De Valera, the pragmatist hero

Biblio - A monthly review of Irish Books

DURING REFERENDA on European treaties - such as during the recet Lisbon Treaty campaign - you will meet the odd excitable type who’ll tell you that he’s voting No because some closet member of Youth Defence or the Communist Party of Ireland told him the treaty would end Irish neutrality.

Not only would it end Irish neutrality it would result in his son being conscripted to fight on the side of the Germans, the next time they decide to invade Lapland. For most people though, neutrality is one of those things which, like ‘sustainable development’ or ‘open government’, everyone except Kevin Myers pretends to favour but doesn’t give it much thought.

T Ryle Dwyer, in Behind The Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality During World War II (Gill and MacMillan ), shows that Irish neutrality, as it was conceived at the outset of WWII, had everything to do with pragmatism.

He argues that Ireland’s neutrality in the war between the Allies and the Nazi-axis was more imaginary than real. At the time Eamon de Valera told the German ambassador that Ireland was prepared “to show a certain consideration for Britain”.

It was implied that this was for reasons of geography rather than politics. But de Valera’s “consideration” stretched neutrality to the absolute limit of what it was possible to do to help the Allies without actually entering the war.

Dwyer details how Allied airman who crash-landed were “quietly repatriated across the land border with Northern Ireland” and over-fly rights were granted to the US air force and RAF; while German air crew were interned until the end of the war.

One nugget Dwyer comes up with is that Irish diplomats across Europe acted as agents for the American OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, with the full knowledge and consent of the Irish Government.

The fact that Ireland was one of the few European countries which remained neutral, and managed not to get invaded, meant we retained diplomatic relations with all concerned, which made our diplomats very useful to the nascent CIA.

Dwyer thinks Ireland never got the credit it deserves for helping the Allies in this way: “Churchill, Roosevelt, and Gray [the US ambassador here] deliberately discredited de Valera by distorting the true nature of Irish neutrality.”

He also colourfully accuses the same trio of abandoning “the Roman Catholic people of Northern Ireland by supporting a bigoted and neo-fascist regime that trampled on their rights”.

This last point is incredibly naïve. World War II was not a war between good and evil, but between the bad and the infinitely worse. If anyone should have spoken up for the discriminated minority in Northern Ireland it was the Soviet Union, which was meant to be in favour of liberating all the people of the world from imperialist domination. But it didn’t say a word.

Politics - and by extension war - is rarely about setting anyone free. More often it is about making what alliances you can against those who would make the world an even worse place than it already is. In this context, de Valera is the pragmatist hero of this informative if slightly idealistic book.

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