Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ireland owns up to its shameful past

The Irish Government has indicated its willingness to make a complete break from the “moral bankruptcy” of the past and pardon thousands of soldiers who deserted their units to fight with the Allies against the Nazis.

In a landmark speech before Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister, linked the “untenable” treatment meted out to Irishmen who in 1939 fought for democracy, with their Government’s decision to deny visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

The Administration of the day, led by Éamon de Valera, had “utterly lost its moral compass”, Mr Shatter said.

The minister’s intervention comes after an intensive campaign to pardon the 4,983 men who left the Irish Defence Force to fight for the British.

At the end of the war those who survived were stripped of their pension and benefits rights and placed on an employment blacklist, condemning them to poverty.

Mr Shatter unambiguously connected the fate of the deserters with the attitude of de Valera’s Government to the Jews. It was an “inconvenient truth” he said, that the Irish State had done nothing to aid Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

After Hitler gained power, Charles Bewley, an anti-Semite who was Ireland’s Ambassador in Berlin, ensured that “the doors of this State were kept firmly closed to German Jewish families trying to flee from persecution and death”, said Mr Shatter, who is Jewish.

“We should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.” The shameful position was compounded, he said, by de Valera’s visit to the German Ambassador in 1945 to express his condolences on the death of Hitler. “At a time when neutrality should have ceased to be an issue, the Government of this State utterly lost its moral compass.” This was a lesson from the past, Mr Shatter said, and it affected perceptions of the present.

“Many who fought in British uniforms during that war returned to Ireland and for too many years their contribution in preserving European and Irish democracy was ignored,” he added. “It is untenable that we commemorate those who died whilst continuing to ignore the manner in which our State treated the living in the period immediately after World War II, who returned to our state having fought for freedom and democracy.”

Only about 100 of the deserters are still alive. Gerald Morgan, a campaigner for the deserters, said that the Irish Government was morally right to pardon the men. “This puts into context the sacrifices these individuals made,” said Dr Morgan, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin. “They went off to fight, but paid a huge price.”

The campaign for a pardon was kick-started little more than a year ago by Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, by Robert Widders, a former soldier from Liverpool, and taken up powerfully by the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign, organised by Peter Mulvany.

Observers believe the Queen’s visit to Ireland was of huge importance, particularly her  gesture of reconciliation when she laid a wreath in Dublin for those who died fighting for Independence.
Last month Mr Shatter referred the case for a pardon to Máire Whelan, the Attorney-General, whose final decision is expected within weeks.

Behind the story

Éamon de Valera became President of Ireland’s Executive Council and later Taoiseach a year before Hitler came to power and left office in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War (Mike Wade writes). His government retained a position of neutrality despite the persecution of the Jews and Britain’s struggles against the Nazis.

To some, de Valera epitomised the new Ireland. He was slightly exotic (his father was Cuban) but he was a Gaelic speaker and a former leader of the Easter Rising. In a country that had only signed a treaty of independence in 1922 and in which anti-Englishness was rife, he was a national hero.

With the fall of France in 1940, de Valera called for volunteers for an Irish Defence Force to protect against the possibility of invasion. When the Nazi threat receded after the Battle of Britain, thousands of the recruits headed north to Belfast and “deserted” to British units.