THEY were labelled traitors and barred from state employment, but yesterday the Irish government formally apologised for its treatment of thousands of men who deserted the Irish army to fight in the Second World War.
An estimated 60,000 men from Ireland served in the British Army, Royal Navy or RAF between 1939 and 1945. Of those, nearly 5,000 deserted the Irish armed forces to join the fight against Nazi Germany.
Yesterday, the Irish government issued a pardon to those men and formally apologised to their families. The move represents a victory for the long campaign on behalf of the soldiers, about 100 of whom are still alive.
Some deserters were apprehended and tried by Irish military courts. After the war, they were dismissed from the defence forces, had their names published and were refused jobs.
Irish minister for justice and defence Alan Shatter said the Amnesty and Immunity Bill was long overdue. The bill, which describes their 1945 punishments as “unduly harsh”, ensures that no surviving deserter could face a court martial if returning to Ireland from exile abroad.
The bill would remove “any tarnish” from the name or reputation of those who left the Irish army to fight for the allies, Mr Shatter said.
“The bill is being enacted in recognition of the courage and bravery of those individuals court martialled or dismissed from the defence forces who fought on the Allied side to protect decency and democracy during the Second World War,” the minister said.
“Had Germany successfully invaded Great Britain, Ireland was next on the list. These individuals made a substantial contribution to protect the sovereignty of this country.”
Last year, Mr Shatter apologised for the discharge order given to Irish soldiers who deserted to fight in the Second World War. The order was known as the “starvation order” because of the devastating effect it had on ex-servicemen and their families
Peter Mulvany, co-ordinator of a lobbying group called the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign, welcomed the coalition government’s decision as “compassionate and wise”.
“It might be an historical issue for the politicians, but not for the families,” Mr Mulvany said. “It will be a recognition that the experience they went through post-war was unfair. It was a punishment that they should not have been given. This amnesty, this exoneration, will remove that stigma.”
Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War, which was known as “the Emergency” in the Republic.
The Republic barred the allies’ Atlantic convoys from sheltering in Irish ports, refused to accept Jewish refugees from continental Europe and maintained cordial diplomatic relations with both Germany and Japan.