Neutrality left Ireland isolated in a just war

Ireland's neutrality in the second World War was morally unjustifiable and a political lost opportunity, writes Geoffrey Roberts…

Ireland's neutrality in the second World War was morally unjustifiable and a political lost opportunity, writes Geoffrey Roberts

The 60th anniversary of D-Day has once again highlighted the contribution of Irish volunteers in the British armed forces to the allied victory.

The best estimate is that some 70,000 citizens of the Irish Free State served in the British forces during the war, together with 50,000 from Northern Ireland.

This was half the number that enlisted in Ireland during the first World War, with, thankfully, only 5,000 fatalities, compared to the 30,000 who died in the trenches. But the southern Irish enlistment was a significant contribution from the citizens of a small, neutral state.

On this, as on previous anniversaries, the Irish media lauded the service and sacrifice of the Irish volunteers of the second World War. There was general agreement that the volunteers were fighting for Ireland as well as Britain, and that the allied victory safeguarded Irish freedom and independence.

As this paper's editorial said of the volunteers: "All of us on this island owe them a debt of gratitude" (June 4th).

But there remains an unfinished debate about the Irish State's neutrality during the war.

In his column on the anniversary weekend, Martin Mansergh rehearsed the arguments for Irish neutrality (June 5th). Neutrality protected a largely defenceless state from the horrors of war, and maintained national unity when participation on the allied side would have been deeply divisive, says Mr Mansergh. A neutral Ireland, he argued, was more beneficial to the Allies than an additional front to be defended, especially when Northern Ireland was providing the necessary military bases.

He attempts to defuse the debate about Ireland's neutrality by suggesting that it is all right to be both enthusiastic for the allied cause and proud of Irish neutrality. As he points out, most of the Irish volunteers - including the southern Protestants - supported Ireland's neutrality. As Denis Johnston, who served as a BBC war correspondent, wrote in his diary in 1942: "It is my belief in Ireland's neutrality that has so largely sent me forth. Only those prepared to go into this horrible thing themselves have the right to say that Ireland must stay out."

There are powerful strategic and political arguments in favour of Irish neutrality. As de Valera argued at the time, when small states involve themselves in major wars they put at risk their very existence, and they control neither the course of the war nor the peace that follows. It also is true that neutrality was a popular, unifying policy, which cemented the identity and loyalty of the citizens of the 26-county Irish State.

The problem with this defence of neutrality is threefold.

First, the difficulties entailed by Irish participation in the war should not be allowed to obscure the moral and political issue confronting the country. Both national interest and morality demanded the defeat of Nazi barbarism. But the Irish State kept equal distance from all the combatants. Even when the war was over, de Valera refrained from publicly endorsing the justice of the allied cause.

The amorality of Irish wartime neutrality was summed up by de Valera's infamous visit to the German ambassador in Dublin in April 1945 to present his condolences on the death of Hitler.

As Robert Fisk said, "morally, it was both senseless and deeply wounding to the millions who had suffered in the war; politically, it could have been disastrous. But symbolically, it could not be misunderstood: Éire had not accepted the values of the warring nations and did not intend to do so in the future."

Second, while the case for maintaining Irish neutrality in the early years of the war was very strong, it made less sense as the war progressed. In 1941 the Soviet Union and the US entered the war. In 1942 the tide of the war began to turn in favour of the Allies.

The military danger to Ireland was now minimal, and there were opportunities to participate in the allied struggle at relatively low risk, or at the very least to modify the neutrality policy towards the allies.

This was a choice exercised by a number of neutral states during the war. Indeed, the great allied coalition of 1945 was largely made up of formerly neutral states. Any change in the policy of neutrality would have meant internal political difficulties for the Irish State. But the opportunity to effect a gradual shift in policy towards the allies did exist.

De Valera's failure to countenance such a course of action was informed more by party politics than the national interest. His main concern was the split in Fianna Fáil that would occur if neutrality was abandoned. More importantly, de Valera's priorities were domestic rather than international.

Third, wartime neutrality cost the country dearly in the post-war years. For North-South relations, neutrality was a disaster. Neutrality reinforced partition, strengthened unionist rule in Ulster and ensured the post-war isolation of the northern Catholic community.

Emboldened by the war, Northern Ireland's prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke, even claimed in 1946 that the southern Irish volunteers were "our people who thought as we did".

Actually, the great majority were Catholics and Irish patriots, not loyalists or unionists. But it suited Dublin as well as Belfast to ignore this uncomfortable fact.

The historical trajectory of North-South relations would have been completely different had de Valera accepted the British offer in June 1940 to work for Irish unity in exchange for a modification of Ireland's neutrality policy.

Some historians dismiss this offer as a desperate British gesture which had no practical reality given the Ulster unionists' implacable opposition to any dealings with Dublin.

But, as Dennis Kennedy has argued, "in June 1940 the unionist position was more vulnerable than at any time since 1921. Had de Valera taken up the British offer and agreed to some measures of joint defence of the two islands, then the Northerners would have come under irresistible pressure."

It is often claimed that Ireland was neutral on the side of the Allies. While the Irish State turned a blind eye to the volunteers and co-operated unofficially with Britain, the rigid policy of neutrality meant that Ireland remained non-aligned in the just war to liberate Europe from Nazism. As Sean MacEntee said in a 1982 radio interview, Ireland's "side in the war was to keep out of the war. That was our side."