Saturday 10 December 2016

Dev not 'moral isolationist'

Published 02/12/2012 | 05:00

Madam – At the height of German military power in western Europe, de Valera said privately to an old acquaintance: "The inevitable consequences of a German victory are too horrible to contemplate". The acquaintance identified only as Martin had been sent over to talk to him, and this highlight of the conversation was recorded in the now published diary of Guy Liddell, head of counter-espionage in MI5, on 23 September 1940. In May, Dev had publicly condemned the German invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands as 'a cruel wrong', arguably a risky thing to have done, and to which the Germans took exception.

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As is now well documented, Irish neutrality was stretched considerably below the radar to provide the British with a steady flow of information and data, and German agents seeking to liaise with the IRA were efficiently rounded up. It is not correct therefore to present de Valera as 'a moral isolationist', who treated 'the Allies and the Nazis as equidistant points on a flat moral line', as John-Paul McCarthy suggests (Sunday Independent, Nov 18, 2012). Such judgments should not be based on the memoir of US Minister in Dublin David Gray, published by Paul Bew, which shows what Dev had to put up with from that quarter. Gray is described on the back cover by Keith Jeffery, Professor of British History at Queen's University, Belfast and official historian of MI6, as 'an ineffably ill-informed Hibernophobe'. Gray was quite wrong in believing that Dev wanted a German victory to deliver a united Ireland, which at least in appearance was on offer from Britain in June 1940, if Ireland joined the war. Gray's interpretation was as wrong and paranoid as the opposite contention in a recent book by an Irish-American who alleges that Dev was a British agent most of his life. Historians should be much more careful about assuming that everything Joe Walshe, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, said to diplomats necessarily always represented de Valera's views or values. Even Gray admitted that Dev never told him that Hitler would win.

Dev did of course visit Gray to express his condolences on the death of Roosevelt in mid-April 1945. Two weeks later, he visited the German Minister Hempel to express condolences on the death of Hitler. He justified this by contrasting Hempel's generally supportive attitude to Irish neutrality, with Gray's deeply hostile attitude and his repeated attempts to destabilise the country's position. The conclusion was that Irish neutrality as practised during the war, as things turned out, on balance best served not just Irish interests but British and Allied interests as well by not tying up scarce resources in its defence.

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