The taoiseach has been called on to apologise for “trying to defend the indefensible” after he issued a stout defence of his praise for Irish neutrality in the face of Nazi invasions across Europe in WWII.
Using an ironically Churchillian turn of phrase at the launch of a new biography of Eamon de Valera in Dublin this week, Leo Varadkar said that his predecessor’s “finest hour” had been keeping the Irish state neutral in WWII.
In yesterday’s News Letter UUP chief whip Steve Aiken accused Mr Varadkar of “poor judgment” and said he was “on the wrong side of history”.
However a spokesman for the taoiseach has now issued a stern defence to the News Letter, prompting Mr Aiken to go further and call on the him to apologise for “trying to defend the indefensible”.
Mr Varadkar had said of de Valera that he “pursued a neutral course even in the face of considerable hardships and threats. That was probably his finest hour...”.
After stinging criticism from Mr Aiken, a spokesman for the taoiseach has now issued the following statement.
He said: “Ireland’s neutrality in the Second World War has to be understood in the context of the time: a small state which had recently won its freedom which was determined to protect its sovereignty and to stay out of wars between the great powers of the time which inevitably cost millions of lives.
“This is an entirely different matter to support for fascism, or imply any lack of revulsion for the horrors of Nazism. In fact, de Valera’s 1937 Constitution explicitly recognised and protected the Jewish congregations at a time when they were being discriminated against in other parts of Europe.”
UUP chief whip Mr Aiken had said Varadkar displayed a lack of understanding in the lead-up to the 80th anniversary of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938.
But the taoiseach has now hit back, saying this was only done following an agreement between Hitler and the British Prime Minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain.
“This is hardly something that can be blamed on Ireland,” he added.
But Mr Aiken, a former Royal Navy nuclear submarine commander, slammed the taoiseach for repurposing Churchill’s “finest hour” phrase to defend Irish neutrality, noting that the British leader had deployed it in the summer of 1940 as the UK stood alone in Europe against the “madness” of the Nazis.
And he rejected Varadkar’s assertion that there a war between the ‘great powers of the time’ saying it was actually “a war for the survival of freedom, democracy and European civilization” in which the Republic chose neutrality.
The 1916 Irish Proclamation of Independence – signed by de Valera – referred to ‘our gallant allies in Europe’ which was an obvious reference to the Germans who at the time were occupying Belgium, Mr Aiken said.
This may have coloured de Valera’s view when he signed the official German book of condolence for Adolf Hitler after his death in 1945, he added.
While the taoiseach asserted Ireland wanted to protect its sovereignty as a small state, he said, that was of little consequence to Hitler when he invaded the other small states of Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway.
Mr Aiken added: “The taoiseach should accept that his words were ill-chosen, and apologise. There is no point in trying to defend the indefensible.”