Irish neutrality during World War II

Irish neutrality during World War II

The policy of Irish neutrality during World War II was adopted by Dáil Éireann (the Parliament of Ireland) at the instigation of Éamon de Valera, its Taoiseach (Prime Minister) upon the outbreak of hostilities in Europe and maintained throughout the conflict. De Valera refrained from joining either the Allies or Axis powers. While the possibility of both a German or a United Kingdom invasion were discussed in the Dáil, de Valera's ruling party, Fianna Fáil, supported his policy for the duration of the war. This period is known in Ireland as the Emergency, owing to the wording of the constitutional article employed to suspend normal government of the country.

Pursuing a policy of neutrality required attaining a balance between the strict observance of non-alignment and the taking of practical steps in order to repel or discourage an invasion from either of the two concerned parties.

In a strict legal sense Ireland was then still a dominion of the British Empire. However, relations between Ireland and Britain had been strained for many years. Twenty years earlier, Ireland had gained partial independence from the United Kingdom, after the War of Independence. Equally, until 1938 the two states had engaged in the Anglo-Irish Trade War. Some supporters of the Irish policy argued that due to the continued occupation (in their view) of Northern Ireland by the British, that Ireland should not support the occupiers.

Internal affairs

Neutrality was overwhelmingly supported by the population of Ireland, [O'Halpin, Eunan, 1999, Defending Ireland: The Irish State and its enemies since 1922, Oxford: Th Oxford University Press. p. 151] although a minority favoured fighting against the Axis powers. Irish citizens could serve in the British armed forces as around 38,554 in the British Army did (see Participants in World War II), as well as in the merchant navy and in British factories. Likewise a minority of Irish Republicans sided with Germany, believing that a German victory might bring about a United Ireland. Moreover, in a war in which the United Kingdom was involved, neutrality was perceived as the clearest expression of Irish sovereignty, something the Taoiseach fervently sought.

In response to claims that Ireland had failed to take-up the alleged moral fight against the doctrine of Nazism, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joe Walshe, answered in 1941 that: [Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland. p. 371]

During the early days of September 1939, Ireland was not alone in declaring itself neutral. Most of Europe, along with the United States, formally pursued a policy of neutrality. However, only five of the twenty original neutral states remained neutral throughout the war; indeed most of the others were invaded.

On the day following the Russian and German invasion of Poland, a hastily convened Dáil declared an immediate state of emergency. The Emergency Powers Act that the day's debate culminated in came into effect one day later, on September 3, 1939. It was modelled extensively on the British draft worked-out during the Sudeten crisis a year before. In some respects the Irish act was regarded as more drastic. The key provisions were as follows: [Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., p 122]

With such sweeping executive powers, de Valera's cabinet set out to tackle any problems that might arise and curb any inconsistencies with the nation's policy of neutrality. Censorship of radio newscasts meant newsreaders were confined to reading, without comment, the dispatches of each side, while weather forecasts were halted to preclude the inadvertent assistance of planes or ships involved in the war. Public expressions of opinion appearing to favour one side or the other were repressed. The word 'war' itself was avoided, with the Government referring to the situation in Europe from 1939 to 1945 as 'the Emergency'.

Prelude to war

The Irish government had good reason to be concerned lest the War in Europe re-open the wounds of the Civil War. There were pro- and anti-fascist movements in Ireland and the IRA continued to pursue its own agenda.

Former Old IRA commander and founder of the Fine Gael Party, General Eoin O'Duffy, became a leader of the fascist Blueshirt organisation. [ RTÉ (Irish Television) Hidden History] He was active in creating links between the IRA and German Nazi politicians. The pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism of some Irish politicians during WW2 were once airbrushed from history, but Ireland is now beginning to acknowledge them. [ IRISH SECRETS: GERMAN ESPIONAGE IN WARTIME IRELAND, 1939-1945] [ The Jews of Ireland.] In this context, it is relevant to note that "two" Irish contingents fought on opposing sides of the 1937 Spanish Civil War, O'Duffy's pro-Nationalist (Fascist) Irish Brigade and the pro-Republican Irish contingent of the International Brigades, though neither had government support.

In the six months prior to the onset of war there had been an escalation of Irish Republican Army violence and a bombing campaign in Britain under the new leadership of Seán Russell. Upon the outbreak of the conflict, this activity became regarded as endangering the security of the state. There were fears that the United Kingdom, eager to secure Irish ports for their air and naval forces, might use the attacks as a pretext for an invasion of Ireland and a forcible seizure of the assets in question. Furthermore, the possibility that the IRA (in line with the Irish nationalist tradition of courting allies in Europe) might link up with German agents, thereby compromising Irish non-involvement, was considered. Fact|date=May 2007

This threat was real: Russell, upon the outbreak of war, travelled to Berlin in order to press for troops and arms to be sent to Ireland. In response, many German agents were parachuted in the Republic of Ireland. De Valera prepared for the eventuality of a German incursion and G2 (the Irish military intelligence branch) were able to detain most of the agents within days, with the last apprehension in 1941. Active republicans were interned at the Curragh or given prison sentences; six men were hanged under newly legislated acts of treason and three more died on hunger strike. [Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland. p. 373] IRA chief of staff Seán Russell died in a U-boat off the Irish coast as part of Operation Dove; the Germans also later came to realize they had overestimated the abilities of the IRA. By 1943, the IRA had all but ceased to exist. Neutrality was popular, despite rationing and economic pressure, because of the sense of independence and newly constituted sovereignty that it gave the Irish people, while censorship ensured that knowledge of IRA activity which could have threatened the state's position, was suppressed. Fact|date=May 2007

External affairs

For de Valera the emphasis of Irish neutrality was on self-preservation and an expression of sovereignty, so committing to the policy accomplished both rational and ideological goals. Fact|date=May 2007 While the revolutionaries of the Irish War of Independence were ready to enter into alliances with the enemies of Britain to secure Irish independence, they realised that such a policy would be dangerously provocative if ever Irish independence came to be, a point de Valera made in February 1920:Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.. p. 121]

This statement reflected a point de Valera had made as early as 1918 (when writing to President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, seeking that the United States formally recognise the Irish Republic as an independent state):

Months before the outbreak of war, de Valera gave a statement to the Associated Press which appeared in newspapers on February 20, 1939: [Dáil Debates, 22 March 1939.]

Without the Irish treaty ports (which the United Kingdom had released a year prior to the war), an independent Ireland posed a serious disadvantage to the military capability and safety of British fighting and trade, risking the possibility of invasion if that disadvantage ever proved too great. Furthermore, the collapse of the United Kingdom would have meant an almost certain end to Irish sovereignty also under German occupation. By July 1940, German army planners had already drawn-up plans that designated Dublin as one of six control centres from which they would manage the economy of occupied 'England'. Fact|date=May 2007 If Irish sovereignty was to be maintained, then neutrality would have to be steered consciously to the benefit of British interests, as these were its own: at once to aid the British war effort but also to forestall invasion by Britain to regain the treaty ports. Ireland, like other neutrals was '...neutral for the power that potentially threatened them most.' [Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. p. 244]

In this regard Viscount Cranborne acknowledged at the war's end that the Irish Government had '...been willing to accord us any facilities which would not be regarded as overtly prejudicing their attitude to neutrality', collaborating with the British war cabinet. [Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.. p. 124-5] (See below for complete text.) The pattern of co-operation between British and Irish agencies began upon the onset of war when de Valera indicatedFact|date=May 2007 his acquiescence to (limited) use of Irish airspace (the "Donegal corridor" — the narrow strip of Irish territory between County Fermanagh and the sea) by Allied forces, and to patrolling coastal points. While de Valera rejected British appeals to use Irish ports and harbour facilities directly, de Valera was, according to M.E. Collins, 'more friendly than strict neutrality should have allowed.'Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland, pg. 374] The cooperation that emerged allowed for meetings to take place to consider events after German troops had overrun neutral Denmark, Norway and Belgium. Three days after the fall of France, Irish and British defence officials met to discuss how British troops could, strictly at de Valera's invitation, occupy Ireland upon the event of a German landing there in order to expel foreign troops attempting to use her as a back door to later invade Britain. The meetings continued, as Cranborne described, throughout the war, facilitating further dialogue.

Before the war began, de Valera had held a meeting with career diplomat Dr. Eduard Hempel, the German Minister in Ireland since 1938. The meetings discussed Ireland’s close trade links with the United Kingdom and the ease with which Britain could invade her if its interests were threatened. He in turn communicated to Berlin that such was the case that it 'rendered it inevitable for the Irish government to show a certain consideration for Britain' and urged war officials to avoid any action that would legitimise a British invasion of Ireland. In mid-June 1940, Secretary of External Affairs Joe Walshe expressed his 'great admiration for the German achievements.' Hempel, for his part, wrote to Germany of 'the great and decisive importance even to Ireland of the changed situation in world affairs and of the obvious weakness of the democracies.' Hempel might well have known better of Irish intentions, having earlier described a native custom 'to say agreeable things without meaning everything that is said.'

Other examples of Irish attitudes towards Nazi Germany found expression in mid-1940 in de Valera's Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, 'whose "unquestionable" hostility to Britain could easily be interpreted as sympathetic for National Socialism.' [Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge, pg. 248] Academic J.J. Lee questioned just how much of Warnock's zeal towards Hitler’s Reichstag speech on July 19 was genuine enthusiasm for the 'international justice' that could be expected after Germany’s victory, as opposed to an adherence to the instructions of Dublin to please oneself to the potential victors. Fact|date=May 2007 Three years later, by 1944, the orientation of the war and of Irish relations to Germany had turned about-face, with the threat of a German victory no longer imminent. In that climate the Irish Government, once so ready to 'say agreeable things', Hempel remarked, had become 'unhelpful and evasive'. [Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge, pg. 253]

However, Ireland maintained a public stance of neutrality by refusing to close the German and Japanese embassies, and the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera signed the book of condolence on Adolf Hitler’s death, on May 2 1945, and visited personally with the Nazi representative in Ireland, Dr Eduard Hempel. At the time the Third Reich was still in existence, but only just. The reasoning at international law was that the embassies represented at least the German and Japanese peoples, even as their governments were collapsing. In contrast, the equally-neutral Switzerland and Sweden rounded up German embassy officials and expelled them, on the narrower basis that they no longer represented a functioning state.

The United States Ambassador to Ireland, David Gray, stated that he once asked de Valera what he would do if German paratroopers "liberated Derry". According to Gray, de Valera was silent for a time and then replied "I don't know".Fact|date=September 2008

At ceremonies for the first Holocaust Memorial Day in Ireland, January 26 2003, Justice Minister Michael McDowell apologized for what he claimed was an Irish wartime policy towards refugees that was inspired by "a culture of muted anti-semitism in Ireland," which discouraged the immigration of thousands of Europe's threatened Jews. He further claimed that "at an official level the Irish state was at best coldly polite and behind closed doors antipathetic, hostile and unfeeling toward the Jews".

Victory in Europe Day

In his speech celebrating the Allied victory in Europe (May 1945) Winston Churchill remarked that he had demonstrated restraint in not laying

'a heavy hand upon Ireland, though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural.'
In a response a few days later, de Valera acknowledged that Churchill did not add 'another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record' of Anglo-Irish relations: [Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland, pg. 383] [Clair Wills, 2007, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War]

The implications on Victory in Europe Day and after, of having not been involved in the war and having suffered the devastation that defined the course of Europe afterwards, is the subject of historical debate. The devastation shared by most of Europe, and Ireland's avoidance of it, was described by F.S.L. Lyons as:

In response to which R. Fanning wrote: 'One might question [...] the liberating value of war for a people who has so recently emerged from revolution followed by a civil war and in whose midst the IRA still propounded the creed of violence ...' [Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., p. 127]

The Cranborne report

Viscount Cranborne, the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, wrote a letter to the British War Cabinet regarding Irish-British collaboration during 1939-1945: [Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., pp 124-5]

#They agreed to our use of Lough Foyle for naval and air purposes. The ownership of the Lough is disputed, but the Southern Irish authorities are tacitly not pressing their claim in present conditions and are also ignoring any flying by our aircraft over the Donegal shore of the Lough, which is necessary in certain wind conditions to enable flying boats to take off the Lough.
#They have agreed to use by our aircraft based on Lough Erne of a corridor over Southern Irish territory and territorial waters for the purpose of flying out to the Atlantic.
#They have arranged for the immediate transmission to the United Kingdom Representative’s Office in Dublin of reports of submarine activity received from their coast watching service.
#They arranged for the broadening of reports by their Air observation Corps of aircraft sighted over or approaching Southern Irish territory. (This does not include our aircraft using the corridor referred to in (b) above.)
#They arranged for the extinction of trade and business lighting in coastal towns where such lighting was alleged to afford a useful landmark for German aircraft.
#They have continued to supply us with meteorological reports.
#They have agreed to the use by our ships and aircraft of two wireless direction-finding stations at Malin Head.
#They have supplied particulars of German crashed aircraft and personnel crashed or washed ashore or arrested on land.
#They arranged for staff talks on the question of co-operation against a possible German invasion of Southern Ireland, and close contact has since been maintained between the respective military authorities.
#They continue to intern all German fighting personnel reaching Southern Ireland. On the other hand, though after protracted negotiations, Allied service personnel are now allowed to depart freely and full assistance is given in recovering damaged aircraft.
#Recently, in connection with the establishment of prisoner of war camps in Northern Ireland, they have agreed to return or at least intern any German prisoners who may escape from Northern Ireland across the border to Southern Ireland.
#They have throughout offered no objection to the departure from Southern Ireland of persons wishing to serve in the United Kingdom Forces nor to the journey on leave of such persons to and from Southern Ireland (in plain clothes).
#They have continued to exchange information with our security authorities regarding all aliens (including Germans) in Southern Ireland.
#They have (within the last few days) agreed to our establishing a Radar station in Southern Ireland for use against the latest form of submarine activity.

Effect on United Nations membership

The neutrality policy led to a delay in Ireland's membership of the United Nations. Ireland's applications for membership were vetoed by the Soviet Union, a permanent member of the Security Council, from 1946 to December 1955. [Elizabeth Keane - "An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: the nationalist and internationalist politics of Sean MacBride" - London: I.B.Tauris Publishers ISBN 1845111257 "The Soviet Union vetoed the application's entry ostensibly on the grounds that Ireland had no diplomatic presence in the Soviet Union and that during the war, Ireland did not help the Allies, instead offering support to the Axis and Franco's Spain. Ireland's anti-communist stance was probably more responsible; the membership of the General Assembly was weighted towards the Western Bloc, and the Soviet Union did not want its position in the Assembly weakened." (page 150)]

ee also

* Irish neutrality
* The Emergency
* "Caught in a Free State" - dramatised television series on German spies in Ireland, made by RTE
* MV "Kerlogue" the exemplar of neutral Irish ships during World War Two.


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