Neutrality

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—Brendan Ó Cathaoir wondered in his letter (HI 21.6, Nov./Dec. 2013, ‘Britain’s offer on unity: missed opportunity?’) whether a more secure statesman than de Valera would at least have explored the British offer in 1940 of their new commitment to the principle of Irish unity—in return for Ireland agreeing to join the British war effort against the threat for Britain of invasion by Germany.

De Valera would have had good reasons to be cautious. Home Rule was similarly promised to Irish MPs in the generation before the First World War, only for bills to be repeatedly defeated by a lack of support in the House of Commons or veto by the House of Lords. It was finally passed into law in 1914 and immediately postponed, because of the outbreak of war. The unionists in Ulster had campaigned hard against it, rejecting the idea of an all-Ireland parliament in Dublin. In the course of events, the 1916 Rising happened, followed by Irish independence for twenty-six counties in 1922.

De Valera’s definite no-response to the unity offer was therefore based on his knowledge of these historical and disappointing dealings with British administrations, a lack of trust that a British government would be true to its word or promise, and the likely reality that unionists in Northern Ireland would never agree to and could not be forced into a united Ireland. If they were forced by the British, they would have probably resisted in every way with another war, this time between North and South.

It was, as Brendan reminded us, seventeen years after the short and bitter Civil War, and I think that Eamon de Valera’s priority in 1940 was to ensure no further turmoil for the country. Irish independence for the twenty-six counties was so hard won that he could not countenance allowing Britain’s navy or their armed forces to set foot on Irish soil temporarily, even with the big picture of Nazism overwhelming Europe, including Ireland, if the British forces did not defeat them. It was a gamble but he chose that path: a sign in some ways of a sure and confident person and leader.—Yours etc.,

MARY SULLIVAN
Cork

Sir,—I was bemused by Brendan Ó Cathaoir’s letter, ‘Britain’s offer on unity: missed opportunity’. When Chamberlain made his offer he had only days left in office and Britain’s army had been trounced in France. He was to be soon replaced by Churchill, who did not accept the sovereign status of the Irish state, enacted by plebiscite. On 5 May 1938 in the House of Commons Churchill spoke at length in bitter condemnation of the agreement de Valera had negotiated with Chamberlain whereby the ‘Treaty ports’ came under Irish control and the annuities issue was settled by a one-off payment by Ireland of £10,000,000, a huge sum at the time. Any British government containing Churchill could not be considered friendly to Ireland, and, at the time Chamberlain made his offer, no other government on earth contained such a proven and avowed enemy of Ireland.

How Ireland, virtually unarmed, and whose population in 1940 was less than half what it had been a century earlier, could have shortened the war by joining it is perhaps a matter for speculation. As for moral responsibilities, British statesmanship depopulated Ireland and through the vindictive Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds of revenge in Germany. The graves of German soldiers of the 1914–18 war in France have black headstones to symbolise disgrace. The unequal Treaty of 1921 with Ireland, of which Churchill boasted in 1938, had disastrous results, not least the brown-nosed attitude of the current Irish establishment towards Britain.

The final defeat of Hitler was primarily due to his attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and his stupid declaration of war on the United States in December of that year. It is not to disparage the courage or suffering of British servicemen and civilians to observe this. For the record, the Soviets and Americans were neutral until attacked in 1941; the Vatican, like Ireland, remained neutral.

I would suggest that wars to repel or expel invaders or to overthrow tyranny are just, unless undertaken to replace a bad situation with a worse one. It is a great irony that the high point of the ‘pro-democracy’ film Casablanca is the singing of the French national anthem in a colonised North African city.—Yours etc.,

DONAL KENNEDY
London

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