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Eilis O'Hanlon: Brave men of history deserve a pardon, and praise

TONY Blair's apology to victims of the Famine was possibly the most nauseating piece of political theatre ever -- and this from a man who contributed more than his fair share. People's Princess, anyone?

Most government apologies are equally unedifying. They're simply attempts by the present generation to pick up easy brownie points without any real effort or sacrifice. We're all "against" bad things happening in history.

The apology by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence for the way those who deserted the Irish Army during the Second World War to fight on behalf of the Allies were treated afterwards wasn't in that ignoble category.

There are actually some survivors from that period, about 100 in total out of the approximately 7,000 who left the Irish defence forces to fight against Hitler. Of these, about 2,500 personnel returned to their units or were apprehended and were tried by military tribunal. More than 4,500 deserters were the subject of dismissal under the Emergency Powers (No 362) Order, 1945. Many other family members of the deserters who are still around today, were directly affected when their loved ones were refused the right to work or even claim social welfare for a period of seven years on their return to the State.

Deserters also had their names published by the government of the time, leaving them open to hostility on their return. These men and their families did not deserve what happened to them, and the fact that the integrity of wartime deserters will now be exonerated is a fitting testament to the hard campaign fought on their behalf by the Irish Soldiers' Pardon Campaign. Quibbling over the details would be churlish.

All the same, there was something rather curious about the contention by Alan Shatter, when announcing this pardon, that "our understanding of history has matured" in the 70 years since the Second World War. No doubt it has, but it does a great disservice to those around in the Forties to suggest that somehow they were all equally ignorant and vindictive; a bunch of knee-jerking rude mechanicals, perhaps, in contrast to the educated sophisticates that we are today. One only has to look at transcripts of Dail debates when the original order to punish deserters was laid down by Defence Minister Oscar Traynor to realise that plenty of people back then realised immediately what a terrible injustice was being committed and spoke out forcefully against it.

On October 18, 1945, former Fine Gael parliamentary leader Thomas O'Higgins put down a motion in the Dail opposing the order; the record of that evening's debate is available online at the Oireachtas website. If only debates were as good today ...

O'Higgins said everything on that occasion that is being said now. That the circumstances of wartime were without precedent; that the Irishmen who fought on Britain's side had "contributed to protecting this State's sovereignty and independence and our democratic values". He castigated the Fianna Fail government for condemning its fellow countrymen to the status of "pariah dogs, outcasts, untouchables", and said its policy was "brutal, unchristian and inhuman".

"These men and their families," O'Higgins declared, were being "sentenced to absolute destitution and absolute starvation" by an order "stimulated by malice, seething with hatred, oozing with venom".

It was stirring stuff -- much better than the anodyne contributions from present-day politicians on this same issue last week -- and he was ably abetted by fellow deputies on the opposition benches who similarly rounded on ministers for using emergency powers granted during wartime to pursue a policy of revenge in peacetime against a very particular group of men. Deserters who had run away from the Irish Army during the war just because they didn't like being soldiers had received comparatively light sentences on being recaptured; those who emigrated to work in munitions factories in the UK likewise faced no penalties. Traynor's order, signed by Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, was aimed very precisely at men who had chosen to fight for the Allies.

Captain Patrick Giles, formerly of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and later Fine Gael TD for Meath-Westmeath, put it succinctly: "Those who deserted and joined other armies did not desert to the enemy. They deserted to an army which they thought was fighting our battle."

He went further: "Who was it saved us during the Emer-

gency? It was not our little army and our government. It was the might of the British navy that saved us and, had it not been there, Hitler or Stalin would not have been long about taking us over."

Even old IRA men could see that the government of the time was behaving hypocritically, and that this was nothing but a piece of official malfeasance from politicians, caught short by events, now trying to wrap themselves in the green flag.

This mood, however, is exactly what Alan Shatter seemed to be suggesting last week that we should not examine again when he told the Dail that reversing the post-war policy of the Fianna Fail government would be done "without questioning or revisiting their motivations". The minister actually went further, talking about now being "free from the constraints that bound those directly involved".

No one in the Irish government was bound by anything in 1945 other than the dictates of their own conscience. The decision was entirely theirs to make, and they freely made the wrong one. The opposition pointed out at the time that the Government was committing an injustice, but the response was simply to sneer at Fine Gael for making a "song and dance about Belsen", with Oscar Traynor himself adding that men who fought for the Allies were "worthy of very little consideration".

Putting right the mistakes of the past matters. But it's equally important to acknowledge the contribution made to the country's maturity by those at the time who were prepared to go against the grain and speak up for what was right rather than what was politically expedient. Otherwise we end up perpetrating the myth that history is something which miraculously happened to previous generations, rather than being something which they actively made happen. Thomas O'Higgins deserves our praise and thanks right now every bit as much as those soldiers deserve a pardon.

We certainly shouldn't take the easy option of smothering everything in the warm comfort blanket of "understanding and forgiveness", last week's icky buzz words, not least because vigorously questioning the motives of our forebears is the only way to avoid repeating the same mistakes. That, after all, is another thing that's obvious from those old Dail debates. Nothing much changes in politics. Governments are as cynical and self-serving as they ever were, waving flags or sloganising about "stability" and "certainty" to hide their own folly. They might get away with it at the time, but future generations have every right to hold them to account and berate them for it in retrospect.

Sunday Independent