Five thousand Irish soldiers who swapped uniforms to fight for the British against Hitler went on to suffer years of persecution. One of them, 92-year-old Phil Farrington, took part in the D-Day landings and helped liberate the German death camp at Bergen-Belsen – but he wears his medals in secret.
Even to this day, he has nightmares that he will be arrested by the authorities and imprisoned for his wartime service. “They would come and get me, yes they would,” he said in a frail voice at his home in the docks area of Dublin. And his 25-year-old grandson, Patrick, confirmed: “I see the fear in him even today, even after 65 years.”
Mr Farrington’s fears are not groundless. He was one of about 5,000 Irish soldiers who deserted their own neutral army to join the war against fascism and who were brutally punished on their return home as a result. They were formally dismissed from the Irish army, stripped of all pay and pension rights, and prevented from finding work by being banned for seven years from any employment paid for by state or government funds.
A special “list” was drawn up containing their names and addresses, and circulated to every government department, town hall and railway station – anywhere the men might look for a job.
I don’t know enough about the situation to evaluate the accuracy of these claims, but assuming the story is correct in its broadest lines, let’s take a moment here to defend the indefensible:
1. Uniformed soldiers who desert are deserters; it doesn’t matter how noble the cause they deserted for. An army, and the government that the army is part of, cannot be expected to excuse desertion without incurring dramatically negative consequences for army cohesion and morale. This is not to say that there cannot be morally compelling individual reasons to desert, just that a modern army is under no institutional responsibility to respect those reasons.
2. The belief that the United Kingdom posed the most immediate and substantial threat to Ireland during World War II was hardly absurd or unreasonable. The UK considered preventive military intervention in Ireland on several occasions, wisely deciding to strike deals with the Irish government instead. In this context, the degree of support in Ireland for Germany isn’t surprising, nor is it surprising that the Irish Army would react poorly to soldiers who deserted to the British Army.
The post-war treatment of colonial soldiers who served with Free French forces during World War II is, to my mind, a greater injustice. That said, persecution of deserters didn’t have to persist for very long. States regularly excuse incidences of mass disobedience when political conditions change, and the world has been pretty comfortable with the notion that Nazi Germany was uniquely evil for quite a while. A public amnesty is certainly long overdue.