Will Ireland forgive its soldiers of the King? Kevin, I never thought for a second that they were wrong.

The Irish government has finally announced that it is giving active
consideration to exonerating the thousands of Irish army deserters who
joined the British Army during the Second World War. In 1945, after a
number of courts martial of such soldiers, the Dublin government
announced that it would no longer prosecute deserters. Instead, they
would be barred from state employment or any social welfare for life.
Effectively, these Irishmen who had fought for the freedom of Europe
were exiled forever from their homeland.

The reconsideration of this matter was prompted by a petition
organised by the “Irish Soldiers’ Pardons Campaign”. According to its
website, the campaign was prompted by an article I wrote on the
subject last May in The Irish Independent. While researching the fate
of returning Irish soldiers in 1945, I had come across newspaper
reports of the courts martial of Irish army deserters. Quite
independently, a former British soldier now living in Ireland, Robert
Widders, has written a book on the subject.

Some 5,000 wartime deserters from the Irish army joined the British
forces. In 1945, as the moral cause of the Allies was made irrefutable
with the discovery of Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, word spread among
the Irish deserters in the British Army that their government had
declared an amnesty. But instead, hundreds of them were arrested as
they returned home. After a series of rather embarrassing courts
martial, the Irish government decided on a mass and non-judicial
punishment, which almost certainly had no basis in law.

When questioned about this, Oscar Traynor, the Irish minister for
defence at the time, declared: “I am afraid that I cannot share the
apparent solicitude for deserters. They are, in my opinion, worthy of
very little consideration.” However, he added, it wasn’t worth the
trouble of dealing with them “as they deserved”. Instead, he announced
the blanket ban on all state jobs and on welfare. And so, 67 years on,
justice of a kind is being done to these Irish soldiers of the King –
and not least because of the visit to Ireland of his daughter, the
Queen, last May.

Such has been the impact on the Irish psyche of those remarkable days
that it is now possible to introduce a new chronological divide in
Irish political life: BRV and ARV. For, Before the Royal Visit, no
Irish government would ever have contemplated pardoning Irish army
deserters who had served the British. But ARV, no one in Ireland would
simply dismiss the notion out of hand. And since I have been
campaigning for the greater part of my journalistic life on behalf of
the Irish soldiers of the Crown during the two World Wars, I feel I
can speak with some authority on the subject.

The transformation of opinion in Ireland has been extraordinary. This,
after all, was a country in which the government censor banned British
magazines that celebrated too extravagantly the Queen’s Coronation in
1953. Any expression of regard for Britain or the Royal family was
considered deeply unpatriotic. For much of the 20th century, relations
between Ireland and Britain were defined on the one hand by an
insecure political class, goaded by a loud-mouthed caste of
nationalist braggarts in Ireland, and on the other by a truly woeful,
almost pathologically amnesiac political class in Britain. What
ordinary Irish people wanted – easy relations with their nearest
neighbour, which was also the home of many of their kin – was
infinitely more difficult to proclaim. And of course, the perfectly
idiotic quarter-century IRA war made the declaration of such quiet,
decent sentiments almost impossible.

Different days: for ARV, it is commonplace for Irish politicians to
refer to the British as “our friends and allies”. Admittedly, nothing
in life is immutable: the often sad, silly and sordid relations
between Britain and Ireland should tell us that. But the gains
resulting from the royal visit to Ireland are as irreversible as the
regrettably non-Newtonian laws of historical dynamics ever allow. The
health of the Duke of Edinburgh over Christmas was of serious concern
in Ireland; BRV, it might just have got a slight – and perhaps even
disdainful – mention on Irish radio or television.

It’s still too early to say that the 5,000 Irish deserters who served
with the British in the War will be posthumously “reprieved” by the
Irish government. In one sense, that matters less than that they are
on the agenda, that most Irish people acknowledge that the cause they
served was just, and that Irish valour in the service of the Crown was
exceptional. Indeed, in May 1945, as the first of the returning Irish
soldiers were being arrested, the British Ministry of Defence
announced the wartime award of the Military Cross to 63 soldiers from
independent, neutral Ireland. (Some neutrality, what?) So it was
appropriate that the very first state function attended by President
Michael D Higgins, Ireland’s new head of state, in November was the
Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin.

The final step in Ireland’s journey of reconciliation with its British
military past is for the Dublin government to accept that those
Irishmen who fought for the freedom of Europe deserved better
treatment at home.

By Kevin Myers

8:27PM GMT 04 Jan 2012