papers: Memorandum by L.H.Kerney dated 23rd July 1953