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Gerard O'Regan: Dev was right to stay neutral and demand loyalty from troops

IT is impossible not to feel just a little uneasy about some of the language used by Justice Minister Alan Shatter this week, following his decision to pardon those who deserted the Irish defence forces during World War Two to join the British army.

Of course the old mantra of forgive and forget should be applied after all this time. Those defining years between 1939 to 1945 were indeed a different world, and beyond doubt relations between Ireland and Britain have thankfully been transformed in the intervening decades.

There is also the human element. Only a few of these old soldiers are still alive, and they deserve to live out their days without unnecessary shame and ignominy. And the emotion felt by many of their families about a perceived injustice done is obviously heartfelt.

But there is also a context to what happened back in those times, and this should have been acknowledged by the minister in much more clearly worded language; such clarity and context would help explain the attitude of the government in 1945 to those who abandoned the Irish Army. Attitudes on topics such as this are influenced most of all by the great divide between those who believe Ireland was correct to remain neutral during World War Two, and those who are convinced the country should have fought with Britain and the allies.

Eamon de Valera had many flaws, most of all a dogged insularity, but he was absolutely correct to maintain the neutrality of the new Irish state, just 17 years old at the outbreak of the war.

In doing so he displayed some deft statesmanship, on the one hand parlaying the threats and blandishments of Winston Churchill, and on the other maintaining a reasonable relationship with the US, despite the belligerence of its ambassador to Ireland at the time.

Apart from other considerations, de Valera had little choice but to go down the neutrality route. Any other course of action would almost certainly have plunged this country into some form of civil war.

So while at times offering benign support for the allies, such as allowing British airmen to escape across the Border into Northern Ireland, his government decided to publicly pursue a policy of strict neutrality.

During those years, rather aptly known as 'The Emergency', the ferocity of battle on the European mainland intensified fears in Ireland the country could be invaded by one side or the other at any given moment.

This threat of invasion remained a near constant hazard during the early years of the conflict.

As a result the size of our army dramatically increased from its 1939 figure of less than 20,000, to over 40,000 in early 1941. By June 1943 the Local Defence Force had also reached a strength of 106,000.

Their training was haphazard, and their equipment near obsolete, but it was an army that was our front line of defence should we be invaded. How long it would be able to hold out against forces which would inevitably be vastly superior is a separate question.

Reports show that while morale remained relatively sound, being an Irish soldier during those years had its privations. Even by the standards of the time the pay was low – a private received 14 shillings a week, less 10 pence deduction for laundry and haircutting. The food was poor and the living conditions rough.

Mr Shatter has in the past described Irish neutrality as "moral bankruptcy'' but this country was not alone in equating self-interest with the national interest.

For example, the US doggedly remained neutral during those days when "Britain stood alone'' despite the pleas of Mr Churchill to enter the fray. It took the bombing of the US fleet in Pearl Harbour for American self-interest to be roused from its slumber and for its hitherto isolationist population to agree to go to war.

It should also be remembered that despite much fine rhetoric, smaller countries such as Poland were abandoned by the victors once hostilities ended and left to their fate under the yoke of the Soviet Union.

Mr Shatter's candour and straight talking is usually a worthwhile addition to the national conversation – but sometimes he seems to forget there may be two sides to a story.

GIVEN the uncertainty and threat from a European-wide conflagration, the Irish government at the time, quite reasonably, judged the defence of this country should take precedence over the concerns of other nations involved in the conflict.

Therefore they believed those who joined our defence forces, to possibly fight in what could be a battle for national survival, had a moral duty to stay loyal to that obligation.

In any case, desertion from any army is viewed as most serious – particularly in times of great peril.

Those who deserted did so for complex reasons. Some were motivated by money, others by a quest for adventure, and some by a desire to confront the evils of Nazism.

But desert they did.

Irish Independent