The Air War I

Ireland's 'benevolent' neutrality during the second world war

In 1939, when the world once again plunged itself into war, Ireland or Eíre as it became known in the 1937 constitution, like other neutral countries, found itself being drawn indirectly into situations where the war, no matter how small-scale, was landing on its doorstep. In Eíre’s case it was her geographical position in relation to the North Atlantic and especially to Britain, that brought the second world war to her shores and even at times caused her officially to breach her neutrality.

Ireland’s geographical location only touched British consciousness at times of insurrection or external danger. Throughout the first three years of the war, it was the pressing need for the treaty ports of, Berehaven, Lough Swilly and Cobh which Chamberlain returned to the Free State in 1938 and the fear that Germany might use Eíre as a platform for an assault upon Britain that dominated British strategic thinking on Ireland.

However, there was a feeling among British ministers that Eíre’s benevolent neutrality was of more use to Britain than her participation in the war as an ally. The loss of the treaty ports was compensated for by the use of Belfast and Derry in the North and by 1943 when the British began to turn the tide against the stranglehold the U-boats were having on their convoys, the importance of the southern treaty ports began to diminish.

The Taoiseach Eamon de Valera saw the retention of the ports by Ireland as not only a symbol of independence but an establishment of independence. His view was that any tiny qualification of the principle of sovereignty was a denial of that principle. However, the proof of that sovereignty was Britain’s acceptance of Irish neutrality, a policy that was thus publicly unalterable inside Eíre. In fact, the most impressive aspect of Ireland’s foreign and domestic policy during the war was not the act of neutrality nor its later benevolence toward the Allies but the consistency with which that neutrality was expressed until the end of the war.

Basis of Ireland’s neutrality
The neutrality of Ireland aroused much ill-informed and often acrimonious comment in Britain and America. The subject bristled with many difficulties and its possibilities for dissension and quarrels were not ignored by Nazi propaganda. Eíre’s neutrality rested on a solid basis. On April 25, 1938, the then governments of Britain and Eíre signed an agreement by which Article 7 and its Annex of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 (which by implication made the Irish Free State a co-belligerent of a Britain at war) ‘ceased to have effect’ and at the same time gave Eíre full and final sovereignty over and possession of Lough Swilly, Berehaven and Cobh, hitherto reserved to the British Admiralty for Naval bases. This and other British legislation put beyond doubt Ireland’s legal right to choose between belligerency and neutrality.

In September 1939, the Irish Government chose neutrality. Both the people and their representatives showed an almost unanimous approval for this course. The general feeling was that to enter a modern mechanised war that was none of Eíre’s making and with almost ‘bare hands’, would be to invite a suicidal risk. Further to assert and maintain neutrality would be one more affirmation of Ireland’s sovereign rites (already declared in The Eíre Constitution 1937), which is conceived to embrace the whole of Ireland. It was because of the terms of this constitution that de Valera felt bound to record a protest against the landing of American troops in the North in 1942, for the constitution treats that territory as an integral part of Ireland, though conceived to be temporarily severed from the rest by an artificial and externally imposed line of partition unrelated to the wishes of the majority of the Irish people and subject to reconsideration.

Emergency legislation and censorship (De Valera sympathy towards Britain)
At the beginning of the war, de Valera introduced legislation to provide his government with emergency powers to keep Eíre out of the war. Despite this, and his strong belief in a United Ireland, when it came to the worst conflict the world has had to endure with the veil of Nazism and everything that entailed, there is no doubt his sympathy lay with Britain. On September 14, 1939, during his first meeting with Sir John Maffey, the British representative to Ireland, he went out of his way to emphasise this sympathy. ‘England has a moral position today,’ he said. ‘Hitler might have his early successes, but the moral position [will] tell.’ In reality, the propaganda of de Valera and his party was more Republican than its actions.

IRA Interned
When de Valera came to power in 1932, all IRA Volunteers imprisoned by the former regime were released. But now he demanded from everyone the recognition of majority rule within the Free State. Once the oath of allegiance to the British Crown under the 1921 treaty was removed, there could be no objection to such a recognition of majority rule and to recognising the Free State parliament as a legitimate body. In March 1932, the new government became the establishment within a state against which they had initially fought.

They were keen to woo Republicans, and through their mixture of social and symbolic policies – together with their offer of pensions to ex-IRA men – they substantially managed to do just that. During the 1930s, de Valera undid most of what Republicans felt to be unacceptable about the 1921 treaty. These included: land annuity payments to Britain, the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, the office of Governor-General, the right of appeal to the Privy Council, British access to Irish naval facilities, and the 1922 Constitution.

De Valera had used and manipulated the Republican movement until he took power. Now, any Republican who did not accept the new establishment was interned as was anyone else who showed the slightest sign of violating his emergency laws. He even interned high profile figures such as Jack Plunkett a brother of one of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and Tomás MacCurtáin son of the Lord Mayor of Cork who had been murdered by an RIC murder squad in 1920. IRA prisoners died on hunger strike and others were executed by firing squads. ‘Prisoners [will] not be allowed to dictate the condition under which they[will] be kept in detention,’ de Valera insisted.

The most horrific experiences of political prisoners occurred in Ireland under de Valera, with prominent members of the IRA and allied Republican groups arrested. Under the Emergency Power (Amendment) Act of 1940 some 500 were interned throughout the war years. You could be arrested for ‘refusing to answer questions’ and for ‘possessing illegal radios’  Military tribunals tried men without the rules of judicial procedure, these were revoked.  Wartime censorship covered up the brutality and conditions suffered by the prisoners in Portlaoise, Arbour Hill, Mountjoy and the Curragh. Most internees were released from the Curragh by November 1944, but it was not until a change in government in 1948 that the new minister for justice, General Sean MacEoin, who himself had been sentenced to death by the British in 1921, released the political prisoners.

Airspace Incursion Policy
De Valera’s Government decided that Eíre should be closed to all belligerent aircraft and ships, although they had little means of preventing incursions into their airspace. However, a string of 83 lookout posts were positioned around the coast for plotting aircraft incursions. These lookout posts were manned by the Coast Watching Service, with a central control based at Mount St Joseph monastery, Clondalkin, Co. Dublin. At the start of the war, de Valera promised that the Coast Watching Service would openly broadcast such sightings.  Reporting all sightings to both sides may have seemed impartial but it worked against the Luftwaffe on two counts. Germany was too far away to make use of reports of allied flights, whereas British forces could react quickly to sightings of German aircraft and submarines.

Also, the messages which were broadcast on a radio frequency agreed with the British, informed Allied planes of their positions if they were lost over Ireland. It must also be stated that the British had the secret advantage of Ultra through which they could infiltrate and de-code German signals, nor must radar and the advantage that gave, be overlooked.

By John Quinn