JEROME REILLY EXCLUSIVE TWENTY six Irishmen executed on the orders of their own commanding officers during the Great War will be officially pardoned by the British government this week, ending one of the most shameful episodes in British military history.
The legislation expected to be announced in Westminster has been welcomed by the Government here, which has given active support to the 'Shot at Dawn' campaign which has worked for many years to have the 26 Irishmen exonerated.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern told the Sunday Independent: "I am hopeful that this week will see the end of our efforts and the Shot at Dawn Campaign, who did such fantastic work to highlight the tragic stories, will be able to disband."
The 26 Irishmen are among 306 men who were executed, many of them aged just 17 or 18. Now their military records will be without blemish.
Typical of the cases is that of Private Patrick Downey who served with the Leinster Regiment. The young soldier was already undergoing punishment when he was sentenced to death.
The disciplinary action involved being tied by the wrists to the wheel of a gun carriage and was known as 'the crucifixion'. He turned up for his punishment one day without wearing his hat and was told to put it on. Pte Downey refused the order.
He was sentenced to death for disobedience and executed near the port of Salonika in Greece on December 27, 1915. His last recorded words summed up the absurdity of wartime justice, as administered in the field.
"You let me enlist and then you bring me out here and shoot me."
There were many other incidences where soldiers serving in the First World War were executed for the most minor of offences.
The Irish Government worked closely with Peter Mulvany of the Shot at Dawn campaign to try and convince British legislators that the men were entitled to an official pardon.
"I think we are nearing the endgame on this now. I believe a retrospective pardon would recover the memory of these young volunteers from dishonour and bring comfort to their families. Our support was also given in recognition of the wider experience and sacrifice of the people of Ireland during the First World War," Minister Ahern said.
These men, in most instances poorly educated, did not deserve their fate. "For our part we will add the men's names to the Irish National War Memorial Records.
"They may have fallen isolated from their comrades, but they will now be honoured without reservation alongside all the other young men from this island who died during that terrible conflict," he added.
Ireland provided two per cent of the British army recruits in the Great War but 18 per cent of those executed.
In Westminster this week the legislative moves will finally remove the dishonour and the stigma of the executions from the men.
The offences with which all the soldiers were charged, convicted and summarily executed were repealed by the British authorities in 1930. This followed continued lobbying by ex-servicemen who were disillusioned by the military system of the time.
The Government here commissioned a special report on all the circumstances surrounding each individual case involving Irish citizens.
The report described a military system of justice which was seriously flawed, which appeared to ignore clear evidence of medical afflictions and which was marked by class bias and a disparity in the treatment of different nationalities including, in particular, Irish soldiers.
Though the British Government signalled some time ago that they would take action to erase this blemish on their military history, the process will be formally ratified this week.