Dev’s treatment of Irish army deserters: vindictive or pragmatic?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), The Emergency, Volume 19

Stockpile of turf in Galway’s Eyre Square during the Emergency. As the threat of invasion receded after 1941, the Irish army was increasingly deployed on non-military duties, such as helping with the harvest, disposing of animal carcases (after foot-and-mouth outbreaks) and cutting turf. According to one would-be deserter, ‘. . . we were fed up working in the bog, cutting turf . . . we were supposed to be soldiering’. (Tom Kenny)

Stockpile of turf in Galway’s Eyre Square during the Emergency. As the threat of invasion receded after 1941, the Irish army was increasingly deployed on non-military duties, such as helping with the harvest, disposing of animal carcases (after foot-and-mouth outbreaks) and cutting turf. According to one would-be deserter, ‘. . . we were fed up working in the bog, cutting turf . . . we were supposed to be soldiering’. (Tom Kenny)

Under EPO 362, 4,634 Irish soldiers who had been absent from their posts for more than 180 days were summarily dismissed from the Irish Defence Forces for desertion. Servicemen who on 8 August were absent for less than 180 days and were not captured were dismissed automatically as soon as they passed the 180-day threshold. Subsequently, a further 149 soldiers were expelled in March 1946. All these men lost their entitlements to gratuities, allowances and pensions dated from the day they absconded. Controversially, they were also barred from government-funded employment for a period of seven years. De Valera’s decision to sign this order prompted a furious reaction from the opposition in the Dáil, has divided historians and has consumed many column inches in recent newspaper letters pages. Was de Valera’s attitude towards Irish military deserters vindictive or pragmatic?

Desertion rates monitered by G2

Around 6,000 men deserted from the Irish Defence Forces during the course of the Second World War. The majority of these travelled across the Northern Irish border or the Irish Sea to join the British forces or to find a job in the booming British war industries. The Department of Defence and Irish military intelligence (G2) kept close tabs on desertion rates and enlistment in the British forces in general. Post to and from British recruitment centres in Belfast which passed through Dublin was intercepted and opened, while soldiers posing as deserters were sent by military investigators to see whether the British Legion was facilitating desertion. Despite this, Peadar MacMahon, a former chief-of-staff and secretary of the Department of Defence during the war, seemed unable to get the cabinet to tackle the issue. MacMahon felt that both desertion and recruitment into the British forces were driven by ‘economic considerations’, and he urged the cabinet in May 1941 to raise Irish military pay to British levels. Although modest increases in pay and allowances were sanctioned in September 1941, Irish soldiers’ pay lagged behind that of their British counterparts and proved to be one of the motivations for desertion.Towards the end of the war, the Irish government began to receive correspondence from the relatives of deserters, as well as questions in the Dáil, about what would happen to them if they returned to Ireland after the conflict. At this point there was no official policy towards deserters. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the Department of Justice, rather than Defence, which took the lead. In June 1945 the secretary of Justice, Stephen Roche, circulated a memo to the cabinet on the issue, containing the main points of what eventually became EPO 362. Roche suggested that all deserters be summarily dismissed from the forces, and he recommended the figure of 180 days as the cut-off point. As justification for this, he cited the enormous cost to the state of tracking down, arresting, detaining, putting on trial and then incarcerating deserters. Finally, he proposed that they be banned from government employment for a period of seven years. The idea had been vaguely floated by defence minister Oscar Traynor, who spoke in the Dáil in May 1945 about deserters being barred ‘for a long time to come’ from state jobs, but Roche’s was the first mention of a definite period of disqualification.

Furious opposition

In the Dáil, Fine Gael reacted furiously to the measure. Leading the protests was T.F. O’Higgins, brother of Kevin O’Higgins, who called on the government to reverse the measure in October 1945. He characterised the move as ‘stimulated by malice, seething with hatred, oozing with venom’, and suggested that deserters were being punished not for leaving their posts but for going to fight for the Allies. There were sharp exchanges across the chamber, as Oscar Traynor sarcastically enquired whether he should turn out ‘bands and banners’ to welcome deserters home, while his back-bench colleagues disparaged Fine Gael’s ‘song and dance about Belsen camps’. Traynor defended the measure in typically combative fashion, claiming that the mass dismissal was an act of charity: by using emergency legislation, the government was removing deserters from military justice and saving them from the prospect of lengthy terms of imprisonment. For good measure, he backed up this point by saying that deserters in other, unnamed countries were shot for their offence. All this did little to dismiss the suspicion that the de Valera government was spitefully punishing deserters for the crime of having joined the British forces.In recent years, two historians have taken divergent views of the deserter issue. Brian Girvin accuses de Valera of being ‘vindictive’ and cites his decision to use emergency legislation rather than military law towards deserters as evidence of this. By contrast, Liam Canny suggests that de Valera may have turned a blind eye to desertion by Irish soldiers as part of this policy of Allied-leaning neutrality. Just to show that the topic is still capable of raising passions, when it was suggested that Irish deserters be pardoned a bad-tempered debate broke out in the letters pages of national newspapers in June–July 2011, 66 years after de Valera signed the order.

Dev had managed to claw some ground back with his measured response to Churchill’s belligerent attack on Irish neutrality in May 1945, but media reports of Irish police arresting and imprisoning men who had fought for the Allies would have further tarnished Ireland’s battered international reputation.

Dev had managed to claw some ground back with his measured response to Churchill’s belligerent attack on Irish neutrality in May 1945, but media reports of Irish police arresting and imprisoning men who had fought for the Allies would have further tarnished Ireland’s battered international reputation.

Highly pragmatic piece of political calculation

But is it possible to say with conviction that de Valera was simply being malevolent towards deserters in 1945? It is just as plausible to say that EPO 362 was a highly pragmatic piece of political calculation. As Stephen Roche pointed out, Ireland could ill-afford the cost of arresting, trying and imprisoning deserters. Such an action would also bring much unfavourable and unwelcome publicity to Ireland. Dublin was already under pressure in the immediate aftermath of the war, following de Valera’s visit to the German legation after the death of Hitler. He had managed to claw some ground back with his measured response to Churchill’s belligerent attack on Irish neutrality in May 1945, but media reports of Irish police arresting and imprisoning men who had fought for the Allies would have further tarnished Ireland’s battered international reputation. Relying on military law would have resulted in a long and very public series of courts martial. Using emergency legislation gave de Valera the opportunity to deal with the deserter issue quickly, cheaply and—most importantly of all—quietly.Adding further weight to this argument is the fact that, had the Fianna Fáil government wished it, there were many more measures they could have taken against deserters. The men were allowed to claim all military pay and allowances due to them up to the date they absconded, and were also allowed to claim any remaining unemployment entitlements they had. Nor were they excluded from claiming British benefits while in Ireland; Dublin negotiated a deal with London whereby Irish veterans of the British forces were allowed to claim British unemployment insurance while resident in Ireland. There is little doubt that the punishment for desertion was severe; but, had de Valera put his mind to it, it could have been even worse.

 

The key to understanding de Valera’s attitude towards Irish deserters, however

The key to understanding de Valera’s attitude towards Irish deserters, however

discharge certificate

The key to understanding de Valera’s attitude towards Irish deserters, however, was the seven-year disqualification from government-funded employment. This was undoubtedly a harsh measure but, again, it can be seen from a very different perspective. The government was committed to providing employment for all demobilised Defence Forces personnel at the end of the war and considerable concessions were put in place for ex-soldiers. Private employers were pressurised to take back ex-military employees; certain grades of civil service posts were reserved, and extra marks given on civil service exams for military service; companies such as CIE, the Post Office and Aer Lingus all opened their doors to ex-soldiers in the immediate post-war period. To avail of these concessions, demobbed men had to hold a military discharge certificate. This was only supplied to men with satisfactory military service records. This meant that any man dismissed for desertion did not receive one; indeed, it would have been manifestly unfair to allow them to access the same employment opportunities as their comrades who had remained at their posts. Not having a discharge certificate effectively meant, however, that deserters were excluded from government jobs in post-war Ireland. Therefore the seven-year disqualification would have no impact on them; lacking a discharge certificate, they were already barred from state jobs. It can be argued that the disqualification was essentially a dead letter, designed to look like a severe measure. It allowed the de Valera government to look as if it was taking stern action to stop desertions in the future. There could be no question of the government allowing the men to go unpunished; that would have undermined Dublin’s claim to be neutral, eroded morale in the Defence Forces and set a dangerous precedent that desertion from the forces would be tolerated.We can speculate endlessly about de Valera’s decision to sign EPO 362, and the recent outbreak of letters in the Irish Times and Irish Examiner suggests that the debate is far from over. Until some definitive evidence surfaces, the question of whether it was a vindictive or pragmatic act will be unresolved, although the sources suggest that it was probably the latter. But in the absence of a final answer, it is only fitting to give the last word to an Irish soldier. Asked why he considered deserting and joining the British forces, he said ‘. . . we were fed up working in the bog, cutting turf . . . we were supposed to be soldiering’.  HI
Bernard Kelly’s book on Irish veterans of World War II, Prisoners of history, will be published next year by Irish Academic Press.

Further reading:

L. Canny, ‘Pariah dogs: deserters from the Irish defence forces who joined the British armed forces during “the Emergency”’, Studica Hibernica 30 (1998–9), 231–49.B. Girvin, The Emergency: neutral Ireland, 1939–1945 (London, 2006).

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