| 21.1°C Dublin

Ireland should have fought alongside Britain in the Second World War


President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visit V Beach cemetery with Prince Charles, close to the area where most of the Irish casualties occurred, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign during the Great War

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visit V Beach cemetery with Prince Charles, close to the area where most of the Irish casualties occurred, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign during the Great War

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visit V Beach cemetery with Prince Charles, close to the area where most of the Irish casualties occurred, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign during the Great War

Every year, VE Day and VJ Day come and go and they pass us right by. Why? Because we were not a combatant in World War Two. We should have been.

The war in Europe ended 70 years ago in May, the war in Asia 70 years ago this month.

Over the years, our connection with the First World War has become stronger. Strictly speaking, we were a combatant in that war because we were still governed by Britain.

For decades after independence we did not want to acknowledge that tens of thousands of Irish men, both Catholic and Protestant, had died in that war because we saw it as England's war.

But as anti-English feeling has abated and, thanks to the work of people such as Kevin Myers in drawing attention to the Irish who served in the trenches of the Great War, we are now willing to give the Irish dead of that conflict their due regard.

This is why Michael D Higgins was able to represent Ireland at the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of that war which took place in Belgium last year, and to take his place alongside British politicians and representatives of the British royal family.

I have to say, though, that something about it didn't seem quite authentic, not after all the years of effectively denying that it was Ireland's war at all and after denying what so many Irish people of both traditions knew, namely that fighting Germany was a necessary task.

If it was a necessary task in World War One, it was much more so in World War Two when Prussian militarism had metastasised into something far worse, Nazism, without doubt the most evil ideology ever.

BBC 2 broadcast a programme last Saturday night marking VE (Victory in Europe) Day. It was based on the recollections of those who took part in the celebrations all across England when it was declared that Germany had surrendered.

Few of those who took part in the programme had been soldiers because, of course, the vast majority of them were still serving overseas in either the European or Asian theatres of war on the first VE Day, and in any event, surviving soldiers of World War Two are now mostly in their nineties.

Instead, the programme-makers spoke to well-known British personalities including David Attenborough, Michael Parkinson and Patrick Stewart who were either small children or teenagers when the war in Europe ended.

Their recollections of that day were, needless to say, extremely fond. But what came through above all was their deep pride in the role Britain had played in that war.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

If it is true that the Soviet Union did easily the lion's share of the fighting against Germany, it is also true that Britain stood alone against Germany from June 1940, when France surrendered, until the following June when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

Britain could have arrived at a peace with Germany. There were sections of British society that wanted this. With France conquered so quickly, it looked like Germany had already won the war. It therefore made sense to some to make peace and avoid the risk of a German invasion.

If peace had been made, Germany would have been able to devote all of its resources to the war against Russia and would not have had to fear Britain being used as a launch pad for the invasion of Europe by allied forces at a later point. So it was absolutely vital that Churchill, who only became prime minister when France was invaded, stiffened British resolve and refused point-blank to make peace. Few more important decisions have been made in history.

Where was Ireland during this? We stood on the sidelines. We stood on the sidelines mainly because we could not look beyond our animosity towards Britain. We had become independent only 17 years before the outbreak of the Second World War (that's like today compared with 1998) and regarded the war as Britain's affair, not ours.

My father, who turned 13 on the very day the war broke out, remembers rows in the schoolyard between boys who wanted England to win the war and boys who wanted Germany to win.

The boys who wanted Germany to win the war weren't Nazis, or anything close. They simply could not get past their ardent and blinkered nationalism which was coloured so heavily by anti-English feeling.

What went on in my father's schoolyard through the war was writ large throughout the country.

There are two reasons why we should have been able to look beyond our anti-English feeling. The first is that the war against Hitler was indisputably a just war, even if not every individual action undertaken by the Allies in that war was just - for example, the deliberate targeting of German and Japanese civilians in the air war.

The second reason is that we would have eased Britain's burden, especially in that year when Britain stood alone.

During that year in particular, Ireland could have made a huge mark in history for a small country. If we had stood with Britain, two countries would have stood against Nazism. It is simply tragic that we could not put aside historical animosity for a greater cause.

Historian Andrew Roberts says in his history of World War Two, The Storm of War: "The loss through diplomacy of the Atlantic naval bases in southern and western Ireland meant that escorts could not sail as far out into the Atlantic as in the Great War; destroyers and corvettes took longer to be refuelled; tugs could not be sent out to ships in distress, but instead escorts had to go 'the long way round' from Scottish ports."

Nicholas Monsarrat, author of The Cruel Sea, set in World War Two, wrote: "To compute how many men and how many ships this denial [of the ports] was costing, month after month, was hardly possible, but the total was substantial and tragic."

One of his characters in The Cruel Sea expresses his anger towards Ireland "whose battle this was and whose chances of freedom and independence in the event of a German victory were nil". The anger is understandable. Our neutrality cost British lives.

If we had joined the war we would have become a target of German bombing, but the vast bulk of the bombing would still have been concentrated on the south of England.

We would not have had to introduce conscription. The Irish Army could have been made up entirely of volunteers. But the main benefit of Ireland entering the war would have been the addition of our island as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and our naval bases.

Joining the war would have done wonders for Anglo-Irish relationships, and each year we could take the same pride in VE Day that British people take, pride that we played our part in defeating the greatest evil the world has ever known.