War heroes left begging for pardons

January 14, 2012 • Editorials, Opinion,

Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery, where graves of Irishmen who fought for Britain in WWII remain unmarked. (Pic: Infomatique/Flickr)

The legacy of Irishmen who fought for the British army in World War I and World War II is considered too rarely.

A BBC radio documentary broadcast last week – coupled with some recent Irish agitation on the topic – has brought their fate into relief once more.

The documentary, aired as part of BBC Radio 4’s Face The Facts series, tells the story of Irish soldiers who were placed on a blacklist after leaving the Irish Army to fight for Britain against Hitler.

A confidential list, conceived and maintained by de Valera’s government, barred the men from gaining State jobs.

Some 4,983 ‘deserters’ were dismissed under the Emergency Powers (No 362) Order 194.

The surviving elderly Irish citizens involved still feel as if they are pariahs.  That reality is poignantly recalled in the first person during the programme.

Our modern eyes – less steeled by the conflict and painful division of past generations – can see that it was shameful to have treated men who were heroes abroad as hounds at home.

There are several shades of grey within this unsavoury episode in Irish history. An attempt to understand why is not apologia.

The actions, clearly regrettable, were comprised more of realpolitik than any overarching dastardliness.

The fledgling State and Defence Forces were at pains to use every opportunity to bang the drum of their own legitimacy.

In fair mind and without hysteria, can we admit the harshness of ‘the list’ was designed to punish the men for the army they had fought for, just as much as the act of ‘desertion’ itself?

In the first decades after independence, concern about an illegal, violent and militarised organisation and what that organisation could do to Ireland’s fragile sovereignty were real. In refusing to give the IRA a stick with which to beat them, the government of the day went too far, to the detriment of noble Irish citizens.

The companion piece to the Face The Facts programme published on the BBC website, contained an erroneous contention by a Trinity College historian, noted in this blogpost.

He estimated that 60 per cent of the Irish population “expected or indeed hoped the Germans would win” World War II.

It was equivocation and a taint on an otherwise fine documentary to link the stark official reaction to these brave men – some who had liberated Belsen – with wide Irish support for Nazism.

Some 70,000 Irish fought for the British Army during World War II.

The programme aired days before an historian’s plea for soldiers’ families to help identify and mark their graves in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.

The historian has called for these men’s families to come forward so that they can be recognised appropriately.

The Justice Minister Alan Shatter, meanwhile, is waiting on legal advice from the Attorney General on whether the Irishmen branded ‘deserters’ can be given an official pardon. Labour and Sinn Féin support the proposal.

There is a window to offer full and frank restoration to the men and their families.

It would mean something coming from the State that was the very source of their ill-treatment.

It is a narrow window, however. The impending centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising is likely to make public debate on this forgotten few impossible amid a potentially jingoistic din.

Time is not a friend to the men waiting on redress. Some are nearing 100.

It was July 2006 before the Irish Government first commemorated almost 70,000 Irishmen who died during World War I. Many died alongside Anzacs at Gallipoli.

At a ceremony held in the National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, former President Mary McAleese laid a wreath on the cenotaph. The Defence Force’s participation on that day was a form of recognition and respect.

It’s not too late to right a wrong.



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