The title comes from American writer Joe Dees, who so described the policy of Irish neutrality in the Second World War. I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a while, but it was the book this quotation was used in that brought it up in the queue. That may excuse the length of the following rebuttal, considering the short length of what I am rebutting.
Max Hastings latest, All Hell Let Loose, is another triumph from the man, who brings such life and vigour to the over-done history of the Second World War. But his book contains one glaringly notable passage for me in particular, when he discussed the policy of neutrality that Ireland maintained during that turbulent period. That passage reads:
“Ireland had gained self-governing Dominion status only in 1922…as the former mother-nation began its struggle for survival against the U-Boat, Winston Churchill was tempted by the notion of reinforcing his country’s claims upon these naval bases and air bases…The Atlantic “air gap” was significantly widened, and many lives and much tonnage lost in consequence of the fanatical loathing of Irish Prime Minister Eamon De Valera for his British neighbours. The crews of almost every warship and merchantman that sailed past the Irish coastline in the war years felt a surge of bitterness towards the country which relied on Britain for most of its vital commodities, and all of its fuel, but would not lift a finger to help in its hour of need.”
It was after reading that passage that I decided to write the following. I’d like to respond to some of things that Hastings said in the above.
Hastings says that Ireland “would not lift a finger to help in its (Britain) hour of need”. The actual sentence here may be trying to speak in the guise of one of the seamen that he mentions, so it’s possible Hastings does not actually think this. Regardless of whether he believes this statement or choose not to respond to it, it is absolutely and utterly false. Ireland did plenty to aid Britain “in its hour of need”. Briefly:
Irish firefighters helped to put out the inferno that blazed in Belfast when it was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. De Valera sent those fire crews northwards without a second thought, and they stayed on scene for three days, before doing it all again three weeks later. Ireland kept open the “Donegal corridor” for British aircraft, reducing their flying time in the area round the north of Ireland. Ireland passed on weather reports to British military and merchant shipping. Ireland passed on any reports of submarine activity and unknown aircraft activity off the coast to British authorities. Ireland allowed the British the full use of Lough Foyle, a shared lake between the north and south, which included British aircraft flying in Irish airspace. Ireland allowed British airman who crashed on Irish soil to depart to the north and eventually to Britain, while German pilots were interned for the remainder of the war, as well as interning any escaped Germans from Northern PoW camps (one of whom was shot dead while trying to escape). Thousands of people from Ireland served in the British armed forces, with no check made upon them doing so (after the war was a different story for these men, but no one stopped them leaving). Ireland hunted down and captured all German agents who entered the country seeking to join up with IRA dissidents. Ireland accepted refugees from British cities during the German bombing campaign.
All of this is well known, none of it debatable, was acknowledged by the British in the Cranbourne Report, and shows clearly that Ireland was far from strictly neutral, and if anything, strayed a dangerous line with non-belligerence towards Britain. Ireland may not have given their troops to the British cause, and may not have given their Navy safe berth in our ports, but it is a total fabrication to say, in any way or form, that Ireland “did not lift a finger” to help Britain.
Hastings claims that De Valera had a “fanatical loathing…for his British neighbours”. It is certainly fair to say that De Valera did not like Britain (why would he?) but he was not so filled with hate that he was unwilling to acknowledge the benefits of an Allied victory to Ireland. He had acknowledged the danger to Ireland if Britain’s independence was “threatened” as far back as 1920 and even earlier, had committed himself to the policy of maintaining Ireland’s freedom from the control of any external power, especially if such a power wanted to threaten Britain.
De Valera was no fool, and no “fanatic” when it come to these matters. He could see the fall of Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Albania and Greece for himself. He knew that Hitler and Mussolini had no qualms about rolling over small states. He knew that Ireland would, if it came to it, be no more invulnerable to attack than any of the others had been. He even made his deference to Great Britain known to Berlin in 1938. To that end, he knew that a British victory in the War would be the best outcome for Ireland, hence the myriad of aid and effort that the country gave to Britain in the course of the war. Hastings comments on “Dev” stem from the overly simplistic view that many British historians have of Irish political figures of the early 20th century.
Much more than that, De Valera was, despite his alleged “loathing” of Britain, prepared to invite its forces into Ireland, both in the event of a German invasion of the country, and also in the event of a German invasion of Britain. When France fell, the respective militaries collaborated on contingency plans if Ireland was to be a victim of an invasion, as they both knew it would be in British interests to intervene. Much more importantly, the Irish Air Corps facilitated the possible use of Irish Airfields to the RAF, in the event that Britain fell, and the British plans needed bases from which to continue the fight, as outlined by Donal McCarron in his history of the Irish Air Corps. This would indicate that De Valera would not have jumped for joy in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain, and would have recognised the awful position that Ireland would have been in because of it.
And it should go without saying if Germany had invaded, I am sure that Britain would have sent forces to fight in Ireland out of their own self-interest only, not ours.
Hastings also over-estimated De Valera’s power. The neutrality of Ireland was a policy that was supported by all but one of its 138 TDs. “Dev” was Taoiseach, not a dictator.
And briefly, Hastings says Ireland was dependent on Great Britain for “all of its fuel”. This is factually incorrect, as Ireland made substantial use of turf cuttings during this period to make up the numbers in regards to decreasing volumes of oil and petrol.
Moving away from that, which is well established, the question must be asked: Why should Ireland have joined the war as an Ally?
Well, the most obvious point is that it was not our fight. Germany made no direct, purposeful aggressive moves on Ireland before or during the Second World War (“accidental” bombings can be debated I suppose). Neither did Italy, or any Nazi satellite nation.
Ireland was under no legal obligation to join the war. The Anglo-Irish treaty expressly left defence and foreign affairs under the Irish people’s purview and had no references to defence pacts. The “Treaty Ports” had, as the treaty outlined, been left in the hands of the British, but they had surrendered them back to Ireland in 1938, with the “Eire Act” at the end of the 1930’s trade war. Hastings uses ridiculous words regarding Churchill and his possible military action to retrieve “his country’s claims upon these naval bases and air bases”. But Britain had no claims on them, legal or moral, at all. None. They had given them up, just over a year before the war started and Ireland did not force them to do so.
Ireland had made no guarantees for the independence of Poland, or any other European nation, as Britain had. It is simply put: from the most cynical, realpolitik angle, the Second World War was not Ireland’s fight.
Moving beyond that, it would be impossible to ignore the traditional enmity between Ireland and Britain. Today it is an almost friendly rivalry. Then, less than twenty years after the Revolutionary period, and within a few years of the Economic War, wounds were still fresh. Hastings’s uses another ridiculous term in that above paragraph, “mother-nation” to describe the relationship of Britain to Ireland. 1940’s Ireland did not see Great Britain as its “mother-nation”. Far from it. Such a maternal description does not do justice to the bitter and ugly warfare of 1916 to 1923, the centuries of failed rebellions, the massacres and the oppression. I am not one to blindly follow the line of England bad, Ireland good, (see here for an example) but even I can only deride the use of the words “mother-nation” in this context. Britain was rarely motherly towards Ireland in the long history of the two nations.
In that context, the British are doing a disservice to their own intelligence if they were (or still are) shocked that Ireland did not race to join the other Dominion nations in declaring war on Germany. Ireland and Britain were not friends at the time. Plenty of people in Ireland (though less than many today make out) would have cheered a German victory. If Britain was relying on Irish support, it was a truly stupid assumption to make.
Of course, the aggressive posture that Britain occasionally held against Ireland is another reason. Churchill had plans to seize the Treaty ports by force if needs be. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland encouraged him to invade and occupy the entire south of the island, instituting military rule. In his victory speech in 1945, Churchill spoke almost casually about how easy it would have been to do so, with the tone of someone who thought he should be congratulated for resisting the impulse. “Mother-nation” is certainly something you can imagine Churchill thinking. With all that, why should Ireland have leaned towards engaging in a war alongside Britain, whose leaders were so willing to plan for its re-subjugation, the same kind of subjugation that Iceland suffered under the realm of “the greater good”?
Another brief point. Hastings suggests Ireland should have helped Britain in its struggle for survival against the U-Boat. Aside from the fact that Ireland did plenty, Hastings himself in the same book expands at length how over-estimated the U-Boat threat was to Britain, especially by 1942. He cannot do so, and than change his mind when he needs a stick to beat Ireland with.
The question has been asked, what about the Holocaust? That horrific event that made the Second World War such a vital struggle, worthy of casting aside such trivial disputes as those between Britain and Ireland? The Nazis were butchers and evil, no doubt. All should have united to stop them.
All true…if the details of the Holocaust had been known. I’ve seen people throw this argument in the face of those who defend Irish neutrality in the war – Godwin inverted I suppose – but the facts are clear. Very few outside continental Europe knew the extent of Nazi “solutions” for their Jewish “problem” until after World War Two ended, Ireland even more so since it was not a belligerent and had no troops to see the evidence for their own eyes. Rumours abounded of course, but who could possibly have believed it? Who wouldn’t have suspected Allied propaganda? How could you have comprehended, if you had been Irish in those times, the idea that Germans were gassing people for the crime of their race and religion? Would you have honestly believed it? As is so often the case when we look back on events past, we apply our own modern sense of outrage and foresight. The liberation of the Belsen camp in 1945 was the first really incontrovertible evidence of the Final Solution to be released to public at large at a time when the progression to victory was being counted in weeks. Ireland’s behaviour towards Jews during the war was hardly sympathetic of course, but we are no more guilty of that than most European nations of the time.
And any attempts to “guilt” Ireland into feeling bad about its policy of neutrality from Britain are hilariously hypocritical, considering the behaviour that the Empire undertook throughout the war. Hastings goes into extraordinary detail about the abandonment of the south-east colonial holdings when the Japanese attacked, how refugees who didn’t happen to have white skin were left to fend for themselves, the oppression in India throughout the war, the famines in Bengal and other places, all down to a lazy and corrupted British administration and political system, more concerned with a largely pointless fight in North Africa (Hastings feelings) than feeding the people they claimed to be a “mother-nation” to. Britain has little moral high ground with which to cast aspersions down on Ireland (to be clear, Hastings does not use the Holocaust as an argument against Irish neutrality, but I’ve heard that argument made).
Much is also made sometimes of the “offer” (that Hastings wisely ignores) from Churchill of a United Ireland if De Valera would only agree to play ball. This little nugget of history should only ever be treated for what it was: a joke. The idea that Churchill would just hand over the six counties in return from support is laughable and De Valera knew it. Can you imagine how the northern Unionists would have reacted if that had happened?
Which brings me neatly to my final point. What was in it for Ireland? No United Ireland, no gains of territory, little chance of reparations or spoils of any great deal, in return for what? More dead in bombings and sunk ships? Better relations with Britain, the nation that would have had to threaten us into joining the war? Cynically speaking, there was no substantial gain for Ireland in joining the struggle against Hitler.
It is easy for Max Hastings to criticise from 60 years away from the events. But there was no convincing reason for Ireland to join the Second World War as an ally of Britain, and many reasons for us not to. Ireland played a delicate game in the war years, but it worked out. We may have been left behind in the wake of the UN (temporarily) and Anglo-Irish relations suffered (not that they were stellar to begin with) but how can we expect Ireland’s leaders to have taken the plunge in 1939 or 1940, with the outcome so in doubt? We cannot judge. Ireland remained neutral, and got through the war without huge loss of life or destruction of the nation. Maybe’s, buts, perhaps, could haves, should haves are meaningless. Alternate courses and counter-factual histories are impossible to analyse. We know only what actually happened and the results of the same.
I would not expect an accomplished historian like Hastings to spend too much time in such an ambitious undertaking as All Hell Let Loose to discussing the pros and cons of Irish neutrality, But it would have been better if he had ignored the topic completely than to come out with such a badly flawed commentary.
Postscript 2015: This piece of mine has been the subject of the most vitriol and insults since I started this site. It’s seems to be a topic that attracts the unhinged, who forgo any kind of rational discourse in favour of screaming abuse (and terrible, terrible history).
NFB follows a very strict moderator policy. Spam, insults, moronic hyperbole and anything related, gets deleted. Anything else those commenters write is deleted unread, something WordPress thankfully makes very easy. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stick around.
Following yet another appearance of someone more interested in writing insults in “wall of text” form – I lost count of how many after the fifth or so, but one included threats of physical violence against me (nothing I took seriously, but just an indication of what I’m talking about here) – I have unfortunately decided to take the decision to end the ability to comment on this piece. Regrettable, but I am in no way obligated to allow these people a forum, no matter how small.