Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War sustains one of the great, circular parlour games so beloved by professional historians and others with less objective, more politicised views.
Because the debate is fuelled by perception it can never be concluded, so all participants can imagine themselves vindicated. An Irish resolution to an Irish disagreement as it were.
Officially, Ireland called that almost unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe The Emergency, possibly imagining that by softening the vocabulary they softened the reality. Many Irish people celebrated their Republicanism, or at least they thought they did, by treating their countrymen and women who joined Allied forces to fight the greatest evil the modern world has known with considerable and persistent disdain.
Like everything in our history, our official position, and those who fought for the Allies, is seen through the cold, hard prism of our relationship with our neighbour and former master — or oppressor if you prefer.
Yesterday, one more chapter in that rocky-but-improving relationship reached some sort of closure when the thousands of soldiers who deserted the Irish Army to join British forces to fight Hitler were pardoned. Of course this pardon is welcome and belated, but its impact is diminished by the fact that the great majority of those who might have appreciated it are long dead.
Before they died they faced considerable odium. Under legislation enacted in 1949, they were considered deserters and dismissed without pension and barred from State employment or receiving welfare support, a package of punishments so severe that it came to be known as the starvation order. Many emigrated. That their Allied comrades in arms were, in their home countries, given the respect they deserved must have made their blackballing particularly galling.
Of course, desertion is always a crime, especially when soldiers quit one army to join an enemy force, but it is hard not to think the severity of the punishment meted out to those men was based on the fact that they abandoned the Irish army to join a British one. But, like the neutrality debate, that position is an interpretation and therefore can be challenged.
In any event, it’s nearly 70 years since that terrible war ended and the luxury of the objectivity conferred by the passage of time, and the generation of people from the Republic so involved in the struggle for Irish independence, has made a wider, less green and visceral, assessment possible.
Some left for economic reasons, some left for adventure but the great majority left for the very noblest of reasons. They joined Allied forces because they felt that by opposing a murderous, enslaving tyranny they were doing the right thing and, even at one step removed, serving their country and the principles that underpin it, our freedom and our democracy. They left the Irish Army in far from ideal circumstances but history has shown they offered their services where the need was greatest. That their objectives were realised saved European civilisation and our place in it. Time has shown that they were on the right side of history and the truth is that we owe them a lot more than a pardon.
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