Irishmen who joined British Army finally vindicated

Irish Soldiers who fought for the British Army in World War Two
Irish Soldiers who fought for the British Army in World War Two

Irish soldiers who were blacklisted and shunned for joining the British Army to fight Nazi Germany have been vindicated after almost 70 years.

The state’s Defence Minister Alan Shatter said the courageous men had ensured the safety of the very people at home who disgraced and branded them deserters.

Passing historic legislation in the Irish parliament to grant amnesty to thousands of former troops, the minister insisted their families should be proud.

“These individuals contributed in no small part to the allied victory against tyranny and totalitarianism,” Mr Shatter said.

“Their efforts, in an indirect way, also contributed to the safety of their home country.

“If the United Kingdom had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany, the same fate would almost certainly have been visited on this island, with all of the consequences that would have gone with it.”

Around 60,000 citizens of the Republic of Ireland, which was neutral, fought on the Allied side during World War Two.

Around 5,000 were found guilty by a military tribunal at the time of going absent without leave from the Irish Defence Forces.

Special powers brought in - which became known as the starvation order - saw the deserters barred from state jobs, refused military pensions and faced with widespread discrimination.

But, the Defence Forces (Second World War Amnesty and Immunity) Bill 2012, passed in the Dail today, now provides for the granting of an amnesty and immunity from prosecution.

Around five of those soldiers are still alive. And while they are elderly and some infirm, they are believed to be delighted that their sacrifices have been acknowledged by the Irish Government.

Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign spokesman Peter Mulvany said relatives of those branded deserters could now draw a line under what was once considered a shameful family history.

The defence minister previously apologised to the ex-soldiers, who were dismissed en masse from the Irish Army under special powers introduced during the Second World War, known as the Emergency in neutral Ireland.

But Mr Mulvany said the new legislation, which will be signed by Irish President Michael D Higgins and enacted within the week, was the only way to make amends.

He said many of the soldiers were forced into poverty because they could get no work and many had to leave their families behind for jobs in the UK.

But he praised the current Government for its handling of the issue, which he attributed in part to the ongoing peace process and improving relations between Britain and Ireland.

“Here we have a younger generation of politicians addressing a historical hot potato,” Mr Mulvany said.

“And they are doing it with compassion and in a very sympathetic parliamentary language, and with an understanding of what the effects of this were.”

The new legislation, which was supported almost unanimously in the Dail in its earlier stage, is described as an acknowledgement of the “harsh treatment” Irish soldiers and their families received over the years.

Defence Minister Mr Shatter said the bill finally shines light on the “complex history” of the state, and the fact that almost 100,000 men from the entire island fought against the “tyranny” of Nazi Germany.

“For too long in this state we failed to acknowledge their courage and their sacrifice and for too long their contribution was airbrushed out of official Irish history as taught in our schools and at third level,” he added.

“In recent years this has changed and the role played by them has been documented and written about. That is as it should be. I hope this Bill provides a statutory foundation to ensure they are never again ignored or forgotten in narratives covering the Ireland of 1939 to 1945.”

Meanwhile, politicians north and south of the Irish border welcomed the historic move.

Republic of Ireland Labour TDs Aodhan O Riordain and Gerald Nash said the legislation offers war veterans the respect and dignity they deserve.

Mr O Riordain said it was “a courageous move by the Government to wipe clean yet another blot on our history”.

In Northern Ireland, DUP MLA for North Down Peter Weir said the announcement ensured “an historic injustice” was put right.

He attributed it, in part, to the unprecedented visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011.

“This is another positive step in relations between the two countries and it will be welcomed by everyone,” Mr Weir said.