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Editorial - Neutrality

The issue of neutrality is in the air again. It needs as a foundation a treatment of the one positive act of neutrality—the wartime neutrality—from the viewpoint that sustained it, and a cold look at the war in which it was sustained. And it needs to be understood that it was armed neutrality made effective by a will to fight

The neutrality of the Irish state in Britain's Second World War of the 20th century was a forceful action which depended for its effectiveness on the existence of a degree of military power and of willingness to use it.

Neutrality was maintained without the actual use of force against Britain, but in the certainty that any breach of it would be met by the reunited force of Irish nationality.

Irish military history in the twentieth century is officially unwritten because it is the history of the IRA.

The army of the Irish state has fought no war except the 1922 war against the elected Irish Republic, which is best considered as a proxy British war. It was Britain that enabled that anti-Republican army to exist. It could not have fought its war against the IRA if the British Government had not financed it, armed it and insisted that it should make war on the IRA.

It would not have wanted to make war on the IRA if the British War Cabinet had not insisted on it.

The 'Civil War'

That war between the Free State Army and the Irish Republican Army is called a Civil War but there were no civil grounds for it. It was not fought over some divisive issue that had arisen within the body politic, civilian or military, in 1919-21. Those who waged the Free State campaign against the Republic in 1922 had shown no yearning for the Crown in 1919-21. They fought for the Crown in 1922 only because the Crown threatened to mobilise the resources of the Empire for a comprehensive reconquest of Ireland if the Irish did not submit to its will.

A case can be made for the submission to the British Imperial will. It is the eternal case for submission to dictatorial Power. And it is the case that was made by many Free Staters. But it was not the case that was made by the Strong Man of the Treaty, Michael Collins, or by his political colleague, William Cosgrave.

Collins denied that he acted under duress when he made a deal with the British Government that was in breach of the terms set by his own Government. That is understandable. Saying that he submitted to the dictate of the overwhelming power of Empire when he signed the Treaty, and made his colleagues sign it, would have been an act of rebellion. It was necessary to say that he had freely accepted a good deal that was generously offered.

But that was a game that wouldn't play. The Treatyites won their 'Civil War'. But, since it was not a war for an ideal, they did not know what to do next with the Crown and the Empire for which they had fought.

A few, with Kevin O'Higgins as their standard bearer, tried to enter into the spirit of the thing that they had been obliged to fight for—Crown and Empire—but they couldn't bring it off. They were not to the manner born, and natives who copy it bear the mark of the slibhín, both in spirit and style.

Cosgrave tried to destroy the Republican principle in the populace by making the taking of the Treaty Oath not only a condition of entering the Treaty Dáil but of standing for election. He was willing to exclude representatives of the majority of the population from sitting in his Legislative Assembly in order to make a debating point about the Treaty in the mid-1920s, just as a couple of years earlier he said he was willing to kill 60,000 anti-Treatyites with British guns rather than negotiate an end to his 'Civil War'.

Unconditional Surrender—those were his only terms. He failed to get them. Arms were buried, to rise again. The populace, as soon as the prospect of a British terrorist re-conquest faded, voted Republican again. The Treaty Oath was circumvented by use of mere signatures without a Bible anywhere nearby.

Treatyism withered because it no longer knew what it was about after winning its 'Civil War'—which must be the only time the victor in a Civil War had no ideal to realise and therefore had to make way for those whom he had defeated in war without being able to poison their motives.

Historians of recent times have begun to write about a "physical force movement" pure and simple in Irish political history. I know of only one such: the physical force body armed by the British Government that fought a war without an ideal and then withered.

Britain, acting through Michael Collins, subverted a section of the IRA and caused it to make war on the other section. If Collins had not been armed by Britain, he would have lost the war which he chose to launch in July 1922.

But we must be charitable in these things. If he had not been armed by Britain, and if his every move had not been monitored by Britain, it is a virtual certainty that he would never have launched this 'Civil War'.

He was not a monster, after all. He was only a bungler, who greatly overestimated his influence with the IRA, and his manipulative abilities in his relationship with Whitehall.

The Free State Army won its only war and then it shrivelled. In victory it had to ward off a mutiny of Republican officers who had joined it on a false promise. Thereafter it was understood that the only war it would ever engage in was a war of the Crown and Empire.

The IRA was beaten in 1923 but survived. Fianna Fail emerged from it and took power before Britain was ready to call on the Free State for support in another World War, as it had called on the Home Rule Government-in-waiting in 1914.

Difficult though it is to imagine today, Fianna Fail was a Republican Party in those times. When Britain was ready for its next World War, in 1939, De Valera had been in power for seven years and Free State Imperial sentiment was demoralised and Fine Gael, emerging from its Fascist period, did not dissent when the Government declared that it did not intend to make war on Germany at Britain's call.

Churchill's Claim

Churchill came to Office. He denied that the Irish state had the constitutional authority to make its own decisions on war and peace. The Irish Government, having repudiated the Treaty, took no heed. And Churchill did not try to make good his assertion that Britain had continuing Constitutional authority over the Irish state in matters of war and peace.

If he had acted, he would have been met by the re-united force of Irish nationality with the IRA at its core—the IRA having already declared war on Britain.

The Free State Army, fed by a new intake, substantially shed its Free Statism.

The war in defence of Irish neutrality in the World War did not have to be fought because it was taken to be certain that it would be fought if necessary.

The position of the Government was that, if the neutrality of the Irish state was violated by Britain, in the general war declared by Britain, it would resist British incursion by force—meaning, in Churchillian terms, that it would rebel against the Crown—and would ally itself with Britain's enemy.

This was stated in general terms—it would ally itself with the Power that did not invade it—but it was generally understood that the only Power that was likely to invade it was Britain.

Germany had no designs on Ireland—or on Britain either. It was Britain that declared war on Germany, in 1939, after five years of close collaboration with it. And Churchill declared that Britain had the right to occupy the Irish state for the purpose of making war on Germany.

Churchill chose not to occupy Ireland, but he said at the end of the War that this decision was taken on the ground of expediency, and that, if he had decided to occupy Ireland, he would have been within his rights in doing so. We can assume that the ground of expediency on which the decision not to invade was taken was the probability that invasion would have reunited the Irish national forces that had been broken up and set in conflict with each other in 1922, and the probable effect of a second Anglo-Irish War on American opinion, America being a fellow-neutral of Ireland for the first two years of Britain's war on Germany, and having within it a strong Irish component.

Was Churchill right in his opinion that, under the terms of the Treaty, the Irish state did not have the right to be at peace with the King's enemy? There is no system of law under which the matter can be judged. There is no objective right and wrong about it. If Churchill had decided to invade the Irish state, Parliament would have supported him, and the legality of the matter would have been settled by action.

Parliament did not recognise any judicial function in the state which could pass judgment on its decision, or any moral function either. In the English Constitution the Judiciary and the Church are instruments of the Government, as the Crown in Parliament. (And it is the purpose of Brexit to restore that Constitutional position, which was in danger of being undermined by membership of the EU.)

Nationalist Ireland had asserted itself as sovereign by the 1937 Constitution, and had made that sovereignty practically effective in wartime by securing British withdrawal from the Irish Ports in 1938. Differences between two sovereignties are ultimately resolved by war, which used to be known as "the reason of Kings".

Ireland in 1939 was by its own reckoning a sovereign state, although by Britain's reckoning it remained under British sovereignty on certain matters. Other states were in a similar position with relation to Britain. Two of them were Iran and Iraq. Each of them declared itself neutral when Britain launched its second war on Germany, and maintained diplomatic relations with Germany. Britain invaded both of them, remade their Governments, brought them into its war, and demonised as Nazi stooges the national Governments it destroyed.

If it had chosen to invade the Irish state it would undoubtedly have presented De Valera as a Nazi stooge—and George Orwell would have applauded. For ulterior reasons, not for reasons of principle, it chose not to invade—and as Churchill put it, he left the Irish to "frolic with the Nazis".

Empire v. League

In everything that it did in 1939-40—and for many years before 1939—Britain acted on its own Imperial authority. An international body existed: the League of Nations. The League was a largely British creation. But Britain chose not to act internationally through the League.

De Valera put much effort into the League in the mid 1930s before coming to the conclusion that it was a bogus institution that did more harm than good by fostering illusions. Britain created the League for a short-term purpose of its own in 1919, and then subverted it by giving priority to the Empire in international affairs.

We can assume that, if Britain had been acting as a member of the League, and if in 1939 it had dealt with Germany through the League, instead of acting unilaterally as an Empire, Ireland would not have been neutral. But, since it acted only as an Empire, De Valera acted as the leader of a sovereign nation-state whose credentials were still being questioned by the Empire.

The Empire declared war on the issue of Danzig—an inconceivably trivial issue on which to throw the world into war. Danzig in 1939 was an unsustainable remnant of the Versailles Treaty, which had been shredded by Britain during the preceding five years.

Danzig was a German city close to East Prussia, which was a physically detached region of the German state as reconstituted by Versailles in 1919. It lay within the territory of the Polish State, though not under its sovereignty. It was a kind of city state under the sovereignty of the League, but with its own Government. Relations of mutual hostility existed between Danzig and the Polish State. The Polish State had constructed the new port of Gdynia, rather than use the port of Danzig. There was in 1939 no possibility of bringing Danzig under Polish government without war, but it might easily have been transferred to adjacent East Prussia. And it was over this anomalous remnant of the Versailles Treaty—the rest of which had been shredded by Britain without reference to the League—that Britain chose to launch a World War—without reference to the League. And yet, accepting the Versailles Treaty was a condition of League membership!

Germany had been acting in breach of the conditions of the Versailles Treaty ever since Hitler came to power in 1933. It was able to do so only because Britain supported it.

Germany was not a major European Power when Hitler took Office in 1933. The responsibility to hold it under the Versailles conditions lay with Britain. The United States had repudiated the Treaty and disengaged from European affairs. Britain had established its ascendancy over France, and therefore actual responsibility for upholding the Treaty lay with Britain. What Britain was neither to uphold the Treaty, nor repudiate it, but destroy it piecemeal by means of particular bilateral arrangements with Germany.

Germany was a middle-ranking European military Power in 1939 only because Britain had decided that it should be so. It had a conscript Army because Britain allowed it. It had a Navy because Britain, under the Naval Agreement of 1935, authorised it to build one. It had merged with Austria because Britain permitted it, after having forbidden the merger of democratic Germany with democratic Austria. And Britain had broken up Czechoslovakia for it, giving it the Czech arms industry.

All of this was done outside the League. And then, when Britain in 1939 suddenly decided to make war on the Germany it had created, that too was done outside the League.

And De Valera did not comply with an international obligation to fall into line with the latest turn in erratic Imperial policy!

The Slibhín View

"Ireland managed to stay out of the war. Yet at the end he gratuitously stained Ireland's international reputation through offering his sympathies upon the death of Hitler to the German minister Edward Hempel. This act of diplomatic pedantry done in a fit of pique following a heated row with the overbearing American minister, put Ireland in the dock of world opinion as a neutral that mourned Hitler, and it did enduring damage to its post-war reputation. Dev's lame excuse that Hempel had behaved impeccably was simply not true. Furthermore, and unlike the Irish public at large, shielded by strict censorship, Dev knew plenty about Hitler's monstrosities across Europe…" (Eunan O'Halpin, in the Irish Times, November 3rd).

This fits in with the modern view, largely written by Irish slíbhíns, that the Irish lived in illusion during Britain's second war on Germany, mistaking the shadows cast for them, by a State that was only a short step away from fascism, for substance—not even allowed to know that there was a World War on because their shepherds assured them that it was only a local Emergency. We lived in the flickering darkness of Plato's Cave, seeing shadows with weakened eyes that would be blinded by sunlight, and then for a further generation we lived in mental darkness etc. And, if truth be told—and in the end truth must be told—it all had to do with the fact that we were ruled by priests who deprived us of the Bible.

A flock of Professors tell us that we called the World War "the Emergency". I was there and I know that we called it the World War. I asked my mother why it was happening and she explained that Britain seemed to need a Great War every generation. I don't recall that anybody thought that it was anything but a British War. Britain was the great war-making state in the world. And I recall a particular night when it was thought that the British Army would be back amongst us in the morning and preparations were made for resistance.

Towards the end of the War I was reading the papers, and the War was the big news in the papers.

The War was discussed freely. So were the post-War arrangements, particularly the Trials. Possibly the Trials were not as freely discussed in the papers as they were by the populace. The general opinion was that they were show trials, without law. I found out later that that was also the opinion of a senior American Judge, who refused to take part in them.

Ireland was not in the condition of Plato's Cave during the War, but a strong case could be made that University life in Ireland today is, in its History Departments, living in a Plato's Cave, in which it studies the world through shadows cast for it by Whitehall.

Neutrality 1939-41

With what world opinion was Ireland's reputation damaged by De Valera's Neutrality policy? There wasn't any world opinion in 1939 or 1940. Britain declared war on Germany, with France in tow, and bungled it, and then denounced France for making peace with Germany, with the approval of its democratically-elected Parliament, in the war which it had declared on Germany, at the instigation of Britain, and lost.

Ireland recognised the Vichy Government as the legitimate Government of France. It recognised Petain as the legitimate President of France. Four years later Petain was sentenced to death as a traitor because he did not continue the war without an Army to fight it, and with the victorious enemy in a position to take over the state if it did not make an agreement. And I recall the view of the Slieve Luachra peasant that it would be an outrage on natural justice if Petain was executed.

Britain "fought alone" from June 1940 to June 1941—so it tells the world. By means of the Royal Navy, which still dominated the oceans of the world, it prevented a settlement of Europe with pin-pricks here and there, but it did not in any real sense fight the war. It had relied on France to do most of the fighting, as in 1914 and, when France fell in May/June 1940, it looked for somebody else to do the fighting—hoping it would be the United States.

But the United States was neutral, just like Ireland. And Roosevelt had won a third term as President by bending to the popular demand that there should be no American military return to the European mess.

And Russia was neutral too. And its propaganda was directed against what it described as British efforts to "Spread The War".

The two potentially dominant states in the world, which became dominant through the success of Britain's efforts to spread the war, stood, as neutrals, for the settlement of the European War in 1939 and 1940 and most of 1941.

They only went to war after they were attacked.

When do the shadow-watchers in Trinity College judge that a world-opinion came into being which judged neutrality in Britain's war on Germany to be indefensible? Surely not before the United States was brought into it in December 1941!

But, before America came in, Russia was in. The British refusal to allow peace to be made in Europe brought about the German/Russian War.

There was an opinion among the German military that Britain would settle if the Bolshevik State in Russia was knocked down. And there was an expectation, not only in Germany, that Russia would be knocked down easily because Stalin had destroyed the Officer Corps of the Russian Army with his insane purges.

But the Russian defences held firm, despite some initial reverses. And then the Russian will to fight, combined with population, resources and industrial capacity, ensured the defeat of Germany. And Britain became, in effect, an onlooker in the War it had started, engaging in some actions which in terms of the German/Russian War can only be regarded as skirmishes.

The most consequential British action was a provocation of Japan—its ally in the 1914 War—which led to its Asian Empire being swept away by Japan, never to be restored even though Japan was defeated by the USA in a separate war.

The USA entered the war in Europe only because Germany declared war on it when the Japanese/American War began. Japan did not reciprocate this German gesture by entering the war in Europe, i.e., the war between Germany and Russia. It had made a peace agreement with Russia, and it held to it until Russia broke it in 1945, when Japan was on the verge of collapse.

When the US was brought into the war in Europe it was eager to fight it, but Britain insisted on skirmishing for a further two years while the issue was being decided on the Russian Front. It held out against American pressure for engagement in France in 1942 and 1943, and only agreed in 1944 when further delay would possibly have brought the Russian Army to Calais.

The ideal outcome from the British viewpoint was that Germany and Russia should inflict irreparable damage on one another. Churchill could not say so at the time, but he admitted soon after that he had never seen Communist Russia as anything but the fundamental enemy. And he was concerned long before the end of the War that defeat of the incidental enemy against which the British war had been launched was bringing the fundamental enemy to power in Central Europe.

The War, as far as Churchill was concerned, was never about Fascism. Churchill was a Fascist. He said so plainly. He made a pilgrimage to Rome to do homage to Mussolini and to praise Fascism as the antidote to Communism. He was opposed to Appeasement, but what he meant by Appeasement was concessions that damaged the Empire—such as the transfer of the Irish Ports to the Irish state in 1938—which made Irish neutrality in the War a practical proposition.

Germany became an enemy because of the gross mishandling of British foreign policy, and not because it became Fascist. The war against Germany is represented as being an unnecessary war in Churchill's account of it.

Nationalist Ireland, as a principled neutral, was under moral obligation to produce a principled account of the war that accorded with its part in it. It failed to do so and allowed itself to be swamped with sub-Churchillian rhetoric.


A review in the Irish Examiner (20 October 2018) of an American book about Spain (Scots And Catalans by J.H. Elliott, reviewed by Frank MacGabhann), is illustrated with a portrait of General Franco, and the reviewer comments that the author—

"praises the Spanish 'transition' to democracy, which allowed lifelong fascists to become democrats overnight and left the crimes of General Franco go nearly 40 years unpunished in the interests of national harmony following Franco's death in 1975. Elliott might have mentioned that Franco remains the only European fascist dictator whose reputation is protected by the state that he so cruelly ruled over and who was allowed to die peacefully in his bed, unlike his allies, Hitler and Mussolini…"

Well, the War was Churchill's War, insofar as it was not Stalin's War, and Churchill, to the best of my recollection, was a Francoite. And Franco was not an ally of Hitler, only a fellow-Fascist. And Fascism was not internationalist. Nationalism was the whole point of it.

Franco might have put Britain out of the Second World War by making common cause with Hitler in 1940 and taking Gibraltar, instead of which he blocked Hitler at the Pyrenees—a thing which Britain chose not to do in the Sudetenland.

He deplored the Anglo/German War as a European Civil War, but was a de facto ally of Britain in it. He was only an ally of Hitler in the war on Russia. If the US had failed to pressurise Britain into opening the Second Front in 1944, the Red Army might have reached the Pyrenees and put paid to Franco, but there was never any prospect of Churchillian Britain doing that. And then in the 1950s Fascist Span became a pillar of the Free World.

As for Fascists becoming democrats overnight—how did Germany become a democracy almost overnight after 1945 if fascists did not become democrats on a mass scale? Opposition to Nazism had been scarce, but a moment later there were democrats in plenty—and Communist East Germany published detailed accounts of where they had come from.

But there was nothing wonderful, or fraudulent, about it, in the light of Churchill's view that Fascism was the means by which capitalist civilisation was saved from Bolshevism in Europe.


The notion that Ireland was a pariah in the post-War world because of De Valera's conduct in the war is a strictly Anglophile notion. Dev made a triumphal visit to India in 1948 just after it became independent. It is customary to treat India as a democracy, and if it is, then it was the most populous democracy in the world. And it was ruled by a political party that had refused to take part in Britain's War. The Government of India was in the War only because it was a Department of the British Government.

The Congress Party had demanded independence and, unlike the Irish Home Rule Party, without it refused to play a part in world politics in the service of Britain. It declared neutrality. And there was a strong movement in India, led by Subas Chandra Bose, that in 1941 allied itself militarily with Japan.

The British Government of India made use of India as a resource in the War, and in the course of doing so it caused a Famine in Bengal, 1943-44, in which the deaths were not counted carefully. The death of Bengalis through starvation weighed very light in the British scale of values. The Bengalis were, in the language of the eminent Liberal ideologue of Progress, Gladstone's lieutenant, Sir Charles Dilke, "a cheap people" (see his Greater Britain).

The Bengal Famine of 1943 is not mentioned at all in Churchill's History of the War, and Churchill's Nobel Prize-winning literature dominated academic history for a generation.

A recent account by an Indian, published in America, Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire And The Ravaging Of India During World War 2 by Madusree Mukerjee, says that, according to the best estimates, between one and a half million and three million Bengalis died in the Famine, while Britain had ample resources to relieve them, and that British conduct might have been prosecuted as a War-Crime.

But of course the victors are incapable of having committed War-Crimes!

There was, after 1945, a congenial world out there in which Irish neutrality against Britain appeared not only sensible but heroic. But it is a world about which Anglophile academia knows nothing.

The Northern War

The second Irish military action of the 20th century was the IRA war against the British State, on behalf of the Catholic community in the undemocratically-governed region of the British state that is called Northern Ireland. At one point in that war a British Army of 26,000 was deployed against the IRA.

I did not support that war. At the outset I proposed that the government of the Northern Ireland region of the British state should be democratised into the political system by which the state was governed. If that had been done, it is extremely improbable that there would have been a war. But it was not done, and there was a war. And, while I did not support it, I could not deny the evidence all around me that it existed.

The Irish State de-legitimised British sovereignty in the Six Counties by asserting Irish sovereignty over them. The IRA made war on the British State over this region of it. The Irish Constitution declared that British sovereignty in this region was illegitimate. But the Irish Government did not support the War launched within the disputed region, and did not even acknowledge that the Republican military action constituted a war.

And, when a settlement was made, Irish Governments would not even acknowledge that Republican actions had been military, but insisted on treating them as outbursts of criminality.

Ireland, according to the ideology of its State, has had no military history in recent centuries. It lives next door to, and heavily under the influence of, the most belligerent war-making state in the world in recent centuries. No other State in the world is in the same league as Britain when it comes to major war-making.

The Irish citizen, left with no Irish military history, is naturally subject to the gravitational pull of British militarism. And the more respectable the citizen, the more he lives in British military history. And the most respectable seem to feel that British war-making is next door to pacifism—if it is not the most effective form of pacifism.

Brendan Clifford

These are the views of Brendan Clifford as a contribution to the neutrality debate, but they are not endorsed by PANA.

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