Irish Army deserters and the morality of neutrality

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Editorial, Issue 2(March/April 2012), The Emergency, Volume 20

At the time of writing there is still no word from Attorney General Máire Whelan on the modus operandi of Minister for Defence Alan Shatter’s recommendation that the c. 5,000 Irish soldiers who deserted the Irish Army during World War II be pardoned. She will need the wisdom of Solomon to make her decision. How, for example, will she distinguish between those who deserted and those who subsequently joined the British Army? How can she recommend that the president grant a pardon in any case without undermining the integrity of the state and its institutions? No army in the world can tolerate desertion (a criminal offence), particularly in its greatest hour of need, without sanction. This has been acknowledged by the Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign (WWII), whose objection has been to the arbitrary, ‘one-size-fits-all’ nature of Emergency Powers Order 362, which barred deserters from public employment for seven years, instead of the due process of military justice. But that would have been far more severe, involving the rounding up and court-martialling of deserters—and, since the fact of their desertion is not in dispute, their almost certain conviction and imprisonment.The moral argument of the pardons campaign—that the crime of desertion was trumped by the greater good of fighting the evils of fascism—is a compelling one. It is based, however, on the assumption—explicit or implicit—that our neutrality was somehow ‘immoral’ (echoed in recent statements by Minister Shatter) and isolationist. Yet the Irish state functioned fully within the world system and, particularly under de Valera, was actively involved in the League of Nations. But the moral authority of the League and any hope of collective security were undermined by the Western Powers—the United States by not joining in the first place, and Britain and France by sacrificing Abyssinia, Austria and Czechoslovakia (at Munich, 1938) on the altar of appeasement. After Munich it was every state for itself, and in that context Ireland’s policy of neutrality was no more and no less moral than any other state’s. Indeed, neutrality was the favoured policy of almost every state at the time—until they were attacked.So the attorney general should recommend leaving matters as they are (I understand that she has other, more pressing matters on her desk in any case). Finally, on one matter I am in complete agreement with the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign—the arbitrary nature of EPO 362. Isn’t it high time that the draconian 1939 Offences Against the State Act, under which it was implemented, be reviewed or even repealed?


Tommy Graham


6 Palmerston Place, Dublin


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