Myth of Irish neutrality not borne out by historical fact

There has been a lot of talk about Irish neutrality recently in the context of the Kosovo tragedy

There has been a lot of talk about Irish neutrality recently in the context of the Kosovo tragedy. To put it mildly, the discussion on this issue has been confused.

Confusion about Irish neutrality has deep roots in the history of 20th-century Ireland. Even before the State was founded there was an evident conflict between a natural desire to avoid future entanglement in wars in which Britain might become involved and a realistic appreciation that Ireland's security was inextricably linked to that of Britain.

Thus, in 1920 de Valera stated: "Mutual self-interest would make the peoples of these two islands, if both independent, the closest possible allies in a moment of real national danger to either."

In the course of the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1939 de Valera again took this line, suggesting "the possibility of making a request for British defence experts, a common defence plan and interchangeable equipment . . . because our forces would co-operate together". In the event nothing came of these proposals at the time apart from a positive British response to an Irish request for help in setting up an Irish security service to monitor German agents in Ireland.


When war broke out the German minister in Dublin, Hempel, offered an assurance that Germany was "determined to refrain from any hostile action against Irish territory . . . provided that Ireland, for her part, maintains unimpeachable neutrality towards us".

De Valera assured Hempel of "Ireland's sincere desire to observe neutrality equally towards both belligerents", but he was not happy with the qualifying adjective "unimpeachable". He feared the word was intended to justify subsequent German challenges, designed to impeach our version of neutrality. Accordingly he made it clear to the minister that the nature of our relationship with Britain "rendered it inevitable for the Irish Government to show a certain consideration for Britain".

But, having once made this point, thereafter de Valera successfully deceived the Germans into believing that Ireland was pursuing a genuine policy of neutrality. However, actual policy was in no way impartial, for it involved close, but very secret, co-operation with Britain by an Ireland which remained non-belligerent, but in no way neutral.

So successful was this secrecy that it not only persisted throughout the war, deceiving the Germans, but was sustained for 30 years thereafter. By the time the truth about our wartime role emerged from official documents in the late 1960s, the myth of Irish wartime neutrality had become so deeply embedded in the minds of people both in Britain and here in Ireland that it has since remained effectively unshaken by the facts of what actually happened in those years.

This secret co-operation took many forms, including detailed joint planning for a German invasion. The Grand Hotel in Malahide was to be the British headquarters, and Fairyhouse, on the later-abandoned Meath railway line, was to be the railhead for the British forces coming from Northern Ireland, who were to be paid from a fund of £50,000 that was to be available in banks in Drogheda and Navan.

Other un-neutral measures included transmission to the British of information on German aircraft and submarines off our coast, and the granting of authority for British forces to attack such submarines in Irish territorial waters, as well as the use of our airspace by British aircraft and the use of wireless direction-finding stations at Malin Head as well as the location of an anti-submarine radar station on our territory.

This policy also involved the provision of meteorological reports which proved crucial to the success of the Normandy invasion, as well the fact that German air men and sailors landing in this State were interned, whereas for the greater part Allied airmen crash-landing here were allowed to return to Britain.

Finally, de Valera permitted some 43,000 Irish residents to join the British forces and to return here on leave in civvies. These included many deserters from the Irish Army who were free to return on leave without risk of prosecution for desertion.

The second myth of Irish neutrality relates to our decision not to join the North Atlantic Alliance in 1949. In the negotiations neutrality was never mentioned as a ground for non-participation. On the contrary, our government expressed itself as being in agreement "with the general aims of the proposed treaty" and, in our final response to the invitation to join NATO, the government asserted that partition was "the sole obstacle to Ireland's participation in the Atlantic Pact".

The truth is that our failure to join an alliance of which we strongly approved was an accidental and unintended outcome of the failure of an ill-judged attempt by the foreign minister, Sean MacBride, who only a dozen years earlier had been chief-of-staff of the IRA, to blackmail Britain into handing over Northern Ireland against the wishes of a majority of its population. This was to be in return for what MacBride erroneously believed to be crucially important bases on our territory.

MacBride's disappointment at the failure of this plot, which left us outside the military alliance against the Soviet threat was such that a year later he was involved in a failed attempt to negotiate a bilateral military alliance with the United States. Thus, what some later came to regard as our "traditional neutrality" was in fact an unintended historical accident.

The third myth about our neutrality relates to the issue of European defence. There is a widespread illusion that our "traditional neutrality" led Irish governments to refuse to contemplate involvement in European defence. But the direct opposite is the case.

From the time we first contemplated EC membership, our government made it clear that we were willing to participate in European defence, and that the neutrality issue was not an obstacle.

As early as December 1960, six months before we first sought accession to the EC, Sean Lemass, who had no time for myths and shibboleths, stated bluntly: "There is no neutrality, and we are not neutral." And in 1962 he made it clear that "NATO is necessary for the defence of the countries of western Europe, including this country. Although we are not members of NATO, we are in full agreement with its aims."

Subsequently he said Ireland recognised "that a military commitment will be an inevitable consequence of our joining the Common Market and ultimately we would be prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality. We are prepared to go into this integrated Europe without any reservation as to how far this will take us in the field of foreign policy and defence".

When, six years after de Gaulle's veto on British and thus Irish accession, we renewed our application, this unambiguous stance on European defence was reiterated by Jack Lynch who said: "Ireland would be interested in the defence of the territories embraced by the communities. There is no question of neutrality there." From the Opposition benches Liam Cosgrave said "those participating in the new Europe must be prepared to assist, if necessary, in its defence".

The 1970 White Paper, which provided the basis for our final accession application and for the 1972 referendum, was equally explicit: "It is recognised that, as the communities evolve towards their political objectives, those participating in the new Europe thereby created must be prepared to assist, if necessary, in its defence."

Finally, in 1981 Charles Haughey, the successor to Jack Lynch, was equally emphatic in his negative view of neutrality. In March 1981 he rejected a proposal that the Dail reaffirm "the principle of neutrality of Ireland in international affairs and declares that our foreign and defence policies will continue to be based on this principle".

Although later, in Opposition, he was influenced by political opportunism to depart temporarily from this stance, in that 1981 debate he went on to assert flatly that "political neutrality or non-alignment is incompatible with membership of the Community and with our interests and ideals". And he explicitly supported Irish participation in European defence once we had joined EMU and achieved a level of percapita income that was at least 80 per cent of the EU average, both of which conditions have since been fulfilled.

Thus, contrary to sedulously fostered myths, we were not neutral in the last World War; our absence from NATO has nothing to do with neutrality; and every Irish taoiseach from 1960 to the 1990s rejected the concept of neutrality and accepted eventual Irish participation in European defence.

In my view the use of this term "neutrality" to justify various forms of isolationism and opting out of moral responsibilities, as distinct from non-participation in NATO, is simply a cause and source of confusion, much of it deliberately generated.