Maffey, John Loader (1877–1969), 1st Baron Rugby , ‘UK representative to Éire’, was born 1 July 1877 in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, younger son of Thomas Maffey, commercial traveller, and Mary Penelope Maffey (née Loader). He was educated at Rugby School and was a scholar of Christ Church, Oxford, of which he was later an honorary Student. He entered the Indian civil service (1899), and transferred to the political department (1905). After serving with the Mohmand field force (1908), he was political agent, Khyber (1909–12); deputy commissioner, Peshawar (1914–15); deputy secretary in the foreign and political department of the government of India (1915–16); and private secretary to the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford (1916–20). He held these offices during the difficult war years and amid growing pressure for constitutional reform, and was judged tactful and knowledgeable, being particularly useful in smoothing relations between the viceroy and the visiting secretary of state for India, E. S. Montagu.
As chief commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province (1921–4), he was praised for his handling of the kidnapping of the 17-year-old Mollie Ellis by tribesmen. He secured her release without sending in troops or paying the high ransom. However, he resigned from this post in 1924 when his advice against military occupation was ignored. Two years later he was made governor-general of Sudan (1926–33), where he initiated a policy of devolution to the local assemblies, the Gezira. This was intended to offset the influence of the educated Sudanese, of whom he was wary since observing the rise of nationalism among the elite in India. However, his policy of shoring up the power of local sheikhs created problems for his successors. After leaving Sudan he was appointed permanent under-secretary of state for the colonies (1933–7). He retired at the age of 60 and became a director of Rio Tinto Co. and Imperial Airways. His awards included CIE (1916), CSI (1920), KCVO (1921), KCMG (1931), KCB (1934), and GCMG (1935).
After the outbreak of war in September 1939, Maffey was sent to Dublin to discuss the implications of neutrality and new arrangements for diplomatic relations between the two countries. De Valera (qv) insisted the visit be kept secret, so Maffey arrived incognito (using the name ‘Smith’) and the meeting took place in the Department of Agriculture. A week later (22 September) Maffey was officially appointed to Dublin. His title presented difficulties. They compromised on ‘United Kingdom representative to Éire’ (de Valera having replaced ‘in’ with ‘to’ at the last moment). Maffey occupied this role until 1949.
His position required all the adroitness, tact, and experience he had acquired in India and Sudan; he had to establish diplomatic relations with a country in an anomalous position, remaining sensitive to the Irish government's wish to be treated as fully independent and the British government's insistence that Ireland was the concern of the Dominions Office, not the Foreign Office. To this was added the stress of war, the question of neutrality, and Maffey's unenviable position as conduit between two exceptionally difficult and stubborn premiers: de Valera and Churchill. Maffey's view was that ‘this temperamental country needs quiet treatment and a patient, consistent policy’ (quoted in Duggan, 227–8), but since ‘temperamental’ applied equally to Churchill, quiet treatment was not always possible: after the attack on Pearl Harbour Maffey had to wake de Valera at 1.30 a.m. to deliver Churchill's celebrated ‘Now or never. A nation once again’ cable.
Maffey shared Churchill's frustration over the treaty ports, but blamed the situation on the British negotiators in 1938 whom ‘de Valera had bluffed . . . his success has been a tragedy for both countries’ (quoted in Duggan, 168), and thought it unlikely the agreement could be reversed during war. This view was informed by his understanding of de Valera's character, which he judged narrow, intransigent, and potentially troublesome if pushed too far. (His explanation for the much debated condolence call to the German minister, Eduard Hempel (qv), after Hitler's death was that de Valera was reacting to recent American pressure to seize German legation files.) However, Maffey was also genuinely convinced by de Valera's argument that he could not give up the ports, even if he wanted to, because of the mood in the country; and also that Irish neutrality was friendly towards Britain, and that the government was in fact quietly helping the allied war effort. Concerned to mitigate London's resentment towards Ireland, Maffey repeatedly stressed these points in despatches, noting in 1939 that ‘any tampering with the ports would raise a storm here’ (quoted in Dwyer, De Valera, 231), and in 1940 commending Éire's cooperation ‘in the way of intelligence reports, coded weather reports, prompt reports of submarine movements, free use of Lough Foyle and the air over Donegal shore and territorial waters’ (Duggan, 135). He also noted that neutrality allowed de Valera a free hand to deal harshly with the IRA.
In the tense summer of 1940, when German attack through Ireland seemed a possibility, Maffey departed from his usual line of defending neutrality and suggested playing the Northern Ireland card. He was influenced by de Valera's probably disingenuous hints that if action were taken on partition, Ireland might change its policy. Maffey advised (3 June) a forceful, interventionist approach, promoting Irish unity, and giving an ultimatum to the Northern Ireland premier, Lord Craigavon (qv). This led to a qualified British government offer of unity three weeks later, which outraged Craigavon, and which de Valera rejected.
Maffey's eventual view of neutrality – that it was non-negotiable because of the will of the Irish people, and that it did not adversely affect the British war effort – was actually closer to de Valera's than to Churchill's, and he was concerned to contain the prime minister's more incendiary moves. When Churchill threatened in March 1944 to isolate Ireland through a travel ban, and perhaps economic sanctions, Maffey reassured de Valera that the ‘twist’ in Churchill's speech did not represent official British government policy. After Churchill's victory broadcast in which he took a swipe at de Valera, Maffey complained to the Dominions Office that the prime minister had lost Britain the moral high ground and given undue prominence to de Valera.
Maffey's attitude was in marked contrast to that of the American representative, David Gray (qv) who constantly harangued and threatened de Valera in trying to induce him to enter the war. As a result Maffey was well liked in Dublin (while unsuccessful efforts were made to remove Gray) and throughout the war he managed to arrange the release of allied air and naval personnel who landed in Ireland. In October 1943, after he had secured the release of eighteen airmen on non-operational flights and two on a combat mission, he wrote with quiet satisfaction to the Dominions Office ‘that as a matter of interest to our high command, it might be pointed out to them that operations may now be conducted on the assumption that no risk of internment exists’ (PRO, DO 130/32).
However, Maffey's conciliatory attitude could grate on Churchill. In 1940 Maffey asked for weapons to be supplied to the Irish to demonstrate that Britain respected Irish neutrality, and to prevent de Valera making political capital from British intransigence. A few were sent but when he asked for more, Churchill refused outright (though the dominions office had agreed), and noted that ‘Maffey should not be encouraged to think his only task is to mollify de Valera and make everything, including our ruin, pass off pleasantly’ (quoted in Dwyer, De Valera, 249).
Perhaps to mollify Churchill, Maffey included in his eloquent reports numerous harsh assessments of the taoiseach's character: ‘a petty leader raking over old muck heaps . . . vain and ambitious’ (ibid., 253), ‘the physical and mental expression of the most narrow-minded and bigoted section of the country’ (quoted in Dwyer, Irish neutrality, 69). Maffey certainly thought de Valera very narrow and ‘firmly set in his tramlines’ but, as far as can be judged, he came to respect him and found it ‘difficult to think of this country carrying on at all if the reins fell from [his] hands’ (Fisk, 303).
After the war, Maffey continued as UK representative and advised that ‘things were not and could not be the same as before the war . . . neutrality has had a permanent effect on the relationship of Eire with the United Kingdom and the commonwealth’ (quoted in Mansergh, 316). He felt that the advantage in the change of attitude was that instead of ‘England's difficulty being Ireland's opportunity’, England's difficulty was now none of Ireland's business. Regarding partition as an insoluble problem about which nothing could be done, he felt little should be said about it. He forecast a 1916-style coup in the north, led by hotheads loyal to the blood sacrifice tradition.
Maffey came to consider the 1936 external relations act as the best arrangement for ordering Anglo–Irish relations, but he was aware that repeal was likely – at de Valera's behest, he had looked into the possibility of the British government reviving the concept of the council of Ireland as part of the repeal process. However, he was, like most people, taken by surprise by the announcement by the new taoiseach, John A. Costello (qv), in September 1948. The following year Maffey retired, aged 71, and was replaced in March 1949 by Gilbert Laithwaite, who in 1950 became the first British ambassador to Ireland.
Raised to the peerage as Baron Rugby in 1947, Maffey died 20 April 1969 at his home, Chevington Lodge, 8 Flixton Road, Bungay, Suffolk. He was survived by his wife (m. 28 August 1907), Dorothy Gladys Huggins (1883/4–1973), and by two sons and a daughter. His elder son, Alan Loader Maffey, succeeded to the peerage.