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Defence Forces (Second World War Amnesty and Immunity) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Report and Final Stages (Continued)

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 802 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn] Many men from this country who went to fight fascism in Spain were excommunicated from the Catholic Church. They were condemned up and down the country and isolated on their return. Many of them never returned home. If we are to look back and address those who took the decision to confront Nazism and fascism, we must do it in the round.

We welcome this legislation. The men who served in the Allied forces suffered egregiously when they returned home, as did their families, for many years. The passing of this legislation is the right thing to do, but I ask the Government to also consider what it can do to heal the wounds of the men and women who left this country to fight fascism in Spain and with the 5th International Brigade who received no real acknowledgement from the State of the unbelievable courage they showed at the time.

Minister for Defence (Deputy Alan Shatter): Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter First, I thank colleagues in the House for their supportive remarks. In marking the passage of the Bill through the Dáil today, we are making a small piece of history. It is very desirable that Members on various sides of the House who have contributed to this debate are supportive. It is a tribute to how far we have come as a society that a Bill on such a sensitive issue could receive practically unanimous support from all sides in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Government's rationale for introducing the Bill was twofold, first, to put to rest the concerns of those individuals still alive who had deserted from the Defence Forces to fight with the Allied side during the Second World War and, second, to lift a veil for the families of those who had already died. 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 they left behind in Ireland. These individuals contributed in no small part to the Allied victory against tyranny and totalitarianism. That contribution was made 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, 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 of the consequences that would have gone with it.

In seeking to grant an amnesty to these individuals the Government has been very careful to respect the vital contribution made by members of the Defence Forces who did not desert during the Second World War. At one stage we had 42,000 members of the Defence Forces, an extraordinary number, compared to the 9,500 we have today. In this context, I again acknowledge the tremendous work undertaken by the individual members of the Defence Forces who stayed loyal to the Defence Forces during the period of the Second World War. We should not underestimate at any stage the importance of their loyalty and continuing engagement in the State at a time of global difficulty and chaos within Europe. Loyalty is an extremely important aspect of any military force and the Defence Forces are no different in this regard. Those who remained loyal during the period we knew as the Emergency performed a crucial duty for the State at a key time in its history. The loyalty of these members of the Defence Forces to the State was indispensable. It is always essential to the national interest that members of the Defence Forces do not abandon their duties at any time and no responsible Government would ever depart from that basic and fundamental principle. However, as I said, it is good that this House has united behind the Bill. It is important to a substantial number of families in the State, a fact that a number of Deputies acknowledged during the debate. For example, Deputy Áodhán Ó Ríordáin made particular mention of the late Con Murphy, a former RAF man, who died in Cork recently. There are countless others like him who did not live to see the day the State finally acknowledged the role they played in seeking to ensure a free, democratic and safe Europe.

The enactment of the Bill sends an important message to those surviving and the relatives of those who have since passed on. It is a very simple message: "You can be proud of your contribution, or your relative's contribution, in the fight against tyranny and this contribution is now fully acknowledged by the State." It is important, as we look to the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Great War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War in 2014, to the memory of all those who served and died in these conflicts, those surviving and the relatives of those who have since passed on. The Bill is bringing out of the shadows and into the daylight a crucial part of the complex history of the State, this island, families in the State and individual citizens. It is also bringing greater into the daylight the complexities of the relationship between the island of Ireland and Britain, the mutuality in that relationship and the connectivity between families on the two islands.

As I said, it is estimated that over 60,000 citizens of the then Free State and in the region of 100,000 who resided on this island fought against Nazi tyranny during the Second World War. I believe, as does the Government, that for too long in this state we failed to acknowledge their courage and sacrifice and that for too long their contribution was airbrushed out of official Irish history as taught in schools and at third level. I cannot recall any mention of their contribution at any stage during my school education many years ago or when I initially took history as a subject in my first year in college. In recent years things have changed and the role played by them has been documented and written about, which is as it should be. I hope the Bill provides a statutory foundation to ensure they will never again be ignored or forgotten in narratives covering the history of Ireland from 1939 to 1945. It is important that we acknowledge the realities and complexities of our history and the complexities of the histories of individuals and families on this island. That history is much more complex than the simple manner in which it is frequently and, unfortunately, presented.

To return to the theme Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn raised, I appreciate the sentiments he expressed about others who had fought fascism. The Bill is addressing a State issue. It is addressing the issue of individuals who deserted the Defence Forces, fought tyranny and Nazi Germany and were either court martialed for their desertion or summarily dismissed from the Defence Forces and who, following the ending of that terrible war, found themselves - those who returned to Ireland - effectively prevented from being engaged in any State or State funded employment. Not only could they not be recruited to work in Departments, they were also excluded from basic and menial work provided through local authorities or other State agencies. Many of those who were treated as heroes in Britain found that they had been turned against on this island because they had fought in the British Army. Many of them found their families in major financial difficulties. Many of them had to leave the Free State and return to Britain to seek employment. What we are doing, as I said previously in the House, is apologising for that occurring and recognising the courage and value of their contribution at the time.

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