Russian ambassador Yury Filatov’s claim on International Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this week that Ireland is in no position to lecture other countries on morality given its neutrality during the second World War was clearly hypocritical and self-serving but, whether we like it or not, he does have a point.
Irish neutrality during the second World War and since can be defended on the grounds of pragmatic self interest but it is not, and never was, the moral stance that some of its strongest advocates proclaim.
For a start, Ireland’s record in refusing to admit Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the 1930s was shameful. Most applications for entry were refused and we took less than 100 Jewish refugees during that appalling time.
It is also rarely remarked that after the Munich agreement of 1938, which dismembered Czechoslovakia by giving Sudentatenland to the Nazis, the then taoiseach Éamon de Valera drafted a message to Adolf Hitler expressing admiration for the way he had made Germany “a great and respected power whose will could not be ignored in European affairs”.
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In April 1945, de Valera’s visit to the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Hitler represented a shocking failure to comprehend the monstrosity of the Fuerher’s rule and its devastating impact on the world.
That gesture by de Valera attracted international opprobrium and damaged Ireland’s reputation across the globe but it did not impinge on the taoiseach’s reputation at home. After the war, his public spat with Winston Churchill rallied public opinion behind him.
In subsequent decades it was widely accepted that we actually gave tacit support to the Allies. While this was certainly true in the later stages of the war it is arguable that this only happened when it became clear that the Nazis were going to lose the conflict.
If the Government’s record in the war years is open to question the forerunners of the current main Opposition party behaved in an appalling fashion. The republican movement openly backed the Nazis, with the IRA planting bombs in England in 1939, providing aid and assistance to German spies in Ireland and attempting to drag this country into the orbit of the Axis powers.
As for the hollowness of the Russian ambassador’s own position, it is worth pointing out that his country only became involved in the second World War when it was invaded by the Nazis in June 1941
IRA chief of staff Sean Russell died in a German submarine on his way to Ireland to lead a sabotage mission in 1940. Just to prove that today’s Sinn Féin stands over that shameful episode, as well as everything else the IRA has done, Mary Lou McDonald earned her spurs in the movement 20 years ago by speaking at a commemoration for Russell.
Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community half a century ago should have prompted a reassessment of neutrality’s relevance in the modern world but successive governments fudged the issue. While we are effectively on the side of the western democratic powers we still cling to the notion of military neutrality.
The net effect of this has been to enable the country to spend a minuscule level of resources on defence in the confident expectation that we will actually be defended by the Nato powers if we ever face a real threat to our sovereignty.
It was interesting that some of the most vociferous defenders of Irish neutrality showed sympathy with Vladimar Putin right up to the invasion last year as well as expressing deep hostility to Ukrainian independence and Nato’s efforts to defend that country over the past year.
A full debate is now required about how we deal with the challenge of defending the State and the wider EU from the enemies of democracy in the years ahead. As far as this island is concerned those threats are more likely to emerge in the form of cyber attacks than military intervention but are no less serious for that.
That debate will require a level of honesty from political leaders who have been happy for far too long to dodge our obligations and avoid the allocation of the resources required to bring the Defence Forces into the modern world. Such a debate would also put the spotlight on those in our political system who use the mantra of Irish neutrality to support anti-democratic regimes around the world.
As for the hollowness of the Russian ambassador’s own position it is worth pointing out that his country only became involved in the second World War when it was invaded by the Nazis in June 1941. Before that under the terms of the pact between Hitler and Stalin Russia seized the Baltic States and half of Poland and instituted a reign of terror in all the lands it occupied.
The massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and leaders of society in the Katyn Forest was just one of the atrocities perpetrated by Russia before Hitler invaded. That is why the Polish state has spent considerable resources on defence since it liberated itself from Russian domination and rushed to join Nato and the EU.
The current conflict in Ukraine is one between democracy and tyranny. Unlike de Valera, Micheál Martin unhesitatingly put Ireland on the side of democracy. It is time that stance was properly reflected by redefining neutrality for the world we live in today.