Now is your chance

Matthew Kelly

  • The Emergency: Neutral Ireland 1939-45 by Brian Girvin
    Macmillan, 385 pp, £25.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 4050 0010 4

The debate over Ireland’s decision to maintain neutrality during the Second World War periodically resurfaces in the letters page of the Irish Times, exposing the cracks in established political pieties. The challenge tends to come from those resistant to the idea that the political circumstances of the time made neutrality the most rational policy. The desire to atone for the failings of an earlier generation sees historical analysis driven by contemporary moral certainties. Something of this sort animates Brian Girvin’s study of the diplomacy between the Allies and Ireland, Girvin’s late father having been pro-German, as he reveals in an early footnote.

The dispute is enhanced by differences of opinion over the legacy of Eamon de Valera, the dominant political personality in Ireland from the creation of the Free State in 1921 through, near enough, to his death in 1975. As taoiseach throughout the war, de Valera is irrevocably identified with the decision to remain neutral. He has been seen (as he saw himself) as the embodiment of Irish identity in the 20th century as well as a symbol of the state’s oppressive Catholicity. Historians have portrayed him as a political master who restrained the Church’s will to power and kept militant republicanism at bay but still remained beholden to the shibboleths of both.

The case for neutrality, put at its simplest, is that Irish society was sufficiently opposed to fighting alongside the British for entry into the war to have destabilised the state. Making this case depends on various assumptions regarding the degree of ignorance of the nature of the Nazi regime. The case against neutrality is that, as a democratic country, Ireland was under a moral obligation to resist the advance of Fascism. More pragmatically, Ireland’s interests lay with Britain: the two economies were interdependent, with Ireland disproportionately reliant on British markets and imports. Girvin thinks that neutrality was neither morally nor economically justifiable, but the product of a narrowly conceived nationalism and weak political leadership. He pushes the thesis a step further, emphasising the extent to which Ireland’s isolation and economic under-performance after 1945 stemmed from its refusal to pull its weight during the war. In the postwar years the US let it be seen that Ireland’s neutrality had made it a pariah state, while the Soviet Union vetoed Irish membership of the UN.

Irish Anglophobia, sustained in part by opposition to partition, fuelled a tendency to equate the British morally with the Axis powers. In the summer of 1940, de Valera went so far as to threaten that the Irish might decide ‘that the Germans would make them more free’, implying that they would end partition. Negotiations between the Irish and US governments revealed deepening divisions. In Washington to seek military support, Frank Aiken, de Valera’s defence secretary, asked Roosevelt if he was free to say that the US backed Ireland’s stand against foreign aggression. When Roosevelt specified German aggression, Aiken replied: ‘Or British.’ Roosevelt snapped: it was ‘absurd nonsense, ridiculous nonsense’ to suppose that Churchill would attack Ireland. On top of which, Sumner Welles chastised Aitken for his ‘blind hostility to England’, stating that arms would not be available until the Irish government showed a ‘better spirit of co-operation with those fighting aggression’.

Irish officials did little to endear themselves to Washington by pointing out that the alliance with the Soviet Union brought the morality of the conflict into even greater doubt. Cardinal MacRory, the senior Catholic churchman, went a step further, reportedly saying: ‘a victory for America and England would be worse for Christianity than a victory for Germany . . . Catholicism in Germany was strong enough to eliminate in time the doctrine of Nazism, but he was very much afraid of the effects on the world of Anglo-American materialistic humanitarianism.’

When the question arose of whether Northern Ireland should be subject to conscription, an Irishman living in Britain wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs: ‘I must add that while many Irishmen here feel they have obligations towards Britain in return for domicile and livelihood yet most of them would feel bound in conscience to resist conscription into an army which continues an occupation of part of their country and upholds there a regime as immoral as the one against which Britain insists the Irish take up arms.’

Ireland’s legal position in 1939 was incontrovertible. The 1931 Statute of Westminster conceded their right to an independent foreign policy. Ireland’s unilaterally adopted 1937 constitution further weakened links with the British, though symbols of ‘association’ with the Commonwealth and Crown remained. Ireland’s attitude, therefore, contrasted strongly with that of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, which declared war soon after Britain. As de Valera noted, however, Ireland had not achieved Dominion status as a settler colony reaching political maturity, but as a ‘Mother Country’ seceding from the Union following a war against the British. Consequently, membership of the Commonwealth was more likely to be taken for granted in the other Dominions: pro-Commonwealth feeling in Ireland represented an active political commitment.

Irish entry into the war would have seen a state that had not been attacked or directly threatened instantly become dependent on Britain’s navy, air force and army to defend itself. In effect, a small, weak and unstable society would be asked to behave with greater moral fortitude than the US, which did not enter the war until it was attacked by Japan. And though anti-isolationist currents in both the US and Ireland were significant, in neither case did they carry sufficient political weight to propel their nations unprovoked into an anti-Fascist crusade. Under renewed pressure in 1942, de Valera sighed: ‘if only Ireland were attacked by Germany it would simplify things.’ His lament inadvertently identified the paradox at the heart of the policy: for all the moral certainty of its presentation, neutrality remained a carapace for Ireland’s profoundly uncertain international and domestic position. Admirers of de Valera’s statecraft have seen his strategy during the war as a master-class, balancing irreconcilable interests. Others resignedly accept that he acted in the only way possible. Girvin rejects both assessments.

Something of the opprobrium attached to Irish neutrality stems from the labelling of the 1939-45 war as the ‘Emergency’. This seems euphemistic and inward-looking. While millions died elsewhere, Ireland reduced the struggle to a problem of national security; the shutters having been fastened, they saw the war out. This impression is strengthened by some of the peculiarities of the Irish experience. Though rationing and shortages throughout the war provoked unrest, Irish levels of consumption were superior to Britain’s: Dublin, briefly, became a city of high living. Holidaymakers from Northern Ireland and Britain found food and goods to spend their money on; Dublin’s gay culture prospered, thanks not least to the presence of British conscientious objectors; prostitution boomed. In 1941 an American official described the ‘veil of unreality’ under which Ireland lived. Pro-Allied voices meanwhile scorned the Irish government’s apparent inability to recognise that the Allies were, at worst, the lesser of two evils. ‘Ireland has lived in a dream under the rule of a dreamer,’ Roosevelt observed, and in his mounting frustration and anger alluded to de Valera’s personal influence over popular attitudes, the role played by censorship in preventing the Irish from learning the facts about the Axis powers, and the Irish government’s reluctance to adapt its policy to changing circumstances – a shortcoming emphasised by Girvin. Exasperated, the US representative in Dublin, David Gray, complained that ‘this running a government on hatred for another country is a very dangerous thing and is bound to land him [de Valera] on the scrap heap eventually.’ He couldn’t have been more wrong.

‘Emergency’ was also a technical description of Ireland’s constitutional status during the conflict. At the outbreak of war, de Valera persuaded the Dáil to pass an amendment to the constitution allowing the government to declare an emergency when there was a war in the region in which Eire was not involved. He argued convincingly that the state would be confronted with challenges – particularly related to supply – as if it were a belligerent. Fine Gael, the opposition party, concurred, agreeing that neutrality was a political necessity. As de Valera hinted, the problem was less the legitimacy of the conflict – the Irish people, he noted, supported democratic governments against authoritarianism – than the opposition to co-operating in a British war effort. In the main, Seán O’Faolain was right to describe Irish opinion as anti-British but pro-Allied.

Neutrality has to be actively maintained; far from denoting government passivity, it requires intense and sustained intervention. Established rights and freedoms were suppressed, with censorship becoming a vital part of the emergency powers, thereby rendering neutrality self-sustaining. At the same time, the need to justify Ireland’s stance saw the emergence of sophisticated moral and political arguments in favour of neutrality. Fine Gael’s readiness to toe the government’s line helped greatly. Neutrality also needed to be maintained at all levels of public policy and diplomacy so that the state wasn’t perceived to be an enemy by either side. Ireland’s close economic ties with the UK made this difficult, and de Valera’s rigid dogmatism in discussion reflected the mindset of both an acute constitutional thinker and a politician who understood that only by very precisely defining their relationships could he prevent Ireland from drifting towards closer collusion with the Allies. This helps to explain de Valera’s notorious message of condolence to the German embassy in Dublin on Hitler’s death and his postwar refusal to agree automatically to hand over to the Allies German refugees who sought asylum in Ireland. More prosaically, he was at his most provocatively ‘academic’ when he observed that Ireland owed Britain and the US no gratitude for supplies because they ‘came about in the course of international trade’. Fortunately, Germany recognised these economic realities, tolerating the diplomatic intimacy between Ireland and the Allies.

Girvin brings out the extent to which Ireland’s evolving importance to the Allies’ strategic calculations strengthened its bargaining position. Protracted discussions took place, particularly about the role Britain would play defending Ireland against a German invasion. The two governments were unable to agree on the appropriate moment for British intervention. De Valera talked up Ireland’s capacity to defend itself. He insisted that the Irish army be allowed the opportunity to confront the invaders independently and, given Irish confidence that their army was the professional equal of Britain’s, great symbolic importance was attached to its bloodying. British strategists thought these attitudes foolhardy, regarding Eire as inviting a German invasion that the British would be obliged to combat. De Valera, impervious to this logic, rejected any suggestion that British troops be stationed in Ireland and protested against strengthening those already in Northern Ireland.

Irish rigidity on these issues reflected three fears and one uncertainty. The first fear was that any accommodation with Britain would invalidate Ireland’s neutrality, thereby inviting a German attack. Girvin suggests that the bombing of Dublin by the Luftwaffe in May 1941, which saw 34 civilian deaths in the North Strand area and the destruction of hundreds of houses, was a warning of the price to be paid for giving up neutrality. Second, de Valera feared a pre-emptive British invasion would be justified by Britain’s security needs, and there is little doubt that if Irish neutrality or pro-German sentiment had severely threatened British and American strategic interests they would have invaded. The third fear – and this went to the heart of de Valera’s politics – reflected Ireland’s intense sensitivity to any encroachment on its hard-won but incomplete sovereignty. The war had demanded some pooling of sovereignty among a large number of combatant nations, but Ireland’s economic and military weakness and, most important, its proximity to Britain, suggested that it would be very conscious of this. Nationalists placed great value on Ireland’s new right to an independent foreign policy and military capacity, genuinely fearing that to abandon neutrality would effectively be to reverse the revolution. The uncertainty, of course, was over who was going to win the war – though even after the tide had clearly turned against the Axis powers the Irish government did not reorientate its policy.

These fears shaped Irish responses to Britain’s relentless lobbying for access to Irish ports. De Valera did not so much thwart these negotiations as refuse to allow them to begin. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which had created the Free State, retained under British control the ports at Lough Swilly in the north (Co. Donegal) and Berehaven and Cobh in the south (Co. Cork). Control of these ‘treaty ports’ was voluntarily ceded to the Irish government in 1938, following its declaration of the new constitution. Because de Valera had achieved power by retaining the support of Republicans while coming to terms with constitutionalism, he was particularly sensitive to the intensity with which public opinion judged the revolution to be unfinished and partition a temporary expediency. Once in office in the 1930s, he ruthlessly suppressed the IRA in the name of democratic stability, leaving the paramilitaries politically marginalised but with considerable reserves of popular sympathy. The declaration of the constitution vindicated de Valera’s politics, and demonstrated that giving up political violence did not mean accepting the status quo. Neutrality was the natural corollary of the constitution, the combination enhancing his capacity to articulate a constitutional politics compatible with conventional nationalist aspirations.

To get a sense of the threat the Irish state faced one need only examine the IRA’s campaign of 1939, after it declared war on the UK in January that year. There were a hundred bombings, including one in Piccadilly Circus, though until an attack that killed five people in Coventry on 25 August there had been only one death. Two IRA men were caught and hanged for those killings. Although mainstream opinion in Ireland repudiated the IRA’s tactics, some commentators argued it was a miscarriage of justice and government officials appealed for clemency. De Valera, explaining to Anthony Eden that the crime was ‘exclusively political’ argued that ‘neither of the men was of the criminal type.’ A senior minister described the IRA’s ‘object’ as being to cause ‘material destruction’ in order to ‘bring to the notice of the British government . . . the continuing dismemberment of Ireland’. This apologia gave a direction to diplomatic overtures, giving us an extraordinary insight into the British-Irish relationship at the time.

The furious reaction in Ireland to the executions recalled responses to the executions following the Easter 1916 rising; and there were some who said that condemning the bombers to penal servitude would have strengthened the hand of moderate nationalists and benefited both governments. Instead, as Girvin observes, the greatest threat to stability in Ireland in 1940 came not from Germany but from the IRA; and we can be in little doubt that de Valera’s appeals to the British government were driven more by his concern for the domestic situation than any ambivalence regarding the bombers’ actions. Indeed, British ministers played on his fears, arguing against neutrality on the grounds that a German victory in Ireland would lead to an IRA government.

Northern Irish Unionists often suspect that the commitment of the British government to Northern Ireland is lukewarm, and diplomacy during the war does little to allay that fear. Once convinced of the need for some kind of home rule for Ireland, Churchill, who had played a leading role in the negotiations behind the Anglo-Irish treaty, was not keen on partition. He, Lloyd George and Lord Birkenhead had seen it as a temporary staging post on the road to unification, and he dangled this prospect before the eyes of the Irish government throughout the war. Churchill’s remarkable telegram of December 1941 read: ‘Now is your chance. Now or never. “A nation once again.”’ In practice, the prime minister could argue only that co-operation between the north and the south during the war would make unification more likely. De Valera repudiated any negotiation, however, demanding that partition must end and Ireland achieve full sovereignty; Ireland’s rights, he said, could not be made conditional on any change in Irish foreign policy. Neutrality, as understood by de Valera, was wholly consistent with the separatist aspirations that dominated Irish politics after 1916. Girvin suggests that de Valera’s rigidity, particularly during the summer of 1940 when Britain was most vulnerable, meant that he had squandered the opportunity for unity. But there is little evidence that the war had increased popular Unionism’s readiness to accept radical amendment of the North’s constitutional status. It might be right to argue that Churchill’s offer was less opportunistic or desperate than historians have supposed, and a good case can be made for its consistency with his longer-term view of partition, but this in itself did not make it politically viable.

This book announces itself as ‘bold, fearless and provocative’, but to open by claiming that de Valera’s visit of condolence to the German Embassy ‘signalled his distance from democratic Europe’ is misleading, as it is to insinuate that Hitler’s death was ‘mourned’ in Ireland. It’s hard not to conclude that Girvin’s contempt for Irish political culture sometimes warps his judgment. ‘At the end of the Second World War,’ he asserts, ‘Ireland was the one place in Europe where “blinding hates and rancours” continued to be at the centre of political debate and more seriously of political behaviour.’ The one place in Europe? And although no one could object to criticism of Irish politicians for encouraging the idea that the Allies and the Nazis were morally equivalent, to suggest that de Valera’s speeches on Northern Ireland ‘smacked’ of Hitler’s irredentist rhetoric makes at best an imprecise analogy.

Thanks to the researches of Yvonne McEwen, we know that approximately 60,000 Irishmen volunteered to serve in the British Army during the Second World War. About the same number volunteered from Northern Ireland, which was proportionately about twice as many. For much of the war, strict censorship ensured that this was largely hidden from view. Uniforms were not to be worn in public, casualty figures were not published, obituaries recorded deaths in oblique ways, and Irish war experiences were obscured. The Irish Times reported that an employee had survived a ‘recent boating accident’ because he was ‘a particularly good swimmer’ – he had been on HMS Prince of Wales, sunk in December 1941. Towards the end of the war attempts were made to exploit the Irish contribution, inflating the numbers that enlisted and playing down the importance of the Northern Irish contribution, a fruitless effort to get into the Allies’ good books which at least allowed truths to be told about Ireland’s collective attitudes towards the war. Irish pro-Germanism tended to be an opportunistic symptom of Anglophobia, but could harden into dogma; Irish neutrality, disturbing though it is, still looks like a judicious response to political realities.