Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Soldiers' courage finally vindicated

Nothing better sums up the complex relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK than the treatment of those Irish men who fought with the British Army against the Nazis in World War II.

In many cases their valour was airbrushed out of the history of the Republic which was then a fledgling independent state – having gained independence some 20-plus years earlier.

The historic enmity with Britain meant the Republic's government could not bring itself to acknowledge the role up to 100,000 of its citizens played in defeating fascism. But there was an even darker stain on the Republic's history.

Around 5,000 soldiers of the Irish Defence Forces – including 500 men from Northern Ireland – deserted to fight the Nazis as the Republic was officially neutral in the war.

When those men returned they – and even those who died – were court-martialled, denied any jobs with the state and refused a military pension. Only now, 70 years later, has a terrible wrong been made right. Of course it is too late for most of those soldiers – only a handful are still alive – but at least the state is now giving them an amnesty.

While it has no practical implication after the passage of such time, it is nevertheless meaningful, especially to the families involved. They now know that the state no longer regards their fathers and grandfathers as virtual traitors, but rather as the heroes they really were. For it was the actions of those men, and the many others from both parts of this island, which played a significant role in the defeat of the Nazis.

Ireland may have claimed it had no part in the war, but it is doubtful if Germany would have taken that view had the Nazis subjugated Britain.

It takes immense courage to fight in any war – moreso to do so without any compulsion.

Those old soldiers who left the Irish forces to fight alongside British regiments have been vindicated at last and, most importantly, in a public manner. It has been done disgracefully late, but better late than never.

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