Denigrating neutrality during second World War has become fashionable
Historical understanding of the Emergency has diminished
A German Nazi flag from the second World War at the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoighaire. “Ireland’s geographic position, small size and strategic interests would dictate that it could not be absolutist about its foreign policy.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
There has been much recent comment in relation to Ireland’s controversial neutrality during the second World War that suggests a diminishing rather than a deepening of historical understanding.
The apology and pardon granted to Irish soldiers who deserted the Irish Army during the war, some to fight with the British army, has been broadly welcomed and rightly seen as a noble gesture. But unfortunately, it has been accompanied by distorted and simplistic accounts of a complex period of Irish history.
It has become fashionable in recent times to denigrate Irish neutrality during this period, either because it is not accepted that Ireland was neutral at all, or because it is believed that the decision to declare and maintain neutrality involved a self-serving opting out of the defining moral and political issue of the 1930s and 1940s- the defeat of Nazism.
Last year, when he addressed the deserter issue, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter referred to Irish neutrality as “a principle of moral bankruptcy” in the context of the Holocaust, and this week, contrasted that with those deserters from the Irish army who fought for “freedom against tyranny”.
British journalist Ben Macintyre has also entered the fray, referring yesterday to an “indifference to the evils of Nazism” which still “shames” Ireland.
Would that history was so simple, but it is not, and what gets lost in too much of contemporary comment and judgement of neutrality is the nuance, context and shades of grey that form the basis of the documented history of Irish neutrality and the evolution of national and international policy at that stage of the State’s existence. Of course neutrality was not absolute; Ireland’s geographic position, small size and strategic interests would dictate that it could not be absolutist about its foreign policy. But the important point is that the desire that existed in the 1930s and 1940s was that a State that had experienced a war of independence – against an imperial Britain with an often shameful record of misrule and oppression of the Irish – and a civil war less than 20 years prior to the second World War, was determined to insist on the right to implement as independent a foreign policy as possible, because the ability to do this was seen by contemporaries as the ultimate test of true independence.
This was the logical conclusion to the various Anglo-Irish relations developments in the 1930s, including the crucial return of the Treaty Ports in 1938. What also seems to be forgotten is that the decision to declare neutrality was backed overwhelmingly by all political parties at a time when the civil war divide in Irish politics was still strong.
In practice, pragmatism, stubbornness and self-preservation were also relevant and the restraint of those who could have invaded Ireland was vital. There was a difficult balancing act to be performed in order to navigate relationships with Britain, Germany and the US, and a deliberate holding at arms length of certain moral dilemmas, a rigorous censorship and a pious belief in the right to choose an Irish solution to an international crisis.
As historian Dermot Keogh has pointed out “ the world of diplomacy in Dublin during the Emergency was not a time of philosophical discussion between de Valera and the different foreign ambassadors. It was a world of shadow language and shape-shifting”. These shapes and shadows are now being contorted to serve narrow contemporary agendas born of hindsight and current values.
The attempts to pronounce Irish neutrality dishonourable and amoral also conveniently overlook the wider cost of neutrality; it further entrenched partition, damaged relations with Britain and the US, and as much of Europe rebuilt and prospered in the 1950s under the aegis of reconstruction, the Irish economy floundered and emigration soared. Such was partly the price of what novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who observed the country closely during the war, described as the State’s “first free self-assertion”.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD