Irish Neutrality And…Irish Neutrality

Almost twenty years ago, I was part of a discussion on a History “discussion board” on MySpace.

The subject was Irish Neutrality in the Second World War.

This is often a sore point for Irish people. Not so much for the actual history of war time neutrality but rather for the lazy clichés associated with it. These attitudes include Ireland being secretly pro-Nazi, simply cowards or disloyal to Britain.

My position has always been that Ireland was indeed neutral. So was Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg. So was the United States of America.

My assertion seems at odds with the history books as was pointed out in the discussion. Some of these countries did go to war but only in the case of Europeans when the Nazis invaded. Or in the case of USA after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

To me the position is clear. France and Britain had a Treaty with Poland. They were contractually obliged to declare war on Germany. If this seems altruistic, the recent Victors of World War One had a lot of reason to fear German revenge for the treaty of Versailles. The position that in 1939, this was Democracy facing up to Fascism is undermined by France and Britain dragging their empires into the war with them. So not quite so democratic. If they rushed to defend Poland, they also facilitated the destruction of Czechoslovakia.

In the case of the British Empire /Commonwealth there was the “Dominions” such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand (democracies), South Africa (undemocratic and white ruled by Anglos and Boers) and Ireland.

Despite the changing relationship between Westminster and the Dominions in the 1930s, there was a certain deference to the “mother country”. The kith and kin dynamic was enough to bring Canada, Australia and New Zealand and even South Africa (of more divided loyalties) and a land border with German South West Africa on board.

This was not the case with Ireland which had no deference. The victim of an abusive mother, Ireland had left the “family home”. On independence, it had decided on its own neutral foreign policy.

There should be no surprise that Ireland decided on war-time neutrality. If Britain thought Ireland would forgive and forget six hundred years of History, they misunderstood. Certainly Timing was a factor in British resentment. Only recently Britain had lost use of several Irish ports…the Treaty Ports …as the last conditions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty took effect. The loss of naval bases on the Atlantic coast affected the British and later Allied war effort.

So Ireland was neutral but if invaded by Nazi Germany or the Allies, would have resisted to the best ability of a small nation…like Belgium, Denmark or Norway.

Last night I looked up YouTube. I was surprised to find some British newsreel footage from the early months of the War which were complimentary about Irish intentions, military ability and “fighting spirit”. Patronising of course and in contrast to my own recollection of a newsreel broadcast on “All Our Yesterdays”, (a weekly history series in 1960s which looked at events 25 years previously). Certainly I recall a mocking tone about Irish ingratitude and even the “German style helmets” worn by the Irish Army.

There are of course academic writing about Irish neutrality. I recommend journalist Robert Fisk. The extent to which Irish weather reports assisted the Allies prior to DDay, the assistance from Irish Intelligence and supply lines kept open by the Irish Merchant Navy. When I visit Malin Head in County Donegal, it is always nice to see the large “ÉIRE” markings on the cliffs below.

The Irish Merchant Navy lost 200 seamen to attacks from (mostly) German submarines, not withstanding that the Irish ships were well lit, had “Éire” prominently displayed and flew the Irish flag.

Just how many Irishmen served in the British Army during World War Two. Navy and Air Force figures are excluded but British Army figures are roughly 25,000 from Norn Iron and slightly more say 26,000 from neutral Ireland. (my source here is a recollection from an old edition of “History Ireland” which I no longer have).

A conservative estimate might put the total (Army, Navy, Air Force…and self problems over national identity) figure around 70,000. And Irishmen sailed and died on ships in the British Merchant fleet, from ports like Liverpoolm Southampton and Bristol.

And a lot of Irish people worked in British munitions factories.

And by way of balance I should say there was a short lived IRA bombing campaign in England.

Two questions arise about the seeming balance in north and south figures.

Why did so many “Irish” people volunteer? Why did so many “British” people from Norn Iron NOT volunteer?

People like to assign motives.

The Irish had latent loyalty to Britain. Maybe a sense of adventure. Maybe three square meals. Maybe they were fighting Fascism.

The “Norn Irish” were also volunteers in the only part of the “United Kingdom” that did not have conscription. …well the same reasons probably plus a sense of Duty.

Why no Conscription in the North? Well could it be enforced in part of the “UK” where there were just too many nationalists? Could a lot of British army and police be tied up patrolling the border against official or unofficial incursion?

Or was it a sense of revulsion that too many from “Ulster” had lost their lives in World War One? It is all very well for unionists to parade their annual loyal suffering at war memorials in Ballymoney, Lisburn, Dungannon etc but no point in making a habit of it.

There is also the “reserved occupation” (farming) and “war work” (shipyard) factor.

But was Norn Iron actually in the War?

Well clearly as part of the United Kingdom, it was at war. Some (including some from the Catholic community) rushed to sign up. Others were simply relieved that they did not have to sign up. Many thought it distant. They were of course unaware that German bombers had a longer range than they thought. So did the British military. Belfast was largely unprotected from air raids.

On four horrific nights in April and May 1941, Belfast was attacked. On the first night, 900 civilins lost their lives. And the history of Norn Iron in WW2 is largely defined by those four nights. As the bombs fell, Falls Road Catholics and Shankill Protestants were united in praying and singing hymns in the crypt of Clonard Monastery. Others took to Divis/Black Mountains passing the nights.

My Uncle Jackie, a regular swimmer at Falls Baths was there beside the drained swimming pool when it was filled with mutilated and mangled corpses. He would often talk about it.

The unionist Norn Iron government appealed for help… the South.

And the fire engines came north from Dundalk and Dublin. And stayed for the four days. You might say that for four days, Ireland was united in a war effort.

The bottom line here is that sending fire engines north was… technically…the Irish government was not acting in a neutral way. Protesting to the Germans, Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera made it clear that any attack on Belfast and Norn Iron was an attack on Ireland.

And…the Luftwaafe never came back. Did the Nazis quake in their jackboots at the thought of fighting the Irish Army? No of course not…but the thought of the British and later Americans having access to Irish ports was enough for the German High Command to order that Belfast remained untouched for the rest of the war.

Ireland certainly took neutrality seriously. Diplomat Sean Lester was Secretary General of the League of Nations during the War. De Valera notoriously for some visited the German Embassy to sign a book of condolence for Adolf Hitler. Strangely Ireland’s neutrality is held in contempt by many outside Ireland but is it less honourable that the declarations of war on already defeated Germany in 1945..Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru and Chile seem opportunist rather than combatants.

War comes with a price. So does Neutrality.

The Latin American countries who stayed neutral for most of the Second World War had all been admitted to the United Nations by the end of 1945.

But Ireland and Sweden were not admitted into the United Nations until 1955 and 1956 respectively. Finland (who had fought against USSR as well as Nazi Germany) and Austria (nominally at least a German ally) were admitted with Ireland.

If the island of Ireland was joined in a war time effort for four days in 1941, it did not last. Two narratives emerge. Irish co-operation was airbrushed out of the unionist narrative and a kinda “principled” narrative emerged in the Republic of Ireland …that Ireland was somehow unique as being a former colony which was now an independent nation.

Living in Norn Iron, I was more familiar with the unionist narrative as being the acceptable version. The narrative changes after the Good Friday Agreement (1998) when Conflict Resolutionists fell over themselves to convince unionists and nationalists that we had a “shared history” and a “shared future”.

Obviously it is a good thing that historians tease out the nuances. But starting with the premise that History is 50-50 as faux Conflict Resolutionists tell us in order to facilitate a bogus narrative that is for the common good…this is NOT History. This is Mathematics.

In fairness, this self-image as a nation that understood colonisation AND was part of Europe, was valuable. The neutral countries (Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Austria) were always acceptable peacekeepers in the service of the United Nations. And UN peacekeeping has been and remains a fundamental part of the mission of the Irish Defence Forces…In the 1960s in (Belgian) Congo and in Cyprus (as part of the de-colonisation of former empires) or later in Lebanon, Golan Heights, West Africa and the Balkans where a very good friend has served.

Common Market to European Union…Second Phase Neutrality

The original six members of the Common Market (Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and (West Germany) were all members of NATO. Britain, Denmark (members) and Ireland (neutral) joined in 1973. I think this was an awkward time for Ireland as the sole neutral voice in foreign policy etc.

Greece, Spain and Portugal (NATO members) all joined in the 1980s…all recent dictatorships, all fast-tracked to encourage these nations inside western European democracy. I think one neutral voice among twelve NATO members isolated Ireland further.

Austria, Sweden and Finland joined in the 1990s. All neutral countries but by this stage, there was no real rival to NATO.

The great EU expansion of 2004/05 was I think highly problematic. At that stage I would have seen the problem as economic, with Europe effectively becoming a two tier economy. Ten new nations. But Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia (to a lesser extent) were all from the “eastern bloc” and not only did they join EU, they also joined NATO. Cyprus and Malta are neutral.

And other former “eastern” bloc nations such as Romania and Bulgaria and Croatia all became dual members.

The events of the last three weeks in Ukraine underscore the fact that while I saw this in purely economic terms, Vladimir Putin saw the new Europe as a military and political problem.

Ukraine…Third Phase Neutrality?

There is a pre-Ukraine world. There is a post-Ukraine world.

Being Irish……and with “Neutrality” part of Irish DNA or simply part of Irish exceptionalism or contrarian …is almost a luxury.

Two weeks ago, the European Parliament held a vote on censuring Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

Four Irish members of the European Parliament voted against the censure…Chris McManus (Sinn Féin), Mick Wallace (maverick buffoon), Ming Flanagan (another buffoon) and Clare Daly (Look at Me I Am A Socialist.).

Ms Daly comes across as an old “Cold Warrior”.

All cited Irish neutrality but really they and the two Irish MEPs from the Green Party (Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe) did not “read the room”.

So Ukraine. I took the above photograph at the Cork Chamber of Commerce (St Luke’s Cork) last Tuesday. At one level it seems odd to fly the Ireland and Ukraine flags. Not only is it not a very neutral thing to do but rather like the Editor of the Skibbereen Eagle warning in the mid 19th century that his newspaper was “keeping an eye on the Czar of Russia”, it seems like Vladimir Putin would not be overly concerned.

Indeed when I started this blog in August 2011, the title “Keeping An Eye on the Czar of Russia” was intended as a commentary on the self importance of bloggers.

Yet millions of people have an opinion on social media about the current Czar of Russia,

The title of my Blog is almost prophetic.

So Neutrality has evolved. And it will evolve.

“Every Cause But Our Own” (Emily Lawless)

War-battered dogs are we, Fighters in every clime; Fillers of trench and of grave, Mockers bemocked by time.

War-dogs hungry and grey, Gnawing a naked bone, Fighters in every clime. Every cause but our own.

Whether fighting for an English monarch I against Oliver Cromwell at Drogheda . Or for James II against William of Orange at the Boyne, Aughrim and Limerick. r for the French at Fontenoy. Or for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. Or for Mexico against United States of America at Churubusco. Or under Thomas F Meagher (Union)or Patrick Cleburne (Confederate) in the US Civil War. Or for the British Empire in the Indian Mutiny. Or for the British in First World War…the common factor is that none of this was in specific Irish interest.

The problem with alliances such as NATO, is that inhibits nationhood for the greater “good” of mutual protection and seeming common interest.

But there are nations such as Turkey (a NATO member) for whom it is impossible to have respect. And when British territory (Falklands/Malvinas) was attacked by fascist Argentina, there is at least a debate to be had as to who was right and who was wrong as much as the legalese.

But where Ukraine differs…..not just “European” (a euphenism in many ways for “white”) is that the Irish were told (still told) that they are really British. That our Irishness is a myth. Putin tells the Ukrainians that they are Russian.

Of course small nations cannot play the Great Game of 19th century empires and 21st century power blocs.

Ireland can be motivated by VALUES and for good or bad that is an identity with the European Union. But it cannot include military alliance with NATO. Any military support would have to be on an individual basis.

Earlier this week, on TV, I watch a priest pay for Peace…in Ukraine…and Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine (YES!!!), Cameroon.

When I got my History/Politics degree, the Vice Chancellor at Queens University told the new graduates that we now had the skill set to analyse history and politics. Ukraine deffies all logic. I cannot do it. Look for parallels. Putin tells the Ukrainians that their nation is a myth. They are really Russian. And in the past …and now….the British will say the same about Ireland. So we are not neutral.

And the bombs fall on Kiev and on women and children. And there are refugees. No we not neutral.

I began this overlong piece by noting United States was neutral in the Second World War (until directly attacked at Pearl Harbour). Arms were supplied to Britain of course. And …..effectively United States is still neutral in 2022.

There is war-mongering by “hawks” and also there is “peace mongering”.

As the western politicians wear blue and yellow ribbons and applaud President Zelensky, I strongly suspect the western politicians would like him to surrender to Russia.

It is reasonable to want an end to war. Reasonable to save lives. But the peace deal…….the letsgetalongerist brokered peace……will involve Russia having more territory than it had a month ago. It will involve Ukraine being neutralised.

The West will applaud the statesmanship. Look forward to “normalisation” of relations with the Kremlin. Send in the trade missions. Today’s Sanctions are Tomorrow’s business opportunity.


And on St Patrick’s Day, this is effectively what Irish neutrality has always been. Putting VALUES …our VALUES into an ethical foreign and defence policy and repudiating the evil of REALPOLITIK.

No American boots, British boots, French boots, German boots on the ground in Ukraine? Probably not. But quite possibly neutral Ireland will be called upon to provide UN Peacekeepers.

 Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit.

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7 Responses to Irish Neutrality And…Irish Neutrality

  1. hoboroad says:

    Captured Nazis were interned by Ireland during the war. Captured Brits were handed back to their colleagues at the border. Robert Fisk discredited a number of Myths in relation to the South’s involvement in the Second World War. No doubt put out by Unionists remember Dev sent the Dublin and Dundalk fire brigades north to put out fires during the Belfast Blitz. Hardly the actions of a entirely neutral observer.

    • A lot of Germans crash landed to get out of the war.
      Some Allied aircraft also deliberately crash landed.
      British and American soldiers often drifted over the border for drinking etc. This was well known in Strabane/Lifford. Generally they came back or were handed back.
      Some wanted to desert

      • Mise beaga says:

        My father was in the Irish army during WWII. He had two brothers in the British Army (both survived). My father served at The Curragh, where the internment camp was. He used to say exactly what you said – Some Germans flew to Ireland to sit out the war. Also, that Allied soldiers would be sent across the border. Thanks for another interesting read.

      • Thank you.
        It was actually a blog that took about two weeks to write.
        I was talking to my best friend (a history professor in Texas) and this Ukraine thing has got to us.
        I was at Queens when the Vice Chancellor made a speech to graduates in 2009…that we have the skills to analyse ….but I just cant analyse.
        Ten years ago, I would have been in favour of neutrality as something that makes us unique.
        Today, I am so unsure.
        There is actually a movie “The Brylcream Boys” which is about the internment of German and British combatants at the Curragh.
        Stars Gabriel Byrne and Jean Butler (the Riverdance woman)

      • Near the end of the war a German aircrew landed their advanced Ju 88 G-6 fighter plane at Gormanstown in County Meath and surrendered themselves. The Irish reported the arrival to the British, and an experienced Royal Navy test pilot was dispatched to fly the plane to England. The aircraft was extensively evaluated over the next two years.

  2. Vince says:

    Great post John, remarkable detail.

    Small family memory of the Blitz. It was terrifying. My dad who died last year had vivid & sad memories of it – he lived in St Peter’s & well remembered the tragic site of the victims laid out on the floor of the Falls baths. He told of the air raid sirens & the bombs dropping & he & his cousin responding to a distressed woman at her door looking help to get her infirm husband down from an upstairs room down to whatever they had for a shelter – not much as far as I recall. As they were getting him up, the vibrations from a nearby bomb blast moved the bed across the room. Mercifully they got him up, downstairs & went on their way again.

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