Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Neutral Isle

It’s 70 years to the day that Ireland declared its neutrality in the Second World War. After Germany’s invasion of Poland on Sept 1st, the Irish Government led by Eamon de Valera declared a state of emergency and neutrality on Sept 2nd and ratified the The Emergency Powers Act on Sept 3rd. The Act, which led to the war rather euphemistically being termed The Emergency in Ireland, effectively gave the Irish government license to run the country as it saw fit for the duration of European hostilities including powers of censorship of media and mail and internment.

Neutrality was broadly welcomed by all political parties in Ireland. The country had been an independent state for less than 20 years and was still working its way through the legacy of its civil war and division from Northern Ireland. It was also a poor nation that was ill-equipped to fight any kind of war or defend itself from the kind of Blitzkrieg attack as unleashed on Poland (there were only a handful of anti-aircraft guns, a couple of obsolete planes, and a tiny professional army).

Officially favouring no side, neutrality was strictly adhered to throughout the war with British, French, German, Japanese, the United States and other states representatives based in Dublin. The government nor the press endeavoured to show any partiality to either side (the media were particularly hamstrung as they could not print or play newsreels or films that explicitly favoured one side or could be considered propaganda) and sought to repress all foreign intelligence activity regardless of source (which it actually did effectively despite the rumour-mongering of the British that Ireland was awash with German spies).

Neutrality was designed to both to stave off an attack from either side (and contingency plans were made to deal with invasion by both Britain and Germany) and to maintain harmonious relations within the Irish population many of whom were anti-British (though not necessarily pro-Nazi) after independence and the on-going debate over Northern Irish sovereignty. This neutral position clearly annoyed Churchill who repeatedly tried to bully de Valera into passing the treaty ports back into British hands and cast quite scurrilous accusations about Ireland’s role in the war, which were largely unfounded.

In practice, Ireland lent towards the Allies. Allied airmen and sailors were passed back across the border, intelligence gathered by Irish agencies was secretly shared with the British, over 50,000 Irish men served in the British armed forces (there are only a handful of documented cases of Irish men serving in German forces), hundreds of thousands of men and women worked in British factories, and German Legation activities were heavily monitored and policed. In addition, de Valera interned scores of IRA men – those most likely to be sympathetic to Germany - in the Curragh camp where 3 died on hunger strike seeking political status. The wish to remain neutral to the very end of the war though did backfire to a certain degree in the final days of the European conflict when de Valera presented condolences on the death of Hitler to the German Legation in Dublin (the only official head of state to do so). At this time it was clear the war was over and the atrocities of the death camps were well known and the gesture almost certainly did great damage to Ireland’s political reputation at the time especially with respect to the United States.

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