The Irish experience of the Second World War is, in many ways, bound up with the word “Emergency”, to the point that it has become something of a recurring joke: I recall someone once writing that it equates the greatest catastrophe the world had ever suffered “to a chip pan fire”. But it was this word that the government of Eamon de Valera choose to focus on, as it proceeded with a stance of neutrality in the conflict. But a declaration of neutrality alone was not going to be enough to steer Ireland through the next few turbulent years. In this entry, we will examine the initial Irish reaction to the declarations of war from Britain and France on Germany, and what immediate steps were taken to secure the state and its governments ability to follow its policy.
De Valera’s perspective was pretty clear. Ireland may have had sentiments that would be in line with the Allies, especially in time, and official relations with the United Kingdom were actually in a fairly decent state since the end of the Economic War. But involvement in the conflict on the European continent in any kind of belligerent sense was unthinkable. Ireland lacked the offensive capacity, the defensive ability and perhaps more importantly the right reason, to join the Allies, or to do anything other than adopt the position of a spectator. But this wasn’t something that de Valera could just assume could be done without any legal changes.
The speed of what occurred is remarkable, and has raised more than a few eyebrows in posterity, with it easy to believe that much of what Fianna Fail did on the 2nd September 1939 had long been prepared. In many respects though, Fianna Fail were just trying to rapidly play catch-up, with a notable lack of preparations for war over the previous 12 months: defence spending was still very low, initiatives to prepare Dublin for black-outs to ward off bombing had never gone beyond suggestions and efforts to establish a munitions factory had taken so long that the contractor had decided to focus on British interests instead. Ireland was exposed in many ways when Germany invaded Poland.
Thus, de Valera may have felt compelled to get a move on when it came to the 2nd September. On that day he opened an emergency session of the Dail by outlining the case for neutrality, drawing comparison between the fate of small nations being preyed upon by larger ones with Ireland’s very relevant experience. Neutrality was in Ireland’s interest in a self-evident way, according to the Taoiseach, and in putting forward the case de Valera insisted he was doing nothing that was not obvious, or that had not been stated government policy for some time.
He then outlined what was going to happen that day, which was namely an amendment to the Constitution. It was possible for the Dail to do this without reference to the people owing to the agreed transitory phase of the constitution, which lasted until 1941, and de Valera’s amendment changed the wording of Article 28 so that a “time of war” was more specifically defined as a war that the state itself did not necessarily have to be a part of in order to invoke emergency powers. There followed a debate on the Emergency Powers Act, which was significantly curtailed despite its importance, with the government making little effort to hide its desire to “guillotine” the debate.
The emergency powers being discussed were extensive, and covered much of the state’s role in society. Just about every ability of the state to exert its will on the citizenry was to be beefed up. Internment was now legal for those deemed a threat to national security, state censorship of the media was now permitted to a much greater extent, and the postal service was also subject to such controls. The economy also came under much greater government control, with Sean Lemass, the new Minister of Supply, granted sweeping powers over various industries and the agricultural sector. In essence, much of the democratic systems of the state were to be temporarily suspended, with the work of the government often done under “Emergency Powers Orders” or EPOs, which were made by Ministers and not subject to scrutiny or amendment from the Dail: over 7’000 or these, some on topics as minute as bus queue regulation, were made during the course of the war. The EPO’s caused significant controversy at the time, with some darkly thinking they were a prelude to dictatorship by any other name.
Other aspects of the state’s policy would be implemented very quickly. They included a ban on the reporting of weather forecasts in the news, the building of extensive identification markings on the Irish coastline and a commitment to openly broadcast the identity of any ships belonging to “belligerent” countries if they were spotted in Irish territorial waters. The full strength of the Irish Defence Forces – 19’000 when reservists were factored in – was mobilised, though it wouldn’t stay that way. A new coastal watchguard service was also established, and it was made clear that Irish waters and airspace were not available to those ships and planes of Allied or Axis powers. Irish dependence on British trade had not gone away of course, and de Valera was not as much of an ideologue to neutrality as to deny that dependence. But he was committed to neutrality as much as was practical.
If some TD’s had serious reservations about the Emergency Powers Act, they do not appear to have had much disagreement with neutrality itself. Very few people in the Dail had any appetite for involvement in such a war as a proactive choice, and most agreed that Ireland’s best hope of avoiding a catastrophic time was to adopt the position that de Valera proposed. While there was no actual voting on September 2nd or 3rd, there was no formally demonstrated opposition either. One of the few people to take a very resolute stand against neutrality as policy was Fine Gael TD James Dillon. The son of John Dillon, he was one of the elected representatives of the defunct National Centre Party, and a key instigator of the later merger with Fine Gael, where he served as deputy-leader under Cosgrave. Of all the TD’s in the Dail, Dillon was perhaps the most overtly anti-Nazi, disagreeing with his own parties support for neutrality and repeatedly calling for Ireland to join the Allies over the next few years. This drew the ire of many, not least de Valera who felt Dillon’s suggestions were ridiculous, and German ambassadors, one of whom referred to Dillon as a “German-hater”. He would eventually feel himself compelled to resign from Fine Gael, and his viewpoint was a distinctly minority position.
We shall speak more on the relations between Ireland and Britain, and Ireland and Germany, in time. For now it is enough to say that the declaration of Irish neutrality was received coolly by London, all too conscious that Ireland was the only member of the Commonwealth not to join in the war effort: more than one senior figure of Chamberlain’s government believed the stance to be hollow, and that Ireland would join the Allies once its shipping began to suffer. It would not take long for back channel negotiations to take place between London and Dublin, on matters such as Royal Navy targeting of German submarines in Irish waters, or the recruitment of Irishmen to join the British military: de Valera was prepared to look the other way in most instances, not that he has much of a choice. In Germany, Irish neutrality was received gladly, with some propagandists making hay out of the stance and Ireland’s Commonwealth membership. Few of the German leadership who had a mind for Ireland would have been willing to believe that Ireland did not have a vested interest in Britain’s success of course, but for now they appeared satisfied with Ireland’s non-belligerence.
On the evening of the 3rd September, de Valera addressed the nation via radio, promising that if Ireland was “united and disciplined, we have nothing to fear”. They were confident sounding words, but they alone were not going to be enough to get the country through the next six years. De Valera was all too painfully aware that every facet of life in the country was going to be affected, and that he would have a hard time holding to the neutral course, between the diplomatic pressures of the Allies and the potential military pressure of others. Politically too, he would have to continue to weather an opposition that was onboard with neutrality but still deadset against a government that seemed less and less inclined to embrace fully the democratic process: with Ireland not at war, Fianna Fail would face electoral challenges in this period. But the decision was made, preparations were underway and now the country awaited the progress of the conflict with a mixture of emotions.
Others were continuing plans, put into motion before the war had even started. Sean Russell’s IRA had declared their own war on Great Britain much earlier in 1939, and had spent the intervening time turning their words into action, with fatal consequences. But it was hard to see whether such actions would be able to gain the stated end goal of a British withdrawal from the North. Merging in with the larger international crisis, in the next entry we will discuss the IRA Sabotage Plan, better known to history as the S-Plan.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.