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Don Lavery: Pardon in offing for deserters, but what they did was wrong

SOLDIERS have deserted from armies for hundreds of years for different reasons and are still doing it -- and they have been dealt with most harshly when it has been in the face of the enemy.

During World War Two, it was common practice for the Red Army to station soldiers behind their own attacking forces to shoot down those who were retreating or deserting -- and the Nazis did the same in the closing days of that conflict.

Ireland was neutral in World War Two, but it faced the same fate as the rest of Europe when the Nazi Blitzkrieg rolled over most of that continent.

The country was, as Winston Churchill, then British prime minister, aptly put it, "at war, but sulking". He may well have been right.

Despite neutrality, it is now largely accepted that the country strongly supported the Allies.

It did this by providing key information, including the weather report that allowed the invasion of Europe, D-Day, to go ahead; by having a secret corridor for planes to fly over Irish territory, by returning crashed and damaged aircraft and crews across the Border, and even by setting up a secret airfield that the RAF could retreat to if it lost the Battle of Britain.

But perhaps most tellingly, neutral Ireland allowed thousands of Irish people to join the Allied forces in the fight against Nazism and fascism.

A small number of Irish pilots fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, which saved democracy in these islands by a "narrow margin" when the Luftwaffe was defeated, and Hitler then turned his attention east.

Irish soldiers distinguished themselves in all parts of that conflict.

But among those who fought for the Allies, particularly the British armed forces, were nearly 5,000 Irish soldiers who had deserted the Defence Forces.

Looking back through the prism of history, it is easy to assert that they did so to join the just fight against tyranny. Undoubtedly many did, while many others did it for the money, for adventure, and for many other reasons.

But at a time when Ireland was desperately short of arms and trained soldiers to defend the country in its darkest hour, they deserted.

They went to fight for another country and another army as Irishmen have done for centuries -- but the difference was they had given allegiance to the Defence Forces and Ireland.

What they did was wrong. They left their country, and their families and friends, in a small nation that several times during the war faced invasion from Germany, Britain or the Americans.

Whether the policy of neutrality was right or not is a separate matter, that was the policy of the legitimately elected Irish government.

Tens of thousands of others stayed to fight for Ireland if necessary. Their contribution seems to have been largely forgotten.

Within a short period of time, the outstanding Irish general Dan McKenna had built up a force that would have 20,000 troops in motor transport within two hours of an invasion, even though they were desperately short of heavy armaments.

But he found it impossible to ever have enough recruits or heavy weapons.

However, when the soldiers who deserted came home, they were dismissed under a 1945 Emergency Powers Act, not court-martialled.

That punishment should have been enough. But in what seems a particularly spiteful move, they were blacklisted and debarred from a range of government jobs.

Defence Minister Alan Shatter, who is now indicating that those who deserted will be pardoned, said last year that in common with armies throughout the world, desertion from the Defence Forces was regarded as a very serious offence.

"This was especially the case at a time when the world was at war and our troops were on standby to defend our country from invasion."

This week, he said he regarded the discharge of the men from the Defence Forces as "untenable" -- and providing he gets the backing of the Attorney General, it seems a pardon is on the way for those survivors.

With the changed climate between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain, and with backing from all parties, that may be yet another 'touchy-feely' move to soften the past.

But despite such a pardon, deserting your country's armed forces when your nation is threatened with invasion remains just that -- desertion.

Irish Independent