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.’

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