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Two Allied soldiers take part in a lesson in unarmed combat during the Second World War PA Second World War collection.

Column Time to ask questions about Irish army deserters during World War II

What do we know about the men who deserted during the war? Noble heroes who fought for the allies, mercenaries who battled the Nazis, or simply men who wanted out, asks Dr Michael Kennedy.

Following this week’s announcement that the Minister for Defence Alan Shatter is to introduce legislation that will provide a formal amnesty to soldiers who deserted the Irish Defence Forces to fight for the allies in World War II, Dr Michael Kennedy asks who these men were, and are we ashamed of our war time neutrality?

ALAN SHATTER’S STATEMENT to the Dáil on the forthcoming pardon and amnesty for Second World War Defence Forces deserters makes interesting and welcome reading.

It will apply to ‘those members of the Defence Forces who left to fight on the Allied side during World War II’ for how they were ‘treated after the War by the State’. The Minister’s statement highlights the need for understanding and forgiveness; it signals that Ireland has moved on from the condemnatory agenda of 1945.

There are still many questions remaining to be answered about the deserters themselves. Now perhaps is the time to begin a more detailed examination.

The one-size-fits-all approach taken to deserters after the war through Emergency Powers Order 362 was pragmatic, but it was harsh. As Bernard Kelly points out in Returning Home, his recent account of Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, EPO 362 was unnecessary in reality. As they were without Defence Forces’ discharge papers those who deserted already could not get state jobs.

Reading the 1945 Dáil Debate on EPO 362 the immediate conclusion one draws is that the debate was for political ends alone as government and opposition clashed over wartime policies. Those who deserted were political footballs, kicked backwards and forwards across the chamber, as politicians scored political points against each other.

Who were the deserters? Noble fighters, mercenaries, or otherwise?

How many deserters fought with the Allies is still an unknown. Who they were is also a mystery. We know them only as a category and from the voices of one or two individuals who have gone on the record. But we cannot, and perhaps never will, be able to tell from the list of names of deserters published by the de Valera government after the war which of them joined the Allies. It was not known in 1945 and it is not known now.

It is strange that such an obvious point is rarely made in the recent coverage of the deserters question that often assumes that all on the deserters list fought on the Allied side. They did not.

The pardon will be a personal and private affair for many individuals and families. But perhaps too it will enable some veterans to tell their stories for the first time and tell us about why they deserted. We know little or nothing in fact about what motivated deserters and rely on conjecture as to their motivation.

The ‘blacklist’ of over 4,500 deserters names published after the war has not, as far as I am aware, been subject to any investigation, analysis or detailed breakdown. It is an obvious research project for a group of historians and statisticians. It would have an immediate public interest.

We do not know the age profile of deserters. What was their social class? What were their civilian and army backgrounds? We know only that they were predominantly from units stationed around the border.

A number-cruncher and a historian could thus do some important work on explaining the blacklist and so put it to good use. But even after this we would still not know which deserters joined the Allies. The terms of the pardon and amnesty legislation are awaited, but it seems likely that the Minister’s pardon can only apply to a group and not to named individuals.

It is entirely possible that amongst those who deserted were individuals with less noble reasons than fighting with the Allies against Nazi tyranny. Even amongst those who fought the Nazis there were those who fought as ‘mercenaries’ or for the sheer thrill of soldiering.

The money was better in the British Army that the Irish Defence Forces and so was the likelihood of seeing active service. That is not to deny the undoubted acts of heroism of many deserters, but to make the point we are still far from having satisfactorily resolved the details of the deserters issue. One question worth posing is, given the stigma attached to desertion, whether the British Army knowingly took on Irish and other deserters given Britain’s needs for manpower.

Being Irish: blurred allegiances

The deserters debate shows the value of studying history because it contains so many levels and agendas which help us understand ourselves and our motivations as Irish people. Being Irish in the twentieth century was often a black and white issue.

We now are realising that being Irish is about blurred allegiances. There are more combinations than the simplistic maxims of mid-twentieth century Irish nationalism that pro-British equals anti-Irish. We are a nation of differing communities, backgrounds and histories. Here is a compelling reason for the study of history to be made compulsory at school.

The debate over Defence Forces deserters also suggests that as a people perhaps we are now a little ashamed of our wartime neutrality. Yet as generations pass we are forgetting the mood in Ireland between 1939 and 1945 and the very real possibility of civil war breaking out in Ireland had the de Valera government thrown Ireland’s lot in with the Allies.

We have forgotten that the basis of Ireland’s neutrality was like that of the United States: we would be neutral until we were invaded, then we would fight as long as our limited ability enabled us to do.

There is a chilling series of files in the National Archives which contain the orders to be issued after the invader arrived on Ireland’s shores and de Valera and his ministers sent the Defence Forces into combat.

Just as the Defence Forces maintained and defended Ireland on its sovereign territory, as Minister Shatter’s statement makes clear:

Those who fought on the Allied side also contributed to protecting this State’s sovereignty and independence and our democratic values.

Here is that blurred allegiance in action: both categories of soldier defended Ireland, but in different ways. That is the complexity of our history. Minister Shatter’s pardon and amnesty for deserters is a good starting point to really get studying the issue as an historical one and not a political one.

Dr Michael Kennedy is the executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series, he has written widely on Ireland and the Second World War and his books include ‘Guarding Neutral Ireland’ (2008) and ‘The Irish Defence Forces: 1940-49: The Chief of Staff’s Report’ (2011).

Dr Michael Kennedy
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