Ireland will pardon 5,000 soldiers branded deserters and blacklisted for fighting for Britain against Nazi Germany.
Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter apologised to the former troops, who were dismissed en masse under special powers introduced during the Second World War.
Officials were concerned a blanket pardon for desertion between 1939-45 would cause major issues for other soldiers court martialled for going awol.
Mr Shatter, who regarded the soldiers as idealists, told the Dáil in Dublin that people’s understanding of history has matured and that it was time for understanding and forgiveness.
“On behalf of the State, the Government apologises for the manner in which those members of the Defence Forces who left to fight on the Allied side during World War II, 1939 to 1945, were treated after the war by the State,” said Mr Shatter.
“The Government recognises the value and importance of their military contribution to the Allied victory and will introduce legislation to grant a pardon and amnesty to those who absented themselves from the Defence Forces without leave or permission to fight on the Allied side.”
Paddy Reid – whose father Paddy signed up under age to fight for Britain and was one of the first to desert – said the decision was a relief.
The young soldier had fought the Japanese in 1944 at Kohima ridge as they tried to invade India.
Mr Reid, 62, said he had finally cleared his father’s name some 25 years after his death.
“This has been a long time coming,” he said.
“I’m glad people came to realise these men were good men and did what they did for a good cause. They paid a high price for it for years.”
The 4,983 deserters were dismissed under the Emergency Powers (No 362) Order 194, as the wartime was known as the Emergency in neutral Ireland.
Deserters were blacklisted through the order – what became known as the starvation order – and were barred from state jobs, refused military pensions and faced widespread discrimination.
Mr Reid said that while his father was blacklisted the family lived in deprivation, moving from one slum area to another.
“The families bore the brunt of it physically and psychologically,” he added.
“All I did was speak out for them.”
Elsewhere, memorial plaques are being placed on graves in honour of the Irish servicemen and women who lost their lives in the First World War and Second World War.
Headstones have already been erected on 85 unmarked plots in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), with the graves of another 104 former soldiers buried in family plots to be marked in time for Armistice Day in November.
Mr Shatter said members of the Defence Forces who left their posts to fight on the Allied side against tyranny played an important role in defending freedom and democracy.
“Those who fought on the Allied side also contributed to protecting this State’s sovereignty and independence and our democratic values,” he added.
He said the proposed legislation will be introduced later this year and will provide that the pardon and amnesty does not give rise to any right or entitlement or to any liability on the part of the State.
“In extending this amnesty and pardon, the Government would like to emphasise that it does not condone desertion and fully recognises, values and respects the contribution of all those who stood by their post with the Defence Forces and pledged their lives to defend this State’s integrity and sovereignty against any and all aggressors,” Mr Shatter added.