Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s phoney neutrality during World War II

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 18

Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s phoney neutrality during World War II
T. Ryle Dwyer
(Gill and Macmillan, €25)
ISBN 9780717146383


77_small_1268936247The reasons for Irish neutrality during the Second World War are widely accepted: that any attempt to take an overtly pro-British line might have resulted in a replay of the Civil War; that Southern Ireland could make little material contribution to the Allied effort, while engagement without adequate defence would have resulted in wholesale domestic destruction; that small states do badly in wars not of their making brought about by large ones, and are better keeping out if at all possible; that by asserting its right to remain out of the war, Southern Ireland also asserted its own independence in international affairs. It had mass popular backing. Nor can Southern Ireland’s right to stay out of the war be disputed. That this was deeply unpopular with both Britain and the United States has also never been in doubt.
It was also, until recently at least, widely accepted that the policy of even-handedness between the combatants was pursued to the point of pedantry. Brian Girvin has gone so far as to talk of the indifference of the Southern government to the outcome of the war; Clare Wills has emphasised the rigour and effectiveness of censorship in how the war was reported, and has shown how Irish public opinion ranged from pro-British to pro-German, with a majority wanting to keep clear of any entanglement. This was reflected in wartime elections.
But this has gradually been challenged. Southern Ireland has been repositioned—rebranded, if you prefer, in the style of post-modern diplomacy, where image is all and actual action secondary—as ‘we were neutral, but neutral on the Allied side’. The ‘we’ suggests a congruence between covert policy—secret cooperation—and public sentiment. The implication is: ‘we were on the Allied side’.
The attractions of this piece of revisionism are obvious. It recasts the history of Ireland in the twentieth century in a distinctly progressive light: an unbroken march to modernity by one of the older democracies, which did the right thing by Europe in its hour of need; Southern Ireland as a repository of liberal values in a new dark age. It allows present-day neutrality to be presented as contingent, a pragmatic response rather than a fixed principle of Southern foreign policy. At a time of evolving European foreign policy that too has its attractions—to some.
T. Ryle Dwyer’s new book, subtitled ‘Ireland’s phoney neutrality during World War II’, seeks to show how the Irish cooperated, first with the British, then with the Americans, in the war against the Axis powers. He seeks to restore Southern Ireland to its place amongst the virtuous by exploding ‘the myth behind the shibboleth of neutrality’, to cite his own blurb.
With the fall of France in June 1940, the French army went over to Petain, the vast majority regarding de Gaulle as little less than a traitor for siding with the ancient enemy, Britain. Some Petainists looked to Ireland with favour, seeing in it a model of Catholic corporatism that could be applied in their own constitution. It took a Petainist who had taught in Trinity College, Georges Pelerson, and who knew what de Valera’s Ireland was like, to disabuse them of the idea. There was something of the pre-modern Utopia with a strong dose of authoritarianism, to put it at its kindest, about de Valera’s ideal Ireland, something not incompatible with Catholic teaching. And if de Valera’s preferred system of first-past-the-post voting had prevailed, Southern Ireland would have been a mirror image of its northern counterpart, a ‘bigoted and neo-Fascist regime’, to use Ryle Dwyer’s words for Northern Ireland. Ideologically, Southern Ireland was sufficiently flexible as not to be precluded from treating with Hitler’s Germany.
But Southern Ireland did offer some assistance to Britain. The British minister to Ireland, John Maffey, writing in 1941, described this as access to some intelligence reports, coded weather reports, prompt reports of submarine movements, and use of Lough Foyle and the Donegal corridor. Against this must be set the resolute refusal of the Southern government to make any concessions on the use of Southern naval bases in the war in the Atlantic. There is also Frank Aiken’s visit to the United States to negotiate on shipping and armaments, when he was snubbed by Roosevelt but went on to oppose US aid for Britain and share pro-US neutrality platforms with some very dubious company. Britain was on its own.
With Pearl Harbour and the opening of the Eastern Front, everything changed. Southern Ireland became more cooperative with the Allies, particularly the Americans, something acknowledged by Maffey. But even with Allied victory increasingly likely, de Valera retained an attachment to neutrality to the point of its becoming an idée fixe. In the run-up to D-Day, when the Allies were understandably worried by the presence of Axis diplomats in Dublin and the information they might transmit home, de Valera refused to close their missions down. Finally, there was the offering of condolences to the German minister on the death of Hitler.
T. Ryle Dwyer has given a good, clear account (and this review does no justice to its range) of a crucial point in Irish history. He also gives a fascinating account of a small state negotiating its way through Big Power tumult—think of a contemporary African state caught up in the US ‘war against terror’—and concludes that it is inaccurate to describe Irish policy as one of neutrality. I would dispute that: it was neutrality that trimmed its jib to suit the prevailing fields of force.
At the end of his autobiography, Interesting times, Eric Hobsbawm says that the one thing he cannot contemplate is that the 50 million dead and the uncounted horrors of the Second World War weren’t worth the defeat of National Socialism. In that reckoning, in that scale of things, neutral Ireland’s contribution to that defeat counts for nothing.  HI

Eoin Dillon works on twentieth-century African history.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568