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March 23, 2012

Ireland and its neutrality in World War II - Ireland is only now coming to terms with its historical mistake, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Ireland has taken rather too long to accept that it should have entered the war on the Allied side at least in 1941 - argues Brendan Simms, Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge.

In January the Irish government finally announced its willingness to pardon the nearly five thousand citizens of the Free State who deserted from the Irish Army to fight in the British forces against Hitler. The survivors were deprived of their pensions and blacklisted for employment, consigning many of them to a life in poverty. The Justice Minister Alan Shatter stated:

We should no longer be in denial that, in the context of Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.
Not only did he rehabilitate the deserters - posthumously with the exception of a few hundred cases - but he celebrated their
contribution in preserving European and Irish democracy.
This move was long overdue. Of course, it is true that Eire leaned heavily to the allied side, especially after the United States joined the war. The government turned a blind eye to the flow of volunteers to the allied forces, where many of them distinguished themselves through their gallantry. It also allowed the British to operate an air corridor from Castle Archdale in Co. Fermanagh across neutral Irish territory in order to fly missions against German U-Boats. Allied pilots who bailed out over Ireland, or seamen who were washed up on her shores, were quietly repatriated while the Germans were interned. There was close intelligence cooperation between Dublin and London.

In the end, official Britain was reasonably satisfied with neutral Ireland's performance, although this did not prevent Churchill from administering a well-deserved kick to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera in a speech at the end of the war; the Irish leader had provoked British opinion by signing he condolence book at the German embassy after the death of Hitler. Well-deserved, but ill-judged, because Churchill's swipe allowed de Valera in response to wrap himself in the green flag to the cheers of many Irish listeners - including men and women who had served in the British army against Hitler - who were otherwise deeply ashamed of their country's role during the war.

The real damage de Valera did was not to the allied cause, but to that of Irish unity. He had refused a thinly-disguised deal at the start of the war to trade re-unification for Dublin's active participation in the struggle against Hitler. Irish nationalists have always wanted London to "deliver" the Unionists: here they fluffed their only chance of this actually happening. Irish participation in the Great War had albeit at great cost brought Nationalists and Unionists together until the 1916 rising and its aftermath drove them even further apart. Irish neutrality in the Second World War, by contrast, deepened the gulf between the North, which was repeatedly bombed as a member of the anti-Nazi coalition, and the non-belligerent South, which was only occasionally struck by mistake.

It did not help matters that a small but significant segment of Irish opinion true to the principle that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" actually sympathised with Germany. Take for example the IRA man Frank Ryan who fought against "fascism" in the Spanish Civil War, but did not hesitate to ally with Hitler in 1939 in order to free his native land.

There was another price to be paid, which is generally overlooked. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, there were many Irish Americans who expected Dublin to follow suit. Unlike the more cautious British, the Americans were disinclined to respect Irish neutrality, and some recommended that the island be occupied in order to wage the vital battle of the Atlantic against German submarines from bases on the south and west coast. I remember a veteran of the Irish reserve forces telling me that he was mobilised four times during the war to fight a threatened invasion once against the Germans, once against the British, but twice against the Americans. Whether his recollection was correct or not, I have no way of telling, but the perception is telling.

In the end, the United States backed off, but the damage to the Irish lobby in Washington was considerable. Irish attempts to negotiate a separate defence arrangement with the US after 1945 were contemptuously brushed aside. The British alliance trumped all other considerations until the end of the Cold War, and the differences over Bosnia in the 1990s created an atmosphere where the US government was ready to cross London over Ireland, by granting Gerry Adams a visa.

In part, the decision to rehabilitate the brave men and women who fought against Nazism stems from a sea-change in Irish attitudes towards the past which began two decades ago with the increased interest in the much large number of Irishmen who volunteered during the First World War. It culminated last year in the remarkable outpouring of affection which greeted the Queen on her first visit to the Republic of Ireland.

All this is to the good. One fears, though, that the new stance is also partly motivated by a new sense of fear and antagonism towards Germany, arising out of the Eurozone crisis and the widespread sense of economic domination by Berlin. The attitude of elements of the Irish press suggests that this is the case: the veteran commentator John Drennan has alleged that:

We are like Czechoslovakia in 1938, being betrayed to appease the satanic mills of bankers, bondholders and the ECB. But, just as the Czechs would have been destroyed had they fought in 1938, if we pressed the nuclear button on our Anglo-Irish Sudetenland the fate this EU outcrop would suffer if Angela turned on us "pour encourager les autres" would not be pretty.
These comparisons are not only offensive but misleading, because Europe is a much more benign environment today than it was anytime before 1989. In so far as they remind Irish people that there are many worse places to be positioned than between the two great democracies of the United Kingdom and the United States, however, they are salutary.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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