The Irish government has finally announced that it is giving active consideration to exonerating the thousands of Irish army deserters who joined the British Army during the Second World War. In 1945, after a number of courts martial of such soldiers, the Dublin government announced that it would no longer prosecute deserters. Instead, they would be barred from state employment or any social welfare for life. Effectively, these Irishmen who had fought for the freedom of Europe were exiled forever from their homeland.
The reconsideration of this matter was prompted by a petition organised by the “Irish Soldiers’ Pardons Campaign”. According to its website, the campaign was prompted by an article I wrote on the subject last May in The Irish Independent. While researching the fate of returning Irish soldiers in 1945, I had come across newspaper reports of the courts martial of Irish army deserters. Quite independently, a former British soldier now living in Ireland, Robert Widders, has written a book on the subject.
Some 5,000 wartime deserters from the Irish army joined the British forces. In 1945, as the moral cause of the Allies was made irrefutable with the discovery of Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, word spread among the Irish deserters in the British Army that their government had declared an amnesty. But instead, hundreds of them were arrested as they returned home. After a series of rather embarrassing courts martial, the Irish government decided on a mass and non-judicial punishment, which almost certainly had no basis in law.
When questioned about this, Oscar Traynor, the Irish minister for defence at the time, declared: “I am afraid that I cannot share the apparent solicitude for deserters. They are, in my opinion, worthy of very little consideration.” However, he added, it wasn’t worth the trouble of dealing with them “as they deserved”. Instead, he announced the blanket ban on all state jobs and on welfare. And so, 67 years on, justice of a kind is being done to these Irish soldiers of the King – and not least because of the visit to Ireland of his daughter, the Queen, last May.
Such has been the impact on the Irish psyche of those remarkable days that it is now possible to introduce a new chronological divide in Irish political life: BRV and ARV. For, Before the Royal Visit, no Irish government would ever have contemplated pardoning Irish army deserters who had served the British. But ARV, no one in Ireland would simply dismiss the notion out of hand. And since I have been campaigning for the greater part of my journalistic life on behalf of the Irish soldiers of the Crown during the two World Wars, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.
The transformation of opinion in Ireland has been extraordinary. This, after all, was a country in which the government censor banned British magazines that celebrated too extravagantly the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. Any expression of regard for Britain or the Royal family was considered deeply unpatriotic. For much of the 20th century, relations between Ireland and Britain were defined on the one hand by an insecure political class, goaded by a loud-mouthed caste of nationalist braggarts in Ireland, and on the other by a truly woeful, almost pathologically amnesiac political class in Britain. What ordinary Irish people wanted – easy relations with their nearest neighbour, which was also the home of many of their kin – was infinitely more difficult to proclaim. And of course, the perfectly idiotic quarter-century IRA war made the declaration of such quiet, decent sentiments almost impossible.
Different days: for ARV, it is commonplace for Irish politicians to refer to the British as “our friends and allies”. Admittedly, nothing in life is immutable: the often sad, silly and sordid relations between Britain and Ireland should tell us that. But the gains resulting from the royal visit to Ireland are as irreversible as the regrettably non-Newtonian laws of historical dynamics ever allow. The health of the Duke of Edinburgh over Christmas was of serious concern in Ireland; BRV, it might just have got a slight – and perhaps even disdainful – mention on Irish radio or television.
It’s still too early to say that the 5,000 Irish deserters who served with the British in the War will be posthumously “reprieved” by the Irish government. In one sense, that matters less than that they are on the agenda, that most Irish people acknowledge that the cause they served was just, and that Irish valour in the service of the Crown was exceptional. Indeed, in May 1945, as the first of the returning Irish soldiers were being arrested, the British Ministry of Defence announced the wartime award of the Military Cross to 63 soldiers from independent, neutral Ireland. (Some neutrality, what?) So it was appropriate that the very first state function attended by President Michael D Higgins, Ireland’s new head of state, in November was the Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin.
The final step in Ireland’s journey of reconciliation with its British military past is for the Dublin government to accept that those Irishmen who fought for the freedom of Europe deserved better treatment at home.
The Irish government did grant pardon to all those who went off to the war.