THEY left the Irish army to fight for Britain more than 70 years ago, but now the Irish government may pardon 5,000 soldiers blacklisted for joining the Allied forces during the Second World War.
Ireland was neutral during the war but about 5 per cent of the Irish army deserted and joined the British ranks. On returning home, Irish soldiers went on to suffer persecution, unemployment and heartbreak.
A campaign to pardon the men, regarded as heroes by British forces but ostracised in Ireland, looks set to receive the unlikely backing of Sinn Fein, which actively sought German support during the war.
“These are old men who fought in a world war against fascism,” a Sinn Fein spokesperson said. “They fought for a just cause. I don’t imagine anyone would claim they shouldn’t have the same rights as anybody else.”
Thousands of Irish men and women volunteered for the British Army during the war, but those who left the Irish forces found themselves subject to a starvation order, or what became known as “The List”. Introduced by Eamon De Valera’s administration, this directory of Irish army deserters circulated for decades after the war, effectively barring people from jobs, housing and benefits.
One of those on the list was John Stout, who served with the Irish Guards armoured division. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge, ending the war as a commando, but found himself an outcast on his return to Cork.
Mr Stout said: “What they did to us was wrong. I know that in my heart. They cold-shouldered you. They didn’t speak to you.
“I feel very betrayed about how we were treated, it was wrong and even today they should say sorry for the problems we had to endure. We never got to put our case or argue why it was unjust.”
Robert Widders, who has written a book about the deserters’ treatment called Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, suggested the list itself was inaccurate. “It contains the names of men who’d been killed in action, but not the names of men who deserted to spend the war years as burglars or thieves,” Mr Widders said.
Irish Labour TD Gerald Nash has been pressing the government to pardon the few deserters still alive. He said: “What happened to them was vindictive and not only a stain on their honour but on the honour of Ireland.”
Sinn Fein’s support for the pardon would represent a significant departure for the party. As recently as 2003, Sinn Fein vice-president Mary Lou McDonald addressed a memorial rally for Sean Russell, the IRA chief of staff who died aboard a German U-boat while returning from Berlin in 1940.
In a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Disowned Army, broadcast yesterday, senator Mary Ann O’Brien said that the Irish government “would take action” with a full pardon expected by the end of 2012.