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Few will disagree with apology, but desertion was serious offence

Since he first announced his plan for an amnesty for Irish soldiers who deserted the Irish Army to fight with the British army against Nazi Germany during World War Two, Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter has chosen to present his actions as part of a process of righting a historic wrong.

Last year, he chose to present Irish neutrality from 1939-45 as "a principle of moral bankruptcy" in the context of the Holocaust; a shameful opting out of the defining moral issue of that era.

Yesterday, in the context of the legislation to grant an apology and an apology to the deserting soldiers, he presented it as the State finally acknowledging "the important role they played in seeking to ensure a free and safe Europe".

There are few who will disagree with the apology and few who will begrudge these men and their families an official recognition of what they had to suffer.

Those who deserted from the Irish Army – and they deserted for reasons not just to do with opposition to Nazism – were dealt with harshly. Given the social and economic difficulties subsequently experienced by the deserters and their families, it can be convincingly argued that the price paid by them was unbearably high.

Those who returned after their desertion faced dismissal, sanctions, public naming and shaming and were barred from taking jobs in the public service.

But it is also important that the environment of the 1940s that generated such harsh treatment is understood and that it is appreciated how serious an offence desertion was.

Given the positions he holds, Minister Shatter should be particularly aware of the significance of Irish neutrality for an emerging Irish state and the importance that was then attached to an independent Irish foreign policy.

He should resist the temptation to address this issue in black or white and use absolutist language.

There was a premium attached to the idea of loyalty to the State and the need, if necessary, to defend Irish neutrality and Irish shores. There were times during the war when the invasion of Ireland was a distinct possibility and thousands volunteered to play their part in that defence.

Of course, there was a contrast between the public rhetoric and the reality, and a rigorous censorship in operation during the war.

The successful maintenance of neutrality needed the assistance of British and American restraint, which Eamon de Valera was well aware of. Public perception and actual practice were poles apart during the war. The British cabinet in 1945 admitted it had not been denied by "neutral" Ireland the co-operation it needed.

But fury was also expressed at de Valera's decision to visit the German Embassy in Dublin on 2 May, 1945 to express his condolences on the death of Hitler.

In the midst of all this, at least 60,000 southern Irish citizens served in the British forces. Historian Brian Girvin has made the point that some of them returned to an Ireland that did not want to know: "For many Irish men and women who joined the battle there was a sense of disappointment that Irish neutrality could be used to ignore what they had achieved.".

This is true, but there was also widespread pride in neutrality, insightfully observed by novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who compiled some reports for the British government while she was in Ireland. In November 1940 she noted: "This assertion of her neutrality is Eire's first free self-assertion: as such alone it would mean a great deal to her. Eire (and I think rightly) sees her neutrality as positive, not merely negative."

The more information that has come to light about Irish neutrality, the more one can appreciate and respect the importance of de Valera and others keeping their nerve.

This could not have been done without paying a price, including accusations of treachery and stubborn and sometimes confused responses to those accusations, as well as a difficulty in holding some of the troubling moral questions at bay.

Defining Irish attitudes to World War Two and its attendant horrors is not well served by reducing them to simple choices. The case made by the Irish Soldier's Pardons Campaign was that a military tribunal rather than the Government should have dealt with deserters, but they also rooted their demand in an unequivocal acceptance that desertion was and is a serious offence.

The gesture that was made yesterday can be seen as noble, but it does not need to be accompanied by simplistic, black and white accounts of a complex period of Irish history.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent