By Alison Martin
Much has been written on the subject of Éire’s neutrality during the Second World War. Éire’s neutrality however, was a multifaceted issue. Subsequently, this article will attempt to evaluate whether or not wartime neutrality was in Éire’s national interest.
In many ways, wartime neutrality was in Éire’s national interest. Undoubtedly Éire had a higher level of national security because of its neutrality, as the rules of war stated that a neutral country should not be invaded or targeted. These rules of warfare can of course be breached. However, Éire’s policy of neutrality certainly made it less likely to be targeted. Understandably, the Irish government wanted to protect Éire’s citizens and to prevent the nation from hardship and destruction.
Indeed, Joseph Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, stated that ‘no government has the right to choose certain destruction for its people.’ It cannot be denied that places like Northern Ireland suffered from the effects of war. For example, during the 1941 Belfast Blitz, around 1,000 people were killed.
Admittedly Éire was also bombed occasionally, most notably in May 1941. Most of the damage was caused at North Strand Road and around thirty-four people were killed. According to some historians, this was the result of a German navigation error. Overall though, it would seem that neutrality was in Éire’s national interest, because it generally provided a higher level of national security.
The fact that Éire was a small nation that did not necessarily have the military capacity for war also made neutrality in Éire’s national interest. It must be considered that Éire’s defence was particularly poor in 1939. At the start of the war, Éire had a small full-time army of between 6,000 and 7,000 people.
They also had limited air power and no real navy. Moreover, Éire also suffered from a lack of tanks, anti-aircraft guns, rifles and ammunition. Indeed, the historian Joseph Lee has noted that ‘Ireland was wholly unprepared for war in 1939.’ If Éire had entered the war, it must also be considered that the government would have had to spend more money on defence. Admittedly, to some degree this was unavoidable.
Military expenditure went from £1.776 million in 1938/9, to £8.768 million in 1945/6. However, if they had taken part in the war, this spending would have been more excessive because they would have needed to be more fully prepared. The extra money that the government would have spent on defence would have also left less for other sectors.
Neutrality was also in Éire’s national interest, because it created an unprecedented level of political and national unity. The historian Alvin Jackson has suggested that Éire’s neutrality was ‘rooted in a concern for national unity.’ Neutrality accommodated most people in society; including politicians, the press, the churches and the voters. There was also cross-party support for neutrality.
There were of course some divisions. One notable politician who objected was James Dillon, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, who believed that Éire should fight for the Allied side. Moreover, some members of the IRA maintained the hope that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Overall however, neutrality was in Éire’s national interest because it united the majority of the nation and caused the least division.
The fact that de Valera was able to turn Éire’s neutrality into an expression of sovereignty, made it in Éire’s national interest. Since coming to power in 1932, de Valera and the Fianna Fáil government embarked upon a policy of dismantling the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In 1933 for instance, the Oath of Allegiance was formally abolished. Moreover, according to the new 1937 Constitution, the newly named Éire was to be a republic in all but name.
Arguably, if Éire had entered the war, most likely on the British side, then they would have risked not being perceived as an independent state. Furthermore, Éire would have been perceived by other nations as still being largely under British control. Neutrality proved to be a way of getting around this, because it allowed Éire to take an individual stance. Such individualism was demonstrated when Éire refused to allow the Allies to use the Irish ports. Therefore in this instance, neutrality was in Éire’s national interest because it was used as an expression of sovereignty.
Although there are many valid arguments, which suggest that neutrality was in Éire’s national interest, there are also many arguments to the contrary. Economically, neutrality may not have been in Éire’s national interest. At the beginning of the Second World War, Éire’s economy was heavily reliant on trade with other countries, particularly Britain. Neutrality therefore proved to be a threat, because it put them at the mercy of the Allied countries, which they had refused to fight alongside. In 1941, de Valera acknowledged that the Allies could ‘deny to us if they choose.’
This is a significant observation, because it demonstrates the precarious situation that neutrality had put Éire’s economy into. From late 1940 however, Britain also issued stricter trade sanctions. This was generally seen as a nudge to join the war effort. This combined with the normal shortages of war, meant that by 1943, Éire possessed just twenty-five per cent of its normal tea requirements and twenty per cent of its normal petrol. It also suffered from a lack of domestic coal. Moreover, strict rationing was also eventually applied. Arguably though, in comparison to some of the participating countries, neutrality still shielded Éire somewhat from the wider effects of war.
The type of neutrality that Éire adopted must also be considered. Some historians have argued that Éire pursued a policy of benevolent neutrality. Approximately 70,000 citizens of Éire joined the British armed forces, with many others also working in associated industries. During the war, Éire supplied the British with vital meteorological data and at times allowed Allied aircrafts to fly over Éire’s airspace. Admittedly, some of this assistance may have been in Éire’s national interest, as in many ways British security was essential to their own.
This certainly put Éire in a more precarious situation with regards to their relations with Germany however. Later in the war, they also released Allied airmen and sailors who had strayed into the country, rather than interning them for the rest of the war. Despite this though, arguably Éire’s official policy of neutrality created somewhat of a distance between themselves and the other Allied countries in the immediate post-war years. With regards to the Marshall Plan for instance, the historian Bernadette Whelan has noted that the American government ‘did illustrate its disapproval’ by awarding Ireland one of the smallest grants awarded to any of the ERP countries. This was despite the fact that the American government had themselves initially pursued a policy of isolationism.
It could also be argued that continuing to pursue neutrality prevented Éire from seizing upon wartime opportunities. Following the fall of France during the spring of 1940, the British overtures to de Valera increased. In June 1940, the British Health Minister, Malcolm MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain put forward a tentative proposal for Irish unity, in exchange for Irish participation in the war.
De Valera eventually rejected the offer however as he did not believe that the British could follow through with their offer. Moreover, he was also determined to keep Éire out of the war. A potential second offer came from the British in December 1941, when the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, appealed to de Valera in a telegram stating ‘Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again.’ Is it possible then, that de Valera had missed an opportunity for Irish reunification?
The historian Alvin Jackson, has suggested that this allusion was ‘rhetorical rather than substantive.’ Churchill’s message could of course be read, as meaning that Ireland could in his eyes, redeem her national honour by joining the war effort. De Valera’s son Terry later denied that his Father had missed an opportunity, emphasizing that the Unionists in the north had not been consulted.
In conclusion, the question as to whether or not neutrality was in Éire’s national interest is a divisive one. There are many ways in which neutrality was in Éire’s national interest. Neutrality did to a large extent protect Éire from wartime devastation. Furthermore, neutrality was used by de Valera as an expression of sovereignty, which helped to solidify Éire’s independence. However, there are also reasons which suggest that neutrality was not in Éire’s national interest. Neutrality for instance, may have been detrimental to Éire’s economy, particularly in light of the eventual trade sanctions from Britain.