Dr Ruairi Hanley is passionately opposed to any potential moves to pardon the Irish army deserters who went to fight for the British in World War II.
Over the past few months, a campaign has been launched to grant a pardon to those Irish army personnel who deserted our Defence Forces during World War II and subsequently joined the British Army. It appears to have gained support from the usual suspects in The Irish Times, Trinity College and the Fine Gael party.
My view on the matter is simple. I am passionately, vehemently opposed to this campaign. I believe the Government should immediately reject any suggestion of a blanket pardon for these deserters.
This may sound harsh. However, I think the facts need to be spelled out. These men did not have to join the Irish Army. Should they have wished to fight for the British Empire, there was nothing to stop them leaving the State to do so. Indeed, tens of thousands of Irish men did exactly that. Those soldiers acted honourably and their actions are to be respected and admired.
However, those deserters who are the focus of this campaign decided instead to sign up for the Defence Forces of our country. In doing so, they placed their hand on a Bible and swore allegiance to this nation and to the chain of command. Anyone who has ever worn the uniform of this State will be familiar with that simple and powerful ceremony. It is not an oath to be taken lightly.
We must also look at the context in which these men made the fateful decision to desert.
In 1939, Éamon de Valera decided to pursue a policy of military neutrality. Given that our fledging State had only 20 years earlier been at war with the British Empire, this position was logical. Furthermore, neutrality enjoyed overwhelming public support at a time when Europe was slowly drowning in a sea of fire and blood.
De Valera walked a tightrope throughout the ‘Emergency’, as it became known. His actions ensured our survival as a sovereign State and, even among political opponents, his behaviour throughout this time is grudgingly admired.
During the war, the threat of invasion did indeed hang over our country. The Germans contemplated such an act, code-named ‘Operation Green’.
Winston Churchill also seriously considered invading in order to seize key port facilities on our coastline.
Throughout these dark days, our impoverished, small nation did its utmost to protect itself. Thousands of young men joined the Army with the sole aim of defending the very existence of our newborn State. The vast majority of them retained their honour by serving their country throughout this period. A small number chose not to do so.
At the end of the conflict, those men who had broken their oath, betrayed their comrades and joined the army of a foreign power were duly found guilty of desertion. Unlike in other nations, where such crimes resulted in imprisonment, in Ireland they were merely convicted and excluded from holding public service positions.
Frankly, in my opinion, this is nothing more than these men deserved. How can those who broke an oath of allegiance to our country in one of its darkest hours honestly have expected to subsequently be given permanent employment by the State?
I acknowledge that some of these deserters did indeed fight bravely for the British Empire against Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, this does not excuse the fact that they fundamentally betrayed Ireland.
In my opinion, to grant these men a blanket pardon is to belittle the integrity and honour of those who did not. Such an act of retrospective clemency is also an insult to every man and woman who has ever served in our Permanent Defence Forces.
It also undermines all those brave and loyal citizens who subsequently wore our uniform on United Nations service in war-torn lands.
Indeed, as I write this article, I am conscious of the fact that hundreds of Irish soldiers are currently serving in the Lebanon. Naturally, their bravery and patriotism rarely features on the letters page of The Irish Times, while those who abandoned our army decades ago are treated as plucky folk heroes.
Of course, many people may be wondering why this campaign has suddenly gained momentum after all this time. I believe the answer is obvious — Fine Gael is in power.
I believe there has always been a small, unrepresentative neo-Unionist element lurking within the ranks of Ireland’s largest political party. For these people, insulting our Defence Forces would not cost them a moment’s thought.
I also suspect that, pathetically, in the eyes of some fanatical Blueshirts, this issue may even satisfy some deep unspoken desire to get ‘even’ with De Valera — the one politician they could never fully defeat.
For all of Fianna Fáil’s many failings, somehow I seriously doubt they would have agreed to a blanket pardon.
Finally, it is a little known fact that serving members of the Permanent Defence Forces are forbidden from engaging in public commentary in national newspapers. That is why you will not read any correspondence in the press from Army Officers, who might vehemently oppose this campaign.
I believe the issues raised in this debate are far greater than the actions of a few thousand men 60 years ago. This is now about defending our national pride, our national dignity and the very honour of our sovereign nation. This pardon must not be granted.