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September 3, 1939: For Britain, war . . . for Ireland, The Emergency


EIGHTY-THREE years ago today, Britain and France declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland.  

However, Ireland (Eire) – formerly the Irish Free State – confirmed its neutrality, despite still nominally being a member of the Commonwealth.    

From then on, the global conflict which the rest of us know as the Second World War was generally known in Ireland as The Emergency.    

Ireland was perfectly entitled to act as it did. But its neutral stance was seen by many in Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth as a dereliction of moral duty when the civilised world faced its most dangerous hour.    

Critics asked how Ireland, despite its long history of strife with Britain, could stand aside as the British prepared to fight the unspeakable evil of the Nazis.    

The driving force behind neutrality was Ireland’s formidable Taoiseach  (Prime Minister), Eamon de Valera. On a personal level, he had no reason to love the British. In 1916, he had been sentenced to death for his part in the Easter Rising, but was reprieved, partly because he was born in the US.    

On a political level, he was determined to assert Eire’s hard-fought right to govern itself and also wanted to avoid splitting the country. Neutrality was popular with the Irish and de Valera was aware that siding with the ancient enemy might trigger a resurgence of violence from hardline IRA rebels who had been defeated during the Irish civil war of 1922-1923.    

However, after Hitler’s armies swept into France and expelled the British Army at Dunkirk in May 1940, the Taoiseach must have been well aware that neutrality was unlikely to save his country from German domination if Britain fell.    

Control of all Ireland would have been priceless strategically for the Germans, especially if Britain tried to carry on the war from Canada. Had Eire insisted on its neutrality, Hitler would simply have marched his troops in on some pretext, along with the baleful legions of the SS and Gestapo.    

So Ireland had just as much to lose as Britain. However, despite repeated overtures from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others to join the Allied cause, including an offer of a reunited Ireland, de Valera remained unmoved.    

He maintained diplomatic relations with the Axis powers and Vichy France, and one of his most resented acts was to refuse Britain use of three former ‘treaty ports’ in the south, west and north of Eire.    

Britain had retained these vital deep-water harbours, at Berehaven, Spike Island and Lough Swilly, under the treaty which created the Free State in 1921, but had returned them in 1938. As the Battle of the Atlantic developed, they would have been a boon to Allied convoys and warships.    

With its vastly superior military forces, Britain could easily have seized the ports. However, while Churchill was infuriated by de Valera’s intransigence, he held back from such a drastic step.    

As the war went on, British propaganda – although never blatant – fostered the idea that Ireland was shirking. In practical terms, Eire could have done little militarily to help. It had only around 7,000 regular soldiers and its air and maritime forces were almost non-existent. But the symbolism of its participation would have been powerful.    

When the US entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, pressure for Eire to join the Allied cause intensified via America’s large Irish population.    

Still de Valera was defiant. But behind the scenes, realpolitik gradually prevailed. British and Irish officials started meeting clandestinely to discuss joint strategy if Germany invaded either country. If Eire came under attack, De Valera would ‘invite’ British troops to move in from Northern Ireland. If the RAF was expelled from the mainland by a German invasion, it could operate from Irish airfields, and a fallback military base would be established in the centre of Ireland.     

Neutrality was generally skewed in Britain’s favour. Allied airmen who crashed in Ireland were usually allowed to find their way over the border into Ulster, while downed German fliers were interned. Intelligence and weather reports were shared.    

RAF planes heading west to patrol the Atlantic were permitted to take a short cut via an ‘air corridor’ over Donegal, while American aircraft en route to Europe could refuel at Shannon on the west coast. In 1941, Irish fire crews were dispatched to Belfast after it was blitzed by the Luftwaffe.    

Some 70,000 Irish-born men and women, mainly living in Britain, joined the British armed forces, along with 4,500 soldiers from the Irish Army, who technically deserted. Thousands more Irish citizens travelled over to Britain to work in the factories on war production. By 1945, with Germany facing certain defeat, de Valera gave permission for the British to establish secret radar bases in Eire.    

Yet the failure of Ireland to cast its lot officially with the Allies led to resentment, which was compounded by the inexplicable actions of de Valera in May 1945, after Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. While the rest of the free world rejoiced, the Taoiseach went to the German legation in Dublin and signed a book of condolence.    

It was a gesture which beggared belief, triggering fury and disgust far beyond Ireland, particularly as the horrors of the Holocaust were being uncovered.  De Valera later said it would have been ‘an unpardonable discourtesy’ not to have signed.    

Then came an infamous act of government vindictiveness backed by the Taoiseach. After the war, many of the 4,500 soldiers who had ‘deserted’ from the Irish Army to fight in the British forces returned home to be cruelly persecuted and blacklisted by the authorities, deprived even of the means of earning a living. They were formally pardoned only in 2012, long after most had died. 

In May 1945, after Germany’s surrender – when Ireland was still technically in the Commonwealth – Churchill paid tribute to ‘the thousands of Southern Irishmen who had hastened to the battlefront’. But he denigrated the de Valera government, saying it had ‘frolicked’ with the Germans and Japanese. He added: ‘I can only pray that in years I shall not see, the shame will be forgotten and the glories will endure and the people of the British Isles and of the British Commonwealth will walk together in mutual comprehension and forgiveness.’    

Were things really so clear-cut? Was it really shameful for de Valera to look after the interests of his own people, which is the ultimate purpose of any government? By keeping Ireland out of the war, he presumably prevented internal strife, saved Dublin from being blitzed and averted the deaths of many men who might have been called up to fight. Such questions show the complexity of the situation and why it remains controversial all these years later.   

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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