UK military justice was 'anti-Irish': secret report
Published 07/08/2005 | 00:11
ANDREW BUSHE FAST-TRACK First World War British military courts were anti-Irish and dispensed death sentences simply to set an example to the troops, according to a damning Government report on the firing squad executions of 26 Irishmen.
The secret report - submitted to the British Government over nine months ago - is scathing in its criticism of the executions.
It says an examination of the cases is "starkly revealing" of treatment that it describes as "shocking", "inconsistent", "capricious" and "unpredictable".
The "stout" defence of the First World War military justice by the British Defence Ministry is described as "fundamentally flawed".
The previously-unpublished 54-page report concludes the system had a racist bias against Irish soldiers which is described as "difficult to explain".
Based on a case-by-case examination by Foreign Affairs experts of the files for each of the so-called field general courts martial of Irishmen, the report says each individual case could have been overturned if a review was undertaken based on agreed standards - such as the absence of proof or due consideration of medical conditions.
Among the 26 Irish courts martial, the report says presiding officers ignored or didn't consider medical evidence in 11 and there are four that involved extenuating circumstances such as the death of family members.
There are 11 "clear cases" where an execution was thought necessary as an example because of bad discipline in units.
"Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential.
The report says: "Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected - in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training - must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty."
The report calls for full pardons for the men to "grant them the dignity in death they were denied in life".
Granting a pardon would not involve any compensation payments and would not "open a legal quagmire from which will stem untold horrors".
Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern described the report as "very tragic reading".
"No one could not be moved by the simple stories of brave, often poorly-educated young men who were shot after perfunctory courts martial. The Irish government believes this was wrong. These Irish people died needlessly," he said.
The Minister said that when you combine evidence there was a disparity of justice between officers and enlisted men and Irishmen and other nationalities with the obvious practice of the British Army at the time to control discipline through exemplary justice, then the case for retrospective pardons seems very strong.
"We continue to press the British government to restore the good names of these men. In most instances almost 90 years has passed since these men met their awful fate.
"It was a different world, a different society and a harsher, most bloody time. We must ensure that these men's names are cleared and their memories honoured well in advance of the centenary of their deaths and the outbreak of the Great War.
"Nothing less will do the Irish government and their families and loved ones," Mr Ahern said.
In addition to the government, the Shot at Dawn Campaign for pardons - which is co-ordinated in Ireland by Peter Mulvany - is supported by numerous TDs and MPs, including John Hume and Ian Paisley, Catholic and Protestant church leaders and SIPTU.
The report says it is "telling" that Britain kept the courts martial files secret and sealed from the public for 75 years because of their sensitivity.
Its controversial conclusion of ethnic and racist bias against Irish soldiers results from a comparison of recruitment figures and subsequent death sentences. It revealed a disparity in the treatment of Irish soldiers in comparison with those from other countries in the British army.
"For example, the number of men recruited in Ireland was similar to that of New Zealand, however there are ten times the level of condemnations in the Irish regiments."
This is despite the fact that the New Zealand regiments were "notoriously harsh with discipline" at the time.
"There were 26 executions of soldiers serving in Irish regiments; 23 for desertion, one for striking an officer, one for quitting his post and one for disobedience.
"This might not seem many, but given the size of the Irish regiments it is an extraordinary high number.
"The overall average for English, Scottish or Welsh units is four death sentences per battalion. However the overall average for the Irish units is seven per battalion."
One soldier for every 2-3,000 British troops were shot by firing squad compared to one in less than 600 in the Irish units.
This applied equally to "loyalist" regiments, such as the 36th Ulster Division, as it did to regiments recruited south of the border.
"This indicates that there was no religious basis for the disparity in Irish condemnations," the report says, adding that there was a pervading British attitude towards the Irish at the time of "mistrust and suspicion".
It says literature of the time "hints at the anti-Irish feeling of many in British society".
The report also claims the courts martial had a class bias that is "incompatible with an impartial system of justice".