Republic of Ireland apology and amnesty for Second World War veterans.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013
The Seanad (the Senate) at Leinster House, Dublin.

The Second World War Amnesty and Immunity Bill 2012 passed all stages in the Dáil and Seanad Éireann on 7 May 2013 and was forwarded to the President for signature.

During the Second World War, just over 7,000 personnel deserted the 42,000 strong Irish Defence Forces to join the Allied forces with the majority joining the British armed forces. Some 2,500 eventually returned to their Defence Force units in Ireland and were tried by military tribunal. Ireland’s Emergency Powers (No 362) Order 1945 and the Defence Forces (Temporary Provisions) Act 1946 provided automatic dismissal for the remaining 5,000 deserters and absentees, including the surrender of pay and allowances and disqualification from holding any government employment or receiving social assistance, e.g. a pension. All this applied to a list of named personnel (known as the ‘Irish list of shame‘) regardless of whether the individual had returned, exiled themselves or died in combat. The effect of the order imposed hardship on many individuals and families who were to remain ostracised by the state and public opinion until they died. Many communities still raw from the struggles of independence and civil war, and with a traditional hatred of the British, considered men who joined the British armed forces as traitors and simply rejected them.

Thanks to the passage of time, recent shared history, a closer relationship between Ireland and Britain and the persistent lobbying by organisations such as the ‘Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign’, the Irish government felt that it was time to redress the grievance by granting an amnesty. A pardon was not thought possible for a variety of legal reasons and it was perceived that an amnesty would uphold the fundamentals of military discipline, avoid retrospective claims for individual compensation, yet still address a mature Irish state’s conscience in righting a wrong performed by a raw, fledgling Irish state.

The Irish Minister for Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter, during the second reading of the bill in the Seanad said;

The provisions of the Bill are an acknowledgement of the harsh treatment individuals received and an acceptance of the special circumstances at the time when they deserted the Defence Forces. For this reason, it is important to acknowledge the courage these individuals showed in what must have been extremely difficult times, not just for them but also, in the majority of cases, for the families left behind in Ireland. These individuals contributed in no small part to the allied victory against tyranny and totalitarianism. That contribution was not just by the approximately 5,000 who deserted from the Defence Forces but the extraordinary number - over 60,000 - of citizens of the then Free State who joined the British Forces - the army, the navy, the air force - to join in that fight. In total, over 100,000 or more from the island of Ireland joined in the fight and it is right that we acknowledge what they did and their courage. Their efforts, in an indirect way, also contributed to the safety of their home country. If the United Kingdom had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany, the same fate would almost certainly have been visited on this island, with all the consequences that would have gone with it.