Northern Ireland in the Second World War, Brian Barton (Ulster Historical Foundation)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 4

In the wake of the Second World War the pillorying of ‘Éire’ for perfidy and treachery by abrasive Stormontites caused much resentment among so-called ‘southerners’ from Donegal down, who suspected that there was more than a grain of truth in the canard that the loyalists were ‘more loyal to the half-crown than to the crown’. These suspicions have been confirmed by Brian Barton in Northern Ireland in the Second World War.

Since 1921 the north had become an ever more Protestant state with its resentful Catholic minority becoming increasingly more isolated and alienated. This sectarian division was a key factor in influencing Westminister’s decision not to introduce conscription there and to acknowledge that initially Northern Ireland was ‘only half in the war’. Apathy was pervasive. Cynics suggested that the suspension of twelfth of July demonstrations was to divert attention from the large number of able-bodied Orangemen who had not entered military service. There was no sense of war urgency. The border issue too was in abeyance. Until April 1941, when Belfast’s first blitz braught them to their senses, it was difficult to raise recruits even for civil defence. The local force, 40,000 armed Protestants (B Specials and Local Defence Volunteers), never took their eyes off the main sectarian chance. The irony was that between September 1941 and May 1945 there were 11,500 northern volunteers as against 18,600 southerners passing through the Northern Ireland recruiting channel alone.

Though apparently subscribing to Protestant majoritarianism, Barton gives the South credit for its contribution to the war effort: assistance in the blitz; intelligence and met reports; discrimination in favour of Allied prisoners-of-war; use of the crucial ‘Donegal corridor’; munition workers in Britain; food supplies; tip-of-the-spear soldiers, etc..

He points out that southerners won a total of 780 decorations, including eight Victoria Crosses (Actually it was seven. The eighth was won by James Magennis, a Belfast Catholic).

Of course the South did not fully comprehend the evil that Naziism was at that point. German oppression and British oppression were equated in the nationalist psyche. In ‘England’s War’ one was seen to be as bad as the other. Memories of the Black-and-Tans were fresh in peoples’ minds. Even so de Valera still made the point that the US did not enter the war until it was attacked by the Japanese in 1941. Crusading was not a realistic concept for a defenceless country still at odds with its erstwhile colonial master. Barton cites External Affairs departmental secretary Joe Walshe’s conviction of Britain’s defeat. He had no inkling of what a menace that misogynist, Petanist, ex-seminarian odd-ball could be. (Astonishingly, at the launch of Dermot Keogh’s Ireland and the Vatican, a speaker described Walshe as ‘a hero’).

When Barton writes off the danger of German invasion from 1942 onwards he does seem to be apprehensive enough of German madcap. He does not mention Veesanmeyer, Ribbentrop’s coup d’etat specialist. The difference between America’s and Ireland’s tardiness to enter the war was that if Britain fell Ireland too would come under the Nazi jack-boot, whereas the US could live to fight another day. National self—interest however was not so measurable at the time. If it had been, and Britain’s historic record in Ireland had not been so abysmal, things might have worked out differently.

As it was after the war the marginalisation of Ireland was mischievous and malicious. The Allies choose vindictively to judge the South by de Valera’s words rather than by his deeds. Ireland risked becoming a target and compromised its neutrality by rushing to Belfast’s assistance in the blitz without thinking twice. However de Valera took the good out of that by pontificating fatuously that ‘we are one and the same people’. The unionist back was up immediately. Dev’s relentless ‘dropping perpendicular’ logic also led reasoning over a precipice into an abyss of Casiabianca protocol with his crazy charade of proffering condolences on the death of evil Hitler (the evil was out now) to the dazed distraught hand-wringing German ambassador Hempel who could not make it out at all at all. It provided the hungering mongrel foxes with more anti-Irish ammunition.

This book by Donegalman Barton, who was educated in Methodist College, Belfast, is well worth reading. From a southern point of view the threats of invasion from both sides, though of vastly varying magnitudes, were real but combattable, albeit quixotishly. ‘Who are we neutral against’ remains a question? It is difficult to disagree with Eisenhower’s observation that ‘without Northern Ireland I do not see how the American force could have been concentrated to begin the invasion of Europe’. De Valera never really understood the primal reality, in the final analysis, of wicked war. He got away with it and he knew it. He could not foresee a repetition of such a fall-out of future wars. Endemic anomolies in evolving defence doctrine are still with us in the ongoing neutrality delemma

J.P. Duggan is a former Irish army officer and author of A History of the Irish Army

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