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Just deserts or just deserters?

Regarding the possible pardon of deserters from the Irish Defence Forces during World War Two recently announced by Defence Minister Alan Shatter: The most pertinent question we should ask ourselves is who do we pardon? The argument in favour seems to suggest that any Irish soldier who subsequently joined the British forces should be pardoned.

However, this point ignores the fact that not all of the deserters actually joined up again. Many left for higher-paying jobs in the labour-hungry British war industry. Do they deserve to be pardoned?

And, if not, does that mean that their contribution to the Allied victory is less than those who fought in the front line? We should not forget that some Irish soldiers simply deserted and went home to their families.

Another issue which needs to be addressed is the issue of the Local Defence Force. Irish military documents of the time show that the LDF's effective strength was far below its paper strength for the duration of the war. The authorities had little doubt that the majority of these missing men had left for the UK. Are they to be pardoned also?

We also need to be wary of projecting our values backwards in time to a period where they do not fit.

The pardon campaign revolves around the fact that the deserters joined the fight against Nazism -- that their contribution to the greater good outweighs their guilt for desertion.

I question whether this debate would even be taking place if thousands of Irish soldiers deserted and joined the Wehrmacht. We must be careful that we do not turn World War Two into a one-dimensional crusading conflict.

Finally, we need to understand Emergency Powers Order 362 in the context of the time. Dismissing the deserters from the Defence Forces was a way for De Valera to deal with them quickly and quietly. Enormous damage had been done to Ireland's international image by neutrality, the American Note and De Valera's visit to the German Legation in 1945. It can well be imagined that he was eager to avoid further negative publicity which would have resulted from prosecuting deserters.

The military context also needs to be considered. However ridiculous it appears to modern observers, the chiefs of staff reports throughout the Emergency make clear that the Irish military seriously considered a British invasion of Ireland a possibility. From their point of view, deserters were weakening the Defence Forces at a time of national emergency and joining the forces of a possible invader.

I have no hesitation in lauding the achievements of any Irish members of the Allied forces during the World War Two, but the deserter issue is one that needs to be very carefully considered.

Bernard Kelly
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh

Irish Independent