Thursday, 20 February 1941
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Dillon: asked the Minister for External Affairs whether it is a fact that Irish ships have been bombed and Irish seamen machine-gunned when trying to escape in their boats by German aeroplanes, and, if so, will he arrange to have defensive armaments installed on Irish ships so as to enable  our seamen to defend themselves against such attacks.
(2) Since September, 1939, eight Irish vessels have been attacked. Two of these vessels were attacked twice, making a total of ten attacks. In these attacks, four of the eight vessels were sunk, 20 lives were lost, and seven men were injured.
(3) In addition to these four vessels, five were lost in other ways. Three sank as a result of striking mines. The causes of the loss of the other two are not definitely known. The total number of Irish vessels sunk in various ways since the beginning of the war is thus nine, with an aggregate gross tonnage of 14,205 tons.
(4) Four of the ten attacks on Irish ships occurred within a radius of 20 or 30 miles from our coast. Of the others, three occurred in the Atlantic west of the coast of France, one off the Scottish coast, one 40 miles north-west of Land's End, one in the middle of the Irish Sea, and one in the River Mersey. Of the nine Irish vessels sunk since the beginning of the war, two sank within a radius of 20 or 30 miles from our coast. Three sank in or near British ports, and two in the Atlantic some 100 miles west of the French coast. The exact places where the other two vessels sank are not known.
(5) Seven of the ten attacks on Irish ships were made from the air. In two of these seven cases the vessel concerned was machine-gunned as well as bombed. I have received no specific charge that in any case the crew were machine-gunned while actually in their boats escaping from the ship, but in one case the Master of the vessel reported that four machine-gun attacks were made on his ship and one of these took place after the order to take to the boats had been given and while the crew were carrying it out. In all but one of these seven air attacks, the markings of the attacking aircraft were  identified as German. It is right to say, however, that I have also received reports of cases in which German aircraft have circled and examined Irish ships at sea without attacking them.
(6) The loss of Irish lives and the sinking of Irish ships have naturally occasioned feelings of resentment here which we have not failed to voice, through the official channel, to the Governments concerned. In every case in which the circumstances enabled us to do so, we have protested, lodged a claim for compensation and reserved all the rights to which we are entitled by International law.
(7) It is well, however, that we should be clear as to the position in this regard. On the 17th August last the German Government declared a large area of sea around Britain to be a scene of warlike operations at sea and in the air, and announced that shipping operating in this area exposed itself to destruction. The validity of this type of general declaration was challenged by neutrals in the last war, and it is a matter in which we, as a neutral in this war, reserve all our rights. We must remember, however, that in the past, many States found that the only effective remedy against the danger to their shipping resulting from blockades was to prohibit their ships from sailing to the blockaded ports, or at least to warn them that, if they tried to enter them, they did so at their own risk. Even in the present war certain neutrals, including great Powers, have taken the same step rather than incur the risks which the operation of their shipping in the waters round these islands would involve. For us such a course is not practicable, but there is no good in blinding ourselves to the fact that, by not taking it, we incur the risks against which other States, even great Powers, have taken the precautions to which I have referred as the effective remedy.
(8) As regards the question of defensive armament on our ships, the Government is not satisfied that the advantages of installing defensive on Irish ships would outweigh  the disadvantages. There would be considerable risk that the arming of Irish ships, far from obviating such incidents as have occurred, would tend to make them more frequent, thereby increasing the danger to Irish life and property.
Mr. Dillon: Arising out of the Minister's reply, leaving aside for the moment the international problem created by raising the question of the legitimacy of bombing neutral ships upon the high seas, does the Minister not appreciate that the machine-gunning of our sailors when they are abandoning the ship and taking to the boats is an entirely different kind of crime, done apparently for the sole purpose of murdering men who are going on their legitimate business, and does it not merit a very different kind of protest from that which would ordinarily be made about the sinking of a ship without loss of life? Secondly, has the Minister's attention also been directed to the fact that, if certain German aeroplanes have circled our ships and gone away, others have insolently come down, recognised our national flag upon the ship, and then, tearing the wireless aerial off the ship with its undercarriage, have proceeded to bomb and attack the vessel?
The Taoiseach: I am quite prepared to give an answer to any question which the Deputy may put on the paper, any question in accordance with the Standing Orders, or to any supplementary question intended to  clarify any point which has been raised in my answer.
An Ceann Comhairle: There are two points in the Deputy's question: number one, whether it is a fact that Irish ships have been bombed; and number two, whether defensive armaments will be installed on Irish ships. There are no other two points in the original question.
Mr. Dillon: Yes, and the Taoiseach has said in the course of his reply that he desires to remind the House that German aeroplanes have, on occasions circled our ships and, seeing our flag, withdrawn. I asked him whether his attention has also been directed to the fact that other aeroplanes flagrantly tore the wireless aerial off our ships——
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