Irish neutrality during second World War


Sir, – When I first wrote to The Irish Times nearly 20 years ago to criticise Ireland’s neutrality during the second World War there was a complacent consensus among historians that the policy was unquestionably right. Nowadays there is a spectrum of views, ranging from those who continue to argue there was no practical alternative to neutrality to those who contend the policy did the country a lot of damage and served only the interests of a sectarian Irish nationalism. To inform that discussion there is now available an immensely rich body of historical work by the likes of Brian Girvin, Donal O Drisceoil and Clair Wills.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s article (“Denigrating neutrality during second World War has become fashionable”, Analysis, May 11th) sits in the middle of the debate, reasserting the traditionalist view that neutrality was the inevitable expression of Ireland’s independence but recognising the policy’s self-serving dimensions and its negative impact on the country’s post-war history.

Ferriter’s position would, I suspect, command quite a lot of consensus among historians, at least in Ireland. It has much to commend it compared to views typical 20 years ago, but it still contains some blind-spots. The critique of neutrality put forward by myself and others is not that neutrality was wrong in 1939, 1940 or even 1941 but that from 1942 onwards Ireland could and should have realigned itself alongside the Allies, as did a number of other neutral states. The historical question is why this did not happen; why did Ireland stubbornly stick to neutrality – a policy that culminated with de Valera’s condolences on the death of Hitler.

Ferriter complains that the recent apology and pardon granted to Irish Army deserters who joined the British armed forces during the war has led to distorted and simplistic accounts of a complex period of Irish history.

It seems to me, however, that the Government’s action is long overdue and contributes to historical discussion by drawing attention to the 60,000-70,000 citizens of neutral Ireland who fought with the Allies. Many of those volunteers supported Irish neutrality as well as the allied cause and saw themselves as fighters in defence of Ireland’s independence – which would have been destroyed had Hitler won the war. They also saw themselves as no less Irish than their compatriots who had a different experience and view of the war, but for decades after 1945 their story was sidelined in Irish historiography. That has changed, too, and the Irish volunteers of the second World War are getting the historical attention they deserve from a new generation of Irish historians such as Bernard Kelly and Steven O’Connor.

The Irish Times began covering the story of the Irish volunteers back in the 1940s. In the past two decades it has featured a healthy and ongoing historical and political debate about Irish neutrality during the second World War. May it long continue to do both. – Yours, etc,



School of History,

University College Cork.

Sir, – I find it amazing that some Irish commentators, such as Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, should have attacked the country’s historical neutrality in the second World War (Diarmaid Ferriter, Analysis, May 11th).

Anyone who has even the faintest knowledge of Britain’s vast catalogue of horrendous crimes throughout history against the Irish people, from the days of King Henry II’s invasions to the bloody repression of the Easter Rising, surely should not be surprised at the Republic’s refusal to fight alongside their former oppressor. As to invoking the word “holocaust”, it was the great English historian AJP Taylor who bravely used the kindred word “genocide” to describe the terrible effects of the great potato famine. “The English governing class . . .had killed two million Irish people”, he wrote. If that was not a holocaust, what was it?


Boston Gardens,


Middlesex, England.

Sir, – Diarmaid Ferriter’s analysis (May 11th), defending the decision-making behind Irish neutrality during the second World War, has actually served to highlight the total moral bankruptcy of our position rather than justify it.

It seems that one of the key rationales behind the decision was that it was important for us to take a juxtaposition to our former masters – just to show that we could. Surely our own experiences of “misrule and oppression” should have made us doubly assertive in our opposition to such tyranny as Nazism?

What it demonstrates is that we were a nation in adolescence, with all the physical attributes of adulthood, but without the moral backbone, or true independence of thought, to use our new-found freedom responsibly.

Judging by our loss of our ability to govern ourselves financially over the past five years, nothing has changed much! – Yours, etc,


Nutley Avenue,

Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.

Sir, – For the generations born in Ireland since the end of the second World War it is understandably difficult to envisage the state of public opinion on the issue of Irish second World War neutrality. To comment critically, as Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter does (Home News, May 8th) on the morality of our policy of neutrality during the war from the perspective of the 21st century is reading history backwards.

During the war years, the fallout from partition following the Anglo-Irish conflict was still vivid in the public mind, and it was just 17 years since the guns of the Civil War had fallen silent and for both sides in the bitter internecine bloodbath the British were still the common enemy. The decision of Dáil Éireann to remain neutral in all probability avoided an outbreak of a second civil conflict here. Mr Shatter seems to ignore the fact that all political parties in the Dáil, and public opinion outside, all favoured the policy of neutrality. Indeed just one TD, James Dillon, voiced disapproval at our neutrality.

Even those Dáil members who were strong supporters of the Allied cause, and there were many, voted to remain neutral. Furthermore, proposals from prime minister Churchill in 1940 for the offer of a united Ireland as a quid pro quo for Irish entry into the war was rejected by Éamon de Valera. Our sovereignty and independence were not for sale.

With Irish soldiers now serving under British command in Mali and some in Government calling for debate on Ireland’s “moral imperative” to participate more fully in EU battle groups, Irish neutrality is once again under attack. This time from within. – Yours, etc,


Delaford Lawn,


Dublin 16.