Why Ireland can take pride in both neutrality and VE day
Neutrality was almost universally favoured by the Irish people
Unveiling of the recently restored EIRE sign, in Dalkey, one of 83 original signs around Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carroll
On the afternoon of May 8th, 1945, as all of Britain indulged in festive celebrations to mark the end of the war in Europe, a young RAF officer from Co Antrim, Flight Lieutenant Eamonn O’Toole, was relaxing in a club with his colleagues and toasting the demise of the Third Reich. Someone turned on the radio, and all the officers in the bar fell silent as the heavily triumphant voice of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, reverberated around the room. Occasional nods of approval and shouts of ‘hear-hear’ were the responses of the partially inebriated young men to the opening remarks of Churchill’s victory speech. Then came his statement on neutral Éire:
“Owing to the actions of Mr de Valera, so much at variance with the temper and instincts of southern Irishmen, who hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour, the approaches which the southern ports and airfields could so easily have guarded, were closed by the hostile aircraft and U-boats”, Churchill opined.
O’Toole, at that moment in conversation with a friend, suddenly stopped talking and listened intently. “This was, indeed, a deadly moment in our life and were it not for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera, or perish from the Earth.”
O’Toole was stunned, but Churchill continued: “However, with a restraint and poise to which I venture to say history will find few parallels, His Majesty’s Government never laid a hand upon them, though at times it would have been quite easy and natural. We left the de Valera government to frolic with the German and later with the Japanese representatives to their hearts content.”
Eamonn O’Toole, who retired from the RAF in the 1970s with the rank of Wing Commander and the award of MBE, was enraged by Churchill’s remarks. As a northern Nationalist Catholic and a British serviceman, he better understood the reality of Northern Ireland’s contribution to Britain’s war effort versus the supposed treachery of neutral Éire. Every northern Irish service member was outnumbered by their southern Irish comrades by a ratio of 4:1.
Indeed, there were at least three southern Irish officers drinking at the bar that afternoon. After Churchill’s speech ended, they finished their drinks and walked out, one by one. Their victory celebrations were over.
There were tens of thousands of Irish service personnel all over the United Kingdom that day, and many more serving overseas, together with hundreds of thousands of Irish civilian workers, including factory employees, coal miners, labourers, nurses, policemen, ARP wardens, priests and other essential civilian personnel, all of whom had leant their weight to the national effort. It is likely that the majority of those listening were baffled by these sentiments, to say nothing of hurt by what Churchill appeared to hold in his heart against their country.
Before we recriminate against either Éamon de Valera or Churchill, we must ask ourselves why Éire was neutral in the first place, and whose side our nation was really on during the war?
During the second World War, neutral Ireland was a decidedly pro-Allied state
When Malcolm MacDonald visited Dublin at Churchill’s behest, 80 years ago in June, in order to persuade de Valera to join the Allied side after the fall of France, the taoiseach made it abundantly clear that the fundamental motive for neutrality was the avoidance of a civil war. Neutrality had been pursued from the very outset because of de Valera’s comprehension of the fact that, once war broke out, every Irish citizen would choose a side.
Neutrality was almost universally favoured by the Irish people, and was heartily approved of in the editorials of Robert Maire Smyllie, the wartime editor of The Irish Times, who argued, at the commencement of ‘the Emergency’, that “in all the circumstances, it is the only policy that the Irish government could pursue”. The fact that an impressively broad cross-section of Irish society supported the policy, ranging from IRA members with pro-German sympathies to those former southern Irish loyalists whose sons were serving as officers in the British army, cannot be overlooked, and serves as a bulwark against critics of Irish neutrality. It can also be argued that de Valera’s execution of neutrality throughout the course of the war was virtually flawless - that is, at least, until the war drew to a close.
De Valera’s visit to Dr Eduard Hempel and expression of ‘textbook diplomacy’ was a massive tactical error which has haunted the Irish State ever since. The blunder was shortly followed by the VE Day riots. This involved a very young Charles J Haughey, a UCD student and a serving officer in the Local Defence Forces who engaged Trinity College students in combat on May 7th for the honour of a smouldering tricolour. The fallout from the riots provoked a visit by the Assistant Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Frederick Boland, to the Office of the United Kingdom Representative to Éire. Having unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade de Valera from his disastrous visit to Hempel, Boland now found himself having to apologise to the British representative, Sir John Maffey, for the burning of a Union Jack.
Within a week, these two incidents had undermined the moral high ground that de Valera had firmly occupied and brilliantly defended through nearly six years of brutal and destructive war. Churchill was given his casus belli to let fly at the neutral Irish State, which he felt had skulked in a corner throughout, while, unforgivably, still wearing the hat of a Commonwealth nation. Although he was always diligent enough to make a distinction between “loyal Irish and Dublin Irish”, and paid glowing tribute to the Irish volunteers who had fought for Britain in his victory speech, he would not spare de Valera’s Ireland one last whip of his tongue.
During the second World War, neutral Ireland was a decidedly pro-Allied state. Co-operation occurred between the Irish and Allied intelligence services on such a scale that three Irish Army officers were recommended for US decorations by the Pentagon in 1945. Viscount Cranborne, the Dominions Secretary in the Attlee government, itemised several areas where neutral Ireland directly contributed to the British war effort in a House of Commons statement of 1946. This included the sharing of weather reports, providing food exports, allowing Irish citizens to fight for Britain and, critically, permitting Allied aircraft to fly through Irish airspace.
Nevertheless, on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Irish society is still wrestling with the discomforting legacies and confusions about our position in the second World War; the legacies are connected with guilt, and the confusions are connected with a complete lack of understanding of what we did and did not do for and against the Allied cause. It is time for the Irish nation to celebrate the neutrality which kept us safe, as well as the contribution that Irish people voluntarily made to Allied victory, and to end our self-doubt over the fragments of two burnt flags and a signature of condolence written by a man who could no longer see.
Dr Joseph Quinn is a research associate at the UK National Archive