De Valera refrained from joining either the Allies or Axis powers. While the possibility of both a German or a British invasion were discussed in the Dáil, de Valera's ruling party, Fianna Fáil, supported his policy for the duration of the war. This period is known in Ireland as the Emergency, owing to the wording of the constitutional article employed to suspend normal government of the country.
Pursuing a policy of neutrality required attaining a balance between the strict observance of non-alignment and the taking of practical steps in order to repel or discourage an invasion from either of the two concerned parties.
Ireland was in 1939 nominally a dominion of the British Empire and a member of the Commonwealth. The nation had gained de facto independence from Britain after the Anglo-Irish War, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 declared Ireland to be a 'sovereign, independent, democratic state'. A new constitution was adopted by a plebiscite in 1937. The Statute of Westminster meant that unlike in World War I, Britain's entry into the war no longer automatically included its dominions. Relations between Ireland and Britain had been strained for many years; until 1938 the two states had engaged in the Anglo-Irish Trade War.
Nevertheless, Ireland did not sever its vestigial connection with the Crown and it was not until the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 that the final nominal link was severed. No representatives of the new state attended Commonwealth conferences or participated in its affairs, but Ireland remained a legal member until the British Ireland Act 1949, which accepted the declaration of a Republic and formally terminated its membership of the Commonwealth.
Alongside George VI's few remaining powers, the 1937 Constitution had provided that the holder of the new office of President of Ireland was in "supreme command of the Defence Forces".
Irish neutrality was overwhelmingly supported by the population of Ireland, although a minority favoured fighting against the Axis powers. Irish citizens could serve in the British armed forces, as at least 50,000 in the British Army did, as well as in the Merchant Navy. Travel passes and identity cards were issued to 245,000 people to enable them to travel to Britain to work. A small minority of Irish republicans sided with Germany, believing that a German victory might bring about a United Ireland. Moreover, in a war in which the United Kingdom was involved, neutrality was perceived as the clearest expression of Irish sovereignty, something the Taoiseach fervently sought.
In response to claims that Ireland had failed to take up the moral fight against Nazism, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joe Walshe, answered in 1941 that:
|“||… small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume a role as defenders of just causes except [their] own … Existence of our own people comes before all other considerations … no government has the right to court certain destruction for its people; they have to take the only chance of survival and stay out.||”|
On the day following the German invasion of Poland, a hastily convened Dáil declared an immediate state of emergency. The Emergency Powers Act that the day's debate culminated in came into effect one day later, on September 3, 1939. It was modelled extensively on the British draft worked-out during the Sudeten crisis a year before. In some respects the Irish act was regarded as more drastic. The key provisions were as follows:
|“||The government may, whenever and so often as they think fit, make by order (in this act referred to as an emergency order), such provisions as are, in the opinion of the government, necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, or the preservation of the state, or for the maintenance of public order, or the provision and control of supplies and services to the life of the community.|
With such sweeping executive powers, de Valera's cabinet set out to tackle any problems that might arise and curb any inconsistencies with the nation's policy of neutrality. Censorship of radio newscasts meant newsreaders were confined to reading, without comment, the dispatches of each side, while weather forecasts were halted to preclude the inadvertent assistance of planes or ships involved in the war. Public expressions of opinion appearing to favour one side or the other were repressed. The word 'war' itself was avoided, with the Government referring to the situation in Europe from 1939 to 1945 as 'the Emergency'.
The Emergency (Irish: An Éigeandáil) was an official euphemism used by the Irish Government during the 1940s to refer to its position during World War II. The state was officially neutral during World War II, but declared an official state of emergency on 2 September 1939, and enacted the Emergency Powers Act the following day. This gave sweeping new powers to the government for the duration of the Emergency, such as internment, censorship of the press and correspondence, and the government control of the economy. The term has remained in use, for example, as a cultural and historic context in school books. The Emergency Powers Act finally lapsed on 2 September 1946. Although the state of emergency itself was not rescinded until 1 September 1976, no emergency legislation was ever in force after 1946 to exploit this anomaly.
By September 1939, a general European war was inevitable. On 2 September, de Valera told the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament) that neutrality was the best policy for the country. In this he was almost universally supported by the Dáil and the country at large (although many joined the British military). The 1937 Irish constitution was amended for the first time to allow the Government to take emergency powers, and then the Emergency Powers Act 1939 was passed that included censorship of the press and mail correspondence. The government was able to take control of the economic life of the country under the new Minister of Supply Seán Lemass. Liberal use was made of all of these powers. Internment of those who had committed a crime or were about to commit one would be used extensively against the IRA. Censorship was under the charge of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures, Frank Aiken. It was necessary to prevent publication of matter that might undermine the neutrality of the State and to prevent it becoming a clearing house for foreign intelligence, though over the period of the Emergency, the Act started to be used for more party political purposes such as preventing the publication of the numbers of Irish soldiers serving in the United Kingdom armed forces or industrial disputes within the state. In addition, the information made available to Irish people was also carefully controlled. De Valera performed the duties of Minister of External Affairs, though the secretary for the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe, was very influential.
On the declaration of the emergency, Walshe asked for assurances from the German minister in Dublin, Eduard Hempel that Germany would not use its legation for espionage nor attack Irish trade with Britain. He then travelled to London on 6 September where he met the Dominions Secretary, Anthony Eden, who was conciliatory and defended Irish neutrality in subsequent Cabinet meetings. In addition, the appointment of Sir John Maffey as a British representative in Dublin was agreed.
For the Irish government, neutrality meant not showing partiality to either side. On one hand, that meant the open announcement of military activity such as the sighting of submarines or the arrival of parachutists, and the suppression of any foreign intelligence activity. Ireland's geographic position meant that this policy (which was, in the view of most historians, applied fully and consistently) tended to benefit the Allies more than Germany. For example, British servicemen who crashed over the State were allowed to go free if they could claim not to have been on a combat mission, otherwise they were released "on licence" (promise to remain). Many chose to escape to Great Britain via Northern Ireland. Also, Allied mechanics were allowed to retrieve crash landed Allied aircraft. There was extensive cooperation between British and Irish intelligence and the exchange of information such as detailed weather reports of the Atlantic Ocean; the decision to go ahead with the D-day landings was decided by a weather report from Blacksod Bay, County Mayo.
On the other hand, the government did not show any overt preference for either side, unlike the United States when it was neutral. This is partly because de Valera had to keep national unity, which meant accommodating the large swathe of Irish society that rejected anything to do with the British, some of whom admired Germany (which had failed in an attempt to supply a small cache of arms to the rebels of 1916) to some extent. These attitudes were shared by Aiken, and Walshe, and to a large extent by de Valera himself. The Fianna Fáil government ruled alone and did not accommodate any other party in decision-making, unlike the British National Government.
The Irish government had good reason to be concerned lest the War in Europe re-open the wounds of the Civil War. There were pro- and anti-fascist movements in Ireland, and the IRA continued to pursue its own agenda.
Former Old IRA commander and founder of the Fine Gael Party General Eoin O'Duffy became a leader of the fascist Blueshirt organisation in 1932-33. He was active in creating links between the IRA and German Nazi politicians. The pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism of some Irish politicians during World War II were once airbrushed from history, but Ireland is now beginning to acknowledge them. In this context, it is relevant to note that two Irish contingents fought in the 1937 Spanish Civil War – but on opposing sides. O'Duffy's pro-Nationalist (Fascist) Irish Brigade fought with the Nationalists and the pro-Republican Irish contingent of the International Brigades fought with the Republicans, though neither had government support.
In the six months prior to the onset of war there had been an escalation of Irish Republican Army violence and a bombing campaign in Britain under the new leadership of Seán Russell. De Valera, who had tolerated the IRA as recently as 1936, responded with the Offences against the State Act, 1939. Upon the outbreak of the main conflict in September, subversive activity was regarded as endangering the security of the state. There were fears that the United Kingdom, eager to secure Irish ports for their air and naval forces, might use the attacks as a pretext for an invasion of Ireland and a forcible seizure of the assets in question. Furthermore, the possibility that the IRA (in line with the Irish nationalist tradition of courting allies in Europe) might link up with German agents, thereby compromising Irish non-involvement, was considered.
This threat was real: Russell, in May 1940, travelled to Berlin in an effort to get arms and support for the IRA. He received training in German ordnance but died on a submarine while returning to Ireland, as part of Operation Dove. A small number of inadequately-prepared German agents were sent to Ireland, but those that did arrive were quickly picked up by the G2 (the Irish military intelligence branch). Active republicans were interned at the Curragh or given prison sentences; six men were hanged under newly legislated acts of treason and three more died on hunger strike. The Germans also later came to realize they had overestimated the abilities of the IRA. By 1943, the IRA had all but ceased to exist. In the Free State, neutrality was popular, despite rationing and economic pressure.
In the early months of the emergency, the greatest threat to the State came from the IRA. In the Christmas Raid in 1939, one million rounds of ammunition were stolen from the Irish Army by the IRA (though it was mostly recovered in the following weeks) and there were a number of killings, mostly of policemen. In addition, the existing emergency legislation was undermined by the obtaining of a writ of habeas corpus by Seán MacBride which resulted in the release of all those who had been interned. The government responded with the 1939 and 1940 Offences Against the State Acts, which established the Special Criminal Court, and rearrested and interned IRA activists. A hunger strike was started in Mountjoy Prison in an attempt to gain political status, which collapsed after the death of two prisoners. In retaliation Dublin Castle was bombed and there were a number of serious incidents throughout the country.
The IRA fostered links with German intelligence (the Abwehr) and Foreign Ministry, with men such as Francis Stuart travelling to Germany to talk, though these attempts were largely ineffectual due to a combination of Abwehr and Foreign Ministry incompetence and IRA weakness. Germans also came to Ireland, the most notable of whom was Hermann Görtz, who was captured in possession of "Plan Kathleen"- an IRA plan that detailed a German supported invasion of Northern Ireland. (See also: Irish Republican Army – Abwehr collaboration in World War II).
Two IRA men were executed for the murder of two policemen in September 1940, and the IRA became increasingly ineffective in the face of the resolute use of internment, the breaking of hunger strikes, and the application of hanging for capital offences. During 1941, the hope of a German invasion had faded and funding from the United States had been cut off. The IRA leadership were mostly interned within the Curragh Camp, where they were treated increasingly harshly, or on the run. Most internees accepted release on parole. The IRA remained barely active in Northern Ireland, but they were not a threat to the stability of Ireland.
After the German invasion of Norway in April 1940, Winston Churchill became the British Prime Minister. This and the subsequent fall of France in June 1940 brought the war close to Ireland.
The United Kingdom was now the only major impediment to Germany. A major British concern was now whether Germany would invade Ireland. The British view was that the Irish Army was not powerful enough to resist an invasion for long enough for reinforcement from the UK, particularly with the IRA as a potential fifth column, and wished to be able to forestall this by stationing troops and ships within the Irish state. In addition, this view made the UK reluctant to provide military supplies because of the risk of them falling into German hands after an invasion. The Irish government's view was that they would be more successful against the Germans than the states already occupied, and there could be no agreement for joint military measures while partition continued, and would not commit themselves beyond neutrality for the whole island should it end.
By June 1940, the British representative in Ireland, Maffey, was urging that "the strategic unity of our island group" should take precedence over Ulster Unionism, and Churchill was making clear that there should be no military action taken against Ireland. The British Minister for Health, Malcolm MacDonald, who had negotiated the 1938 trade agreement with Ireland whilst Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, was sent to Dublin to explore possibilities with De Valera. From these Chamberlain produced a six-point proposal that committed the UK government to a united Ireland and proposed the setting-up of a joint body to effect this. A Joint Defence Council would be set up immediately and the State provided with military equipment. In return the State would join the Allies and intern all German and Italian aliens. Rejected by the Irish government, the proposal was then amended to strengthen the steps towards a united Ireland, and no longer requiring Ireland to join the war, but only to invite British forces to use Irish bases and ports. De Valera rejected the revised proposal on 4 July and made no counter proposal. One reason for this would have been the difficult calculation of how damaging the inevitable split in Ireland would be if such a proposal was accepted. One of the main reasons was that the Irish Government thought that the UK would lose the war and did not want to be on the losing side: during the negotiations Walshe had produced two memoranda for De Valera (one entitled Britain's Inevitable Defeat) predicting the isolation of Britain, the dismemberment of its empire, and finally its inevitable crushing by Germany. Walshe also wrote approvingly of the character of the Pétain government. Walshe's memoranda affected de Valera, with him telling MacDonald that Britain could not destroy this [German] colossal machine.
The great majority of Ireland's trade was with the United Kingdom, and most of its supplies came from there. This created great difficulties for the Irish government as Germany tried to blockade the UK and Britain required Irish ships to operate under their 'navicert' system. In September 1940, a joint agreement on trade, shipping and exports fell through, "the main sticking point between the two sides was the prices on offer from Britain" owing to the refusal to allow transshipment and repair facilities following German pressure, including the threat to blockade Ireland and the bombing of Ambrosetown and Campile in County Wexford. In the autumn of 1940, the threat of German invasion had receded, but relations between the UK and Ireland deteriorated, largely as a result of the increased losses of Allied shipping to U-boat attack. To try to prevent some of these losses, the UK wanted sea and air bases in western Ireland. On 5 November, in the House of Commons, Churchill complained:
The fact that we cannot use the South and West coasts of Ireland to refuel our flotillas and aircraft and thus protect the trade by which Ireland as well as Great Britain lives, is a most heavy and grievous burden and one which should never have been placed on our shoulders, broad though they may be.The Irish government chose to interpret this sentence (out of a seven page speech) as a threat of invasion. Some sort of armed occupation was a real possibility, but the balance of evidence is that there was never a serious threat. Large elements of the British cabinet and government and those of its allies were opposed to any armed intervention in Ireland; however, in late 1940 and early 1941, relations between the two countries did worsen. The British stopped informing Ireland of its order of battle in Northern Ireland, while the Irish Army drew up plans for defence against the British. The United Kingdom also started to restrict trade to Ireland, reasoning that if Ireland would not do anything to protect the lives of those bringing in supplies, it should at least share in the deprivations being felt in the UK. Relations between the UK and Ireland only really eased in the middle of 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany and an agreement to allow Irish immigration to Britain to work in the war industries, resulting in up to 200,000 Irish people doing so by 1945.
At the outbreak of the war Ireland was isolated as never before. Shipping had been neglected since independence. Foreign ships, on which Ireland had hitherto depended, were less available. Neutral American ships would not enter the "war zone". There were a mere 56 Irish ships when the war started; 15 more were purchased or leased during the conflict; 20 were lost. In his Saint Patrick's Day address in 1940, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, lamented:
|“||No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships, most of which had been sunk, which virtually cut all links with our normal sources of supply.||”|
The diminutive Irish Mercantile Marine continued essential overseas trading. This period was referred to as The Long Watch by Irish Mariners. They sailed unarmed and usually alone, flying the Irish tricolour. They identified themselves as neutrals with bright lights and by painting the tricolour and EIRE in large letters on their sides and decks, yet twenty percent of seamen perished as victims of a war in which they were non-participants. Allied convoys, often, could not stop to pick up survivors. Irish ships always answered SOS calls; they always stopped to rescue. Irish mariners rescued seafarers from both sides, but they were attacked by both, predominately by the Axis powers. Vital imports arrived. Exports, mainly food supplies for Great Britain, were delivered. 521 lives were saved.
Many British ships were repaired in Irish shipyards.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the United States president was Franklin Roosevelt. The United States was neutral, and Roosevelt's actions were circumscribed by neutrality legislation; however, Roosevelt was a vehement anti-Nazi, an unequivocal supporter of the UK in the war, and personally close to Churchill. The U.S. minister to Ireland was David Gray, a personal friend of Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. De Valera saw the U.S. as a bulwark against invasion from any party, while the U.S. saw the support of Britain in the war as the priority, and so while supportive of Irish neutrality was sceptical of it extending over the whole island and wanted an arrangement to be made with the UK over ports, possibly through the leasing of them.
The sale of arms was a major issue. The declaration of war legally impeded the U.S. from selling any arms to belligerents under the laws in force at the time, this led to Ireland being briefly considered as a possible conduit for arms sales to circumvent the law. However, in November 1939 Congress agreed to change the law to allow the sale of arms to all belligerents on a "cash and carry" basis. Nevertheless the Irish government wanted the U.S. to sell them arms. This was supported by Gray, and by the British government, but only if not at the expense of their own allocation. As a result, in 1940 all surplus U.S. arms were sold to the UK and Canada.
The strong support of the UK by the Roosevelt administration led the Irish government to try to bolster anti-Roosevelt isolationist opinion in the November 1940 presidential election and a Christmas radio broadcast by de Valera to the U.S. supporting isolationism. An attempt to influence Roosevelt's special emissary, Wendell Willkie on a visit to Great Britain and Ireland January 1941, failed. In a further attempt to obtain arms from the U.S. de Valera decided that Aiken should visit Washington. Gray supported the idea of a visit, but had doubts over whether Aiken was the right person to make it, and stressed that the Irish were only likely to obtain arms if they co-operated with the British Purchasing Commission. Aiken left Ireland in March 1941. For his St Patrick's day address, de Valera claimed that Ireland was under blockade from both sides and that neutrality protected Ireland from "the hazards of imperial adventure".
Aiken's visit was disastrous. His anti-British views and, in American eyes, overestimation of Ireland's military capabilities went across all the administration's policies towards the war. As well as alienating Roosevelt and other members of the administration, he failed to use the letters of introduction to senior Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt, provided to him by Gray. Aiken spent the last seven weeks of his visit on what was seen as an anti-administration speaking tour, associating closely with isolationist opinion. The result was that the U.S. would not sell any armaments to the State, and relations between the two countries significantly worsened, the U.S. becoming even more unequivocal in its support of the UK. In October 1941 on receiving a note from the Irish government asking for its intentions with regard to Northern Ireland on the stationing of personnel associated with lend-lease, the U.S. State Department referred them to the British government as Northern Ireland was, they insisted, part of the UK.
For de Valera the emphasis of Irish neutrality was on preservation of Irish sovereignty, so committing to the policy accomplished both rational and ideological goals. While the revolutionaries of the Irish War of Independence were ready to enter into alliances with the enemies of Britain to secure Irish independence, they realised that continuing such a policy after achieving independence would be dangerously provocative, a point de Valera made as early as February 1920:
|“||An independent Ireland would see its own independence in jeopardy the moment it saw the independence of Britain seriously threatened. Mutual self-interest would make the people of these two islands, if both independent, the closest of allies in a moment of real national danger to either.||”|
This statement reflected a point de Valera had made as early as 1918 (when writing to President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, seeking that the United States formally recognise the Irish Republic as an independent state):
|“||Ireland is quite ready by treaty to ensure England's safety against the danger of foreign powers seeking to use Ireland as a basis of attack against her.||”|
|“||peace is dependent upon the will of the great States. All the small States can do, if the statesmen of the greater States fail in their duty, is resolutely to determine that they will not become the tools of any great Power and that they will resist with whatever strength they may possess every attempt to force them into a war against their will.||”|
Months before the outbreak of war, de Valera gave a statement to the Associated Press which appeared in newspapers on February 20, 1939:
|“||The desire of the Irish people and the desire of the Irish Government is to keep our nation out of war. The aim of Government policy is to maintain and to preserve our neutrality in the event of war. The best way and the only way to secure our aim is to put ourselves in the best position possible to defend ourselves so that no one can hope to attack us or violate our territory with impunity. We know, of course, that should attack come from a power other than Great Britain, Great Britain in her own interest must help us to repel it.|
At a series of meetings in 17–26 June 1940, during and after the Battle of France, Malcolm MacDonald brought a proposal to end the partition of Ireland and offered a solemn undertaking to accept "the principle of a United Ireland" if Ireland would abandon its neutrality and immediately join the war against Germany and Italy. However, the reality of unity would have to be agreed by the "representatives of the government of Éire and the government of Northern Ireland", each of which distrusted the other intensely. De Valera therefore rejected the amended proposals on 4 July, worried that there was "no guarantee that in the end we would have a united Ireland" and that it "would commit us definitely to an immediate abandonment of our neutrality". De Valera had campaigned against partition and the 1937 Constitution drafted by him had an irredentist clause describing the State as the "whole island of Ireland". After the war he again called repeatedly for the ending of partition. The offer and his rejection remained secret until a biography was published in 1970.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom) was at war and the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast were among the strategic targets for German attack. The Luftwaffe carried out a bombing raid on Belfast on 7 April 1941; eight people died. On 15 April 1941, 180 Luftwaffe bombers attacked Belfast. There was only one RAF squadron and seven anti-aircraft batteries to defend Belfast. However, they ceased firing lest they damage the RAF aircraft. Over 200 tons of explosives, 80 landmines attached to parachutes and 800 firebomb canisters were dropped. Over 1,000 died and 56,000 houses (more than half of the city's housing stock) were damaged leaving 100,000 temporarily homeless. Outside of London, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Battle of Britain mostly due to the lack of aerial defences over Belfast.
At 4.30 AM Basil Brooke asked de Valera for assistance. Within two hours, 13 fire tenders from Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. De Valera followed up with his "they are our people" speech. Although there was a later raid on 4 May, it was confined to the docks and shipyards.
In early January 1941, there had been several minor German bombings of Irish territory. There were three deaths in Borris, County Carlow and other incidents in Wexford, Dublin and at the Curragh.
The public mood was already agitated, fearing a German invasion and the implications of the bombings added to the concern. So as not to antagonise the Germans further, the Irish authorities initially declined to confirm that the bombs were German. Public speculation, and IRA claims, that the bombs were British, or German but released by British aircraft, later prompted Irish Government denials.
On the night of 30/31 May 1941, Dublin's Northside was the target of a Luftwaffe air raid. Thirty-eight were killed and seventy houses were destroyed on Summerhill Parade, North Strand and the North Circular Road. The Irish government promptly protested and Germany apologised claiming that high winds were to blame or there had been British interference with navigation signals. Unlike the earlier bombing incidents, there was no public speculation that the perpetrators were other than the Luftwaffe.
On 3 October, the German news agency announced that the German government would pay compensation, but only West Germany paid this after the war. Winston Churchill later conceded that the raids might have been the result of a British invention which distorted Luftwaffe radio guidance beams so as to throw their planes off course. Dublin also had a limited blackout system at the time, and the city was clearly visible, unlike British cities.
When, in 1941, the Irish police discovered "Operation Green" in a residence where German agent Hermann Görtz had been staying, the Irish promptly passed copies to MI5 in London, who in turn forwarded them to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Belfast. Joint plans of action were then drawn up between the British and Irish intelligence services and military under Plan W.
- General McKenna, the Irish Army's Chief of Staff, regularly visited British officers in Belfast and in 1942 twelve Irish officers undertook training with British special forces in Poyntzpass, County Armagh. Cooperation did not end there and also included the British signalling through GPO lines when it believed German planes were headed towards Ireland.
- From December 1940 onwards the Dublin Government agreed to accept over 2000 British women and children evacuated from London due to "The Blitz". These evacuees included over two hundred children orphaned by the bombing.
- Attacks on Irish vessels, such as that on the "Kerlogue", which the British had initially attributed to the Germans, but later admitted responsibility for and offered to pay compensation when fragments of British ammunition were discovered embedded in the ship. The ship had been attacked by aircraft No. 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron, after being mistaken for a French vessel.
- The mining of the St George's Channel to within seven miles of the Irish coast at Dungarvan, and the use of Irish waters for British shipping traffic.
- London was informed when U-boats were sighted.
- The Donegal Corridor allowed British flying boats based on Lough Erne to take a short-cut over Irish territory when flying patrols over the Atlantic. The Catalina which located the German battleship Bismarck when it was heading for France in 1941 was one example.
- Throughout the war, the Irish Air Corps shot down dozens of escaped British barrage balloons.
- A British armed trawler, the Robert Hastie, was stationed at Killybegs, from June 1941, for air/sea rescue (ASR) duties.
- German pilots, aircrew and naval personnel who were discovered in Ireland were always interned and remained so for the duration of the conflict. One German prisoner was shot while attempting to escape from Oldcastle prison camp.
- In July 1940, three German Abwehr agents were arrested outside Skibbereen after landing near Castletownshend, County Cork. The agents' mission had been to infiltrate Britain via Ireland.
- The chief Abwehr spy in Ireland was Hermann Görtz. Approximately 12 spies were deployed, mostly with little success, including Günther Schütz, Ernst Weber-Drohl (a former circus strongman) and Henry Obed, an Indian.
- The activities of German agents in Ireland throughout the war years and their attempts to contact and court both Irish Republican Army and disaffected Irish Army personnel — many of these agents, if not all, were captured/exposed; see Irish Republican Army – Abwehr collaboration in World War II.
- The German ambassador at the German Legation in Dublin, Eduard Hempel, had his radio confiscated in 1943 to prevent him from passing information to his leaders.
- The U-boat torpedo attack which sank the vessel Irish Oak on 19 May 1943. De Valera said that "it was a wanton and inexcusable act. There was no possibility of a mistake, the conditions of visibility were good and the neutral markings on our ships were clear. There was no warning given."
- The "North Strand Bombing" on 31 May 1941 and others that took place in Malin, County Donegal on 5 May 1941, and Arklow on 1 June 1941.
- Repeated attempts to offer captured British weaponry to de Valera if he would side with the Germans.
Without the Irish treaty ports (which the United Kingdom had released a year prior to the war), an independent Ireland posed a serious disadvantage to the military capability and safety of British fighting and trade, risking the possibility of invasion if that disadvantage ever proved too great. If Irish sovereignty was to be maintained, then neutrality would have to be steered consciously to the benefit of British interests, as these were its own: at once to aid the British war effort but also to forestall invasion by Britain to regain the treaty ports. Ireland, like other neutrals was '...neutral for the power that potentially threatened them most.'
During the war, and accusing de Valera as a 'Nazi sympathiser', the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, urged Churchill to use Scottish and Welsh troops to overrun 'southern Ireland' before installing a Governor-General for the whole island at Dublin, but this proposal was rejected by London. Nevertheless Churchill directed Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery to prepare plans to seize Cork and Queenstown (Cobh) so their harbours could be used as naval bases. Better submarine-detecting technology, as well as military bases in Iceland, meant that the Irish ports were no longer as vital for the Allies as they had been during World War I.
In this regard Viscount Cranborne acknowledged at the war's end that the Irish Government had '...been willing to accord us any facilities which would not be regarded as overtly prejudicing their attitude to neutrality', collaborating with the British war cabinet. (See below for complete text.) The pattern of co-operation between British and Irish agencies began upon the onset of war when de Valera permitted the use of specified Irish airspace mainly for patrolling coastal points. The use of the "Donegal Corridor", the narrow strip of Irish territory between County Fermanagh and the sea, was significant. By the autumn of 1941 use of the corridor was a daily routine.
While de Valera rejected British appeals to use Irish ports and harbour facilities directly, de Valera was, according to M.E. Collins, 'more friendly than strict neutrality should have allowed.' The cooperation that emerged allowed for meetings to take place to consider events after German troops had overrun neutral Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium. Three days after the fall of France, Irish and British defence officials met to discuss how British troops could, strictly at de Valera's invitation, occupy Ireland upon the event of a German landing there in order to expel foreign troops attempting to use her as a back door to later invade Britain. The meetings continued, as Cranborne described, throughout the war, facilitating further dialogue.
Before the war began, de Valera had held a meeting with career diplomat Dr. Eduard Hempel, the German Minister in Ireland since 1938. The meetings discussed Ireland’s close trade links with the United Kingdom and the ease with which Britain could invade her if its interests were threatened. He in turn communicated to Berlin that such was the case that it 'rendered it inevitable for the Irish government to show a certain consideration for Britain' and urged war officials to avoid any action that would legitimise a British invasion of Ireland.
In mid-June 1940, Secretary of External Affairs Joe Walshe expressed his 'great admiration for the German achievements.' Hempel, for his part, wrote to Germany of 'the great and decisive importance even to Ireland of the changed situation in world affairs and of the obvious weakness of the democracies.' Hempel might well have known better of Irish intentions, having earlier described a native custom 'to say agreeable things without meaning everything that is said.'
Other examples of Irish attitudes towards Nazi Germany found expression in mid-1940 in de Valera's Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, 'whose "unquestionable" hostility to Britain could easily be interpreted as sympathetic for National Socialism.' Academic J.J. Lee questioned just how much of Warnock's zeal towards Hitler’s Reichstag speech on July 19 was genuine enthusiasm for the 'international justice' that could be expected after Germany’s victory, as opposed to an adherence to the instructions of Dublin to please oneself to the potential victors.
Three years later, by 1944, the orientation of the war and of Irish relations to Germany had turned about-face, with the threat of a German victory no longer imminent. In that climate the Irish Government, once so ready to 'say agreeable things', Hempel remarked, had become 'unhelpful and evasive'.
The United States Ambassador to Ireland, David Gray, stated that he once asked de Valera what he would do if German paratroopers "liberated Derry". According to Gray, de Valera was silent for a time and then replied "I don't know".
In pursuit of its policy of neutrality, the Irish Government refused to close the German and Japanese embassies. In 1939, the German Government had very little intelligence on Ireland and Britain. This is because Hitler had hoped for a détente or alliance with Britain, whom he considered the "natural allies" of Nazi Germany. When concerted efforts to build a reliable picture of British military strength did begin around 1939–1940, efforts were first made to infiltrate spies to Britain via Ireland, but these attempts consistently failed (See Operation Lobster and Operation Seagull). The Abwehr also made attempts to foster intelligence gathering links with the IRA, but found that the IRA was in no condition to be of serious use — these attempts were to occur during the period 1939–1943. The German military also drew up plans detailing how an invasion of Ireland might take place. These plans were titled Plan Green and any invasion was to act as a diversionary attack in support of a main attack to conquer Britain titled Operation Sea Lion. Both of these plans were shelved by 1942.
When U.S. Army troops began to be stationed in Northern Ireland in 1942, Plan Green was reprinted because there was a fear amongst the German High Command, (and the Irish Government), that the U.S. Army might attempt an invasion of Ireland, following its occupation of Iceland (after the British invasion) and Greenland in 1941. These fears led to another German intelligence plan – Operation Osprey – but it was abandoned when the feared American invasion failed to take place.
The British also had a plan to occupy the entire Island as a response to any attempted German invasion. They had always sought to privately reassure de Valera that any invasion by their troops would be by invitation only. This scheme was titled Plan W and intricate details were worked out with the Irish government and military over how to react to a German invasion. The Irish military shared details of their defences and military capabilities with the British and troops stationed in Northern Ireland. The reassurances from the British did not altogether console de Valera however, and he was frequently suspicious, while German forces still threatened Britain, that the British might invade the territory of the State. He did not know that the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Craigavon was urging London to seize the port at Cobh, or that attempts had been made to split the consensus over the Neutrality policy. Concessions such as relaxing of the claim on Lough Swilly to allow British navy and airforce patrols did go some way to easing the tension. As the war turned against Nazi Germany in their eastern campaign, and as the Abwehr became less and less effective, around 1943–1944, operations in the island of Ireland ceased to be of interest to the German Government and military and therefore the British. Overall, during the period the focus of de Valera was maintaining Irish neutrality. The Irish authorities pursuit of an aggressive campaign of internment against the IRA, including raising the Local Security Force (LSF), executions, and aggressive action by Irish Military Intelligence (G2) meant that the activities of the German Legation in Dublin were supervised closely and attempts to infiltrate spies into the country were quickly discovered.
Ireland maintained a public stance of neutrality to the end by refusing to close the German and Japanese Legations, and the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera signed the book of condolence on Adolf Hitler’s death, on May 2, 1945, and personally visited Ambassador Hempel, following the usual protocol on the death of a Head of State of a state with a legation in Ireland. President Douglas Hyde visited Hempel separately on 3 May an action which enraged the United States minister as no similar action had taken place on the death of the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet all flags in Dublin were lowered to half-mast out of respect. The German armies surrendered on 8 May. Hempel voluntarily moved out of his legation on 10 May, and forwarded the key to de Valera, who passed it to the American ambassador, as he considered that the USA was then in control of Germany.
In his book Wings over Ireland — History of the Irish Air Corps, Donal McCarron gives extensive details on the otherwise secret Rathduff aerodrome. He states that as early as the summer of 1940 both governments were worried about the "Doomsday scenario" of a successful invasion of Britain. The RAF would need at least one aerodrome to continue the fight in Ireland and both the Irish and British armies secretly scouted for a site in the south of Ireland. The other airfields of Rineanna near Limerick and Dublin airport and Baldonnel near Dublin would cover other parts of Ireland, so the RAF was keen on a site near the southeast coast.
The Irish Army disagreed, fearing a German invasion would overrun it quickly, so both finally agreed on a site in the south of County Tipperary, in the valley of the river Suir, west of the Galtee Mountains. This also suited the Irish army as they had built a secret command headquarters near a convent school seven miles away to be used in case of invasion. The name "Rathduff" was chosen as a cover because such a name is to be found all over Munster. Both sites were completely out of bounds for all normal military operations.
With Hitler turning towards the USSR in 1941 the chances of an invasion of Britain waned and the Irish Army decided to hold a major exercise to test the planning and training it had been undertaking for four years, in autumn 1942. As part of this, "Rathduff's" secret was partially released, with it serving as the airfield for Ireland's 2nd Division during the exercise. After the exercises "Rathduff" slipped into obscurity, its fields returning to use as the thoroughbred stud farm they had been before.
Elements of Irish public opinion were slow to accept the nature of the Nazi regime. A "Limerick Leader" editorial in 1945 noted that, "The campaign against war criminals is strangely confined to those who happen to fight on the wrong side." However it continued to say that
Allied atrocities cannot excuse the monstrous barbarism of the Reich.According to some sources, it appears that there was official indifference from the political establishment to the Jewish victims of the holocaust during and after the war. This was despite de Valera having knowledge of the crimes committed against Jewish victims of the Holocaust as early as 1943. Other sources report that de Valera was so aware in 1942 and the government sought to secure the release of Jews from then. After the war had ended, Jewish groups had difficulty in getting refugee status for Jewish children – whilst at the same time, a plan to bring over four hundred Catholic children from the Rhineland encountered no difficulties. The Department of Justice explained in 1948 that:
It has always been the policy of the Minister for Justice to restrict the admission of Jewish aliens, for the reason that any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem.However, de Valera over-ruled the Department of Justice and the 150 refugee Jewish children were brought to Ireland in 1948. Earlier, in 1946, 100 Jewish children from Poland were bought to Clonyn Castle in County Meath by a London Jewish charity.
Esther Steinberg and her Paris-born, Belgian-fathered son were the only Irish victims of the holocaust, dying in Auschwitz having been transported there from Paris in 1942.
In his speech celebrating the Allied victory in Europe (May 1945) Winston Churchill remarked that he had demonstrated restraint in not laying
'a heavy hand upon Ireland, though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural.'Britain had occupied neutral Iceland in May 1940. In a response a few days later, de Valera acknowledged that Churchill did not add 'another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record' of Anglo-Irish relations, but asked:
|“||...could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression...a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?||”|
In addition, he put the following, that
|“||I would like
to put a hypothetical question-it is a question I have put to many
Englishmen since the last war. Suppose Germany had won the war, had
invaded and occupied England, and that after a long lapse of time and
many bitter struggles, she was finally brought to acquiesce in admitting
England's right to freedom, and let England go, but not the whole of
England, all but, let us say, the six southern counties.
These six southern counties, those, let us suppose, commanding the entrance to the narrow seas, Germany had singled out and insisted on holding herself with a view to weakening England as a whole, and maintaining the securing of her own communications through the Straits of Dover.
Let us suppose further, that after all this had happened, Germany was engaged in a great war in which she could show that she was on the side of freedom of a number of small nations, would Mr. Churchill as an Englishman who believed that his own nation had as good a right to freedom as any other, not freedom for a part merely, but freedom for the whole-would he, whilst Germany still maintained the partition of his country and occupied six counties of it, would he lead this partitioned England to join with Germany in a crusade? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.
Would he think the people of partitioned England an object of shame if they stood neutral in such circumstances? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.
The implications on Victory in Europe Day and after, of having not been involved in the war and having suffered the devastation that defined the course of Europe afterwards, is the subject of historical debate. The devastation shared by most of Europe, and Ireland's avoidance of it, was described by F.S.L. Lyons as:
|“||The tensions – and the liberations – of war, the shared experience, the comradeship in suffering, the new thinking about the future, all these things had passed her by. It was as if an entire people had been condemned to live in Plato's cave, with their backs to the fire of life and deriving their only knowledge of what went on outside from the flickering shadows thrown on the wall before their eyes by the men and women who passed to and fro behind them. When after six years they emerged, from the cave into the light of day, it was a new and vastly different world.||”|
In response to which R. Fanning wrote: 'One might question [...] the liberating value of war for a people who has so recently emerged from revolution followed by a civil war and in whose midst the IRA still propounded the creed of violence ...'
De Valera's reluctance to recognise a difference between World War II and previous European wars was illustrated by his reply to a radio broadcast by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill on V-E Day. Churchill praised Britain's restraint in not occupying Ireland in order to secure the Western Approaches during the Battle of the Atlantic:
|“||the approaches which the southern Irish ports and airfields could so easily have guarded were closed by the hostile aircraft and U-boats. This indeed was a deadly moment in our life, and if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera, or perish from the earth. However, with a restraint and poise to which, I venture to say, history will find few parallels, His Majesty’s Government never laid a violent hand upon them, though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural, and we left the de Valera Government to frolic with the German and later with the Japanese representatives to their heart’s content.||”|
De Valera replied to Churchill in another radio broadcast, which was popular when broadcast in Ireland:
be made for Mr. Churchill’s statement, however unworthy, in the first
flush of victory. No such excuse could be found for me in this quieter
atmosphere. There are, however, some things it is essential to say. I
shall try to say them as dispassionately as I can. Mr. Churchill makes
it clear that, in certain circumstances, he would have violated our
neutrality and that he would justify his actions by Britain’s necessity.
It seems strange to me that Mr. Churchill does not see that this, if
accepted, would mean that Britain's necessity would become a moral code
and that when this necessity became sufficiently great, other people’s
rights were not to count... that is precisely why we had this disastrous
succession of wars — World War No.1 and World War No.2 — and shall it
be World War No.3? Surely Mr. Churchill must see that if his contention
be admitted in our regard, a like justification can be framed for
similar acts of aggression elsewhere and no small nation adjoining a
great Power could ever hope to be permitted to go its own way in peace.
It is indeed fortunate that Britain's necessity did not reach the point
where Mr. Churchill would have acted. All credit to him that he
successfully resisted the temptation which I have no doubt many times
assailed him in his difficulties, and to which, I freely admit, many
leaders might have easily succumbed. It is indeed hard for the strong to
be just to the weak, but acting justly always has its rewards. By
resisting his temptation in this instance, Mr. Churchill, instead of
adding another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record of the
relations between England and this country, has advanced the cause of
international morality — an important step, one of the most important
indeed that can be taken on the road to the establishment of any sure
basis for peace....
Mr. Churchill is proud of Britain’s stand alone, after France had fallen and before America entered the war. Could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliations, famine, massacres, in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility, but each time on returning to consciousness took up the fight anew; a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?
In April 1995, Taoiseach John Bruton paid tribute to those who "volunteered to fight against Nazi tyranny in Europe, at least 10,000 of whom were killed while serving in British uniforms. In recalling their bravery, we are recalling a shared experience of Irish and British people. We remember a British part of the inheritance of all who live in Ireland."
Viscount Cranborne, the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, wrote a letter to the British War Cabinet regarding Irish-British collaboration during 1939-1945:
By March 1955, the Minister for External Affairs, Liam Cosgrave, announced that: “Ireland's application for membership of the U.N.O. still stands, although, it remains blocked by an objection in the Security Council.” For reasons of diplomacy the government would not state the reason for the objection, nor which country had made it. Sean MacBride considered that the UN boycott of Ireland was originally agreed at the 1945 Yalta Conference by Churchill and Stalin. Ireland's acceptance into the UN was announced by John A. Costello on 15 December 1955.
Unlike other neutral states, Ireland did not introduce a general prohibition on its citizens opting for foreign enlistment during the war. However, one serious concern of government in this regard was the relatively high number of Irish soldiers deserting and leaving the jurisdiction. Estimates of between 4,000 and 7,000 members of the Irish armed forces deserted to join the armed forces of belligerent nations, the majority serving in the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
On 17 May 1945, Minister for Defence Oscar Traynor stated that he proposed introducing legislation which would deprive deserters of any right "for a long time to come" to employment paid for from public funds. The legislation in question was the Emergency Powers (No. 362) order which was passed on 8 August 1945. This punished those who had deserted during the Emergency in four ways:
- Deserters forfeited all pay and allowances for the period of their absence
- They lost any rights to pensions they might have earned due to their years of service
- They lost any entitlement to unemployment benefits normally available to former members of the Irish Army
- For a period of seven years they could not qualify for any employment remunerated from public funds
The government's reasons for passing the order have been given as follows:
- To ensure that those personnel who had faithfully served the country in the defence forces had first chance of obtaining jobs with state and local authorities following demobilization
- To deter future desertion
- To allow deserters to be dealt with in a cost-effective and expeditious way, rather than go the immense expense of court-martialling each man individually
In January 2012 the BBC reported that according to Senator Mary Ann O'Brien, Ireland's Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter was "actively working" on issuing the deserters with a pardon.