Britain, Ireland and the Second World War

Britain, Ireland and the Second World War

Britain, Ireland and the Second World War

Britain, Ireland and the Second World War


For Britain the Second World War exists in popular memory as a time of heroic sacrifice, survival and ultimate victory over Fascism. In the Irish state the years 1939-1945 are still remembered simply as 'the Emergency'. Eire was one of many small states which in 1939 chose not to stay out of the war but one of the few able to maintain its non-belligerency as a policy. How much this owed to Britain's military resolve or to the political skills of Eamon de Valera is a key question which this new book will explore. It will also examine the tensions Eire's policy created in its relations with Winston Churchill and with the United States. The author also explores propaganda, censorship and Irish state security and the degree to which it involves secret co-operation with Britain. Disturbing issues are also raised like the IRA's relationship to Nazi Germany and ambivalent Irish attitudes to the Holocaust. Drawing upon both published and unpublished sources, this book illustrates the war's impact on people on both sides of the border and shows how it failed to resolve sectarian problems on Northern Ireland while raising higher the barriers of misunderstanding between it and the Irish state across its border.


When, on the evening of Sunday, 3 September 1939,Éamon de Valera broadcast to the people of Éire, as the Irish state had been renamed two years earlier, Britain and France had already declared war on Germany. His wholly predictable message was that his government would stay out of the conflict, adhering, it has been said, to a stance of non-belligerency rather than one of neutrality in the sense in which that word had been used and refined over many years by jurists and writers on interstate relations.

‘With our history,’ the Taioseach told his listeners, ‘with our experience of the last war and with part of our country still unjustly severed from us, we felt that no other decision and no other policy was possible.’

De Valera’s statement was a product not only of a dramatic shift of political power which had brought him to office in 1932 but also of the 1921 treaty itself. This settlement, if such it was, was seen by optimists at the time on both sides of the Irish Sea as the basis for ending an ancient quarrel. Others, like Michael Collins, saw it as a necessary compromise. It offered, he famously claimed, ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’. Churchill, one of the principal British negotiators of the treaty, saw it as a way of securing essential British interests. Arguably, it could not have been both but he and Collins, for very different reasons, needed to ‘talk up’ the case for the treaty.

Two critical developments lay behind the 1921 treaty and the Government of Ireland Act a year earlier which had made partition a reality. These were the extraordinary transformation of both Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism over the previous three decades.

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