I’m always impressed by the public mind’s ability to perform somersaults. The latest example of this is the ‘pardon’ issued to those soldiers in the Irish Army who deserted and joined the British Army during the Second World War. At the time they were declared deserters and when they came home they had problems getting work. Now Justice Minister Alan Shatter is sponsoring a Bill to right that wrong posthumously “The Bill is being enacted in recognition of the courage and bravery of those individuals court martialed or dismissed from the Defence Forces who fought on the Allied side to protect decency and democracy during World War Two”.
I’m afraid I detect a case of having your cake and eating it here. No matter what Minister Shatter or anyone else says, these men were deserters. They’re on record as having gone AWOL and to pretend they somehow didn’t is daft. “Yes, but they did it for the highest of motives” you may say. Indeed. But if as Shatter says, they were fighting to protect “decency and democracy”, then by extension the Irish army which they deserted failed to help protect “decency and democracy”. So Dev’s whole neutrality thing was simply cowardice? A failure to stand side-by-side with Britain and the allies against Germany?
Well yes, they didn’t stand side-by-side with Britain. But surely that was their prerogative as a sovereign state. What’s the point in having an independent foreign policy if you’re not allowed to use it? And what has happened that Mr Shatter and this generation see the courage and even heroism of these men, while the generation or two before them saw them saw deserters who rejected their own army and joined that of Britain?
The case is similar to the rehabilitation of those Irishmen who fought in the British Army in the First World War. In both cases, the hurry to rehabilitate has more to do with publicly sucking up to Britain than it does with wanting to do the right thing. Despite the considerable number of irishmen who have joined the British army over the decades, there has always been a sense that they have gone over, for whatever reason, to the ‘other side’.
So here are two tips for you, Alan: (i) Accept that the men were in fact deserters from the Irish Army. Regardless of motive, deserting is deserting and no apology changes that. (ii) Accept that while these men may have shown courage and even insight by joining Britain in fighting Germany, they were effectively telling their government it should have entered the war. No state and no society reacts well to being told a central policy is totally mistaken, especially when the critics come dressed in the uniform of the British Army.
As to Alan’s hand-wringing over the men’s difficulties in finding work when they returned, he might want to turn his gaze and his influence northwards to consider the work problems encountered by former political prisoners here. Or maybe not. It’s always easier to speak up for the safely dead.