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From: Irish Political Review: Editorials
Date: February, 2012
By: Editorial

The Right To Desert

"Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter, has said that serious examination is taking place into the possible pardoning of Irish soldiers who deserted from the Defence forces to fight for the Allies in World War 2.  Speaking on Morning Ireland Minister Shatter said these soldiers had fought against fascism and contributed to the future of freedom and democracy in Europe.  He said they were penalised by a regulation barring them from being employed in any public service job.  He welcomed the passing of a motion in the Stormont Assembly earlier this week calling for a pardon for the soldiers.  Minister Shatter said he believes that it is right that the Republic of Ireland now revisit how this issue was dealt with historically"  (RTE Online, 25 January).

The motion at Stormont not only demanded that the deserters to the enemy should be pardoned, but that there should be an official Apology because their right of desertion was not recognised.

Sinn Fein supported the Stormont motion, which was proposed by the DUP.  But, of course, Sinn Fein in the 1940s did not recognised the 26 County regime as a legitimately-constituted State.  Nor did it do so for half a century after the end of the World War.  And it is still, on occasion, accused of not recognising it in earnest by the governing party which is seriously considering honouring the deserters from the Irish Army to join the British Army—at a moment when the British Prime Minister was reasserting a right of military intervention in the Irish state.

If the Dail complies with the DUP/Sinn Fein motion, it will substantiate Sinn Fein scepticism about its legitimacy.  States assert a monopoly right on the use of force.  The converse of this is that, in democratic states, the apparatus of force of the State must be unconditionally obedient to the elected Government of the state.  A State which accords a right to its soldiers in time of war, not only to desert but to join the Army of a hostile State is, to put it at its mildest, an inadequate state, doubtful of its right to independent existence.

The Irish Army was not a conscript army:  soldiers were all volunteers—and it had been open to the men in question to go and volunteer in the UK.  Many did so and did not suffer adverse consequences.

The Irish Times—the newspaper that Britain left behind it in Ireland when it had to leave—did some stirring on this issue over a year ago.  It complained that:

"Soldiers who deserted but did not join the British army were treated differently:  Some were not even arrested, and their names were left off the list" (8 Nov. 2010).

The list in question was a blacklist, which barred those concerned from public employment for seven years.  

Is there not, then, a substantial difference between soldiers who just desert and those who go into the service of a potential enemy?

The Irish Government asserted neutrality against Britain in 1939 and sustained it until 1945 with the support of the Opposition parties, including the party for which Mr. Shatter now speaks.  That the declaration of neutrality was made against Britain was not in doubt at the time.  Germany made no claims on Ireland.  Its concern with Ireland was entirely in the context of the War declared on it by Britain.  Britain held a quarter of the island and was exerting pressure on the other three-quarters to facilitate its war effort.

The possibility of Irish neutrality had come about only a year before Britain launched the War on Germany.  It was the Appeasers who brought it about by vacating the three Ports which they held under the terms of the dictated 'Treaty' of 1921 and transferring them to Irish sovereignty.  The great Anti-Appeaser, Churchill, denounced the action at the time, when he was the "voice in the wilderness".  He was brought back into the British Cabinet when war was declared a year later, and he urged that the Irish declaration of neutrality should be treated as nonsense.  But the Arch-Appeaser, Chamberlain, who had given the Irish back the Ports, remained Prime Minister for nine months after he declared war and he would not revoke his agreement with the Irish.

When Churchill eventually became Prime Minister in May 1940, the British war offensive (for which no serious preparation had been made) was in collapse.  The issue for the British Government then was whether to limit the War in the light of the military fiasco in France, and make a settlement as France did, or to use British naval dominance to keep the War going and try to embroil the world in it.

There was argument within the British Cabinet on the issue.  Churchill, despite his notorious reputation as a warmonger, had his way.  He kept the War going with very little British fighting, spreading it piecemeal for a year, until he gained Stalin as an ally and the catastrophic phase of the War began.

That Britain might have adopted a different course of action, either in 1939 or in June 1940, is not allowed by the Churchillian mythology of the War  And, though Ireland maintained its neutrality in the face of Churchill's threats, it failed to produce a history of the War from its own viewpoint subsequently and therefore fell under the spell of the mesmeric myth cast by Churchill.

The object of almost all British history-writing is to make the possibility of a different course of action from the course chosen by Britain unthinkable.  What Britain did was the only thing to do and anybody who does not agree is a scoundrel.

But the revisionists who dominate Irish academic history in the British interest argue the exact opposite case with regard to Irish history.  They charge nationalists with the fallacy of holding that there was an inevitable, predestined course of events leading to the formation of an independent Irish state.  They assert that history happens through a serious of complicated conjunctures, and that in each conjuncture something different might have been done.  But, when it comes to consideration of British history, they comply happily with the orthodoxy of the Churchillian myth.  There were no reasonable alternatives to what Churchill did!

Churchill did not occupy Southern Ireland, though he asserted the right to do so.  Occupation was not expedient.  His spies reported to him that occupation would be met by all-out resistance by all political tendencies, so on balance he did not do it.  But he did not make a virtue of expediency.  At the end of the War he reasserted the right to occupy Southern Ireland that he had asserted at the outset.

It was through determination in all quarters to resist British occupation that the Free State Army took on the character of a national army.  It was in origin a mercenary force recruited by Collins, and armed and paid for by Britain, to impose the Treaty and break the Republican Army that had fought Britain to the negotiating table after it had treated the electoral process with contempt.  Collins might have remained the militarist icon, but the character of the force was changed, and the rupture of the Treaty War was overcome to a considerable extent—by the collaboration of all parties, except the Sinn Fein holdouts, in serious preparation for resistance to another British occupation.

If that is now to be trivialised by honouring deserters to the British Army, it should at least be admitted that Sinn Fein scepticism was well-founded.

Mr. Shatter—who is Minister for Justice and Equality, as well as for Defence—said in another statement that the neutrality of the State, in which he is a Government Minister, in Britain's Second World War "was a principle of moral bankruptcy", and he described the deserters  from the Irish Army to the Army of the British Empire as "members of our Defence Forces who left this island during that time to fight for freedom".

A word needs to be said about this legendary "fight for freedom", and how it was that the Irish State which Mr. Shatter serves had to fight Britain for its freedom after voting for it;  and how the British Empire, which had denied Irish freedom until Ireland made itself too hot to handle, suddenly became the belligerent champion of general freedom;  and how the Irish State failed to see that the Empire, from which it had escaped so recently and with such pain, made itself morally bankrupt by failing to recognise the obvious fact that that Empire had been transformed,  "in the twinkling of an eye", into the champion of general freedom, and to make itself available for the Empire's war effort.

Minister Shatter did not support his anathema against his own state with a word of explanation.  It appears self-evident to him that the Empire had undergone a marvellous transformation during the brief interval since its war against Irish freedom.  But, since it isn't everybody who is capable of seeing visions like that, we must try to puzzle it out.

In the "war that brought freedom to Europe" there were at least two, fundamentally-antagonistic, conceptions of Freed on the winning side:  and those two Freedoms would probably have produced another world war after the defeat of Germany, but for the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons.

It was Russia that broke the military power of Germany.  Britain scrambled back onto the Continent four years after deserting France.  Facing a German Army that had been gutted by the Red Army and that had most of its remaining power deployed in the East, it took the British and Americans most of a year to get into the heart of Germany and meet the Russians there.  The long delay about opening the Second Front, and then the long delay about pressing on into Germany were caused by Britain.  But the Western Allies did eventually get there.

After Germany had surrendered, two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japanese civilians, even though the excuse the Western scientists gave themselves  for concentrating on the production of weapons that they knew to be horrendous was that they had to make them before the Germans did.

Europe was freed from Nazism by the antagonistic freedoms of Communism and Imperialism, with their antagonist notions of democracy.  Each denied that what the other brought to Europe was Freedom.  And in post-Nazi, anti-Nazi Germany the force that broke the power of Nazism was banned.  (We refer to the Communist movement.)

Britain collaborated with Nazi Germany for five years.  It then decided to make war on it, but everything it did in that War led to an increase in the power of Nazi Germany.  The British policy of spreading the war, after its abandonment of France, led to the extension of Nazi power by effective defensive actions.

The USA used nuclear weapons against Japanese civilians three months after Germany surrendered.  Churchill wanted the Soviet Union nuclear-bombed.  But he was voted out of Office, the Labour Government was slow to shrug off the wartime propaganda about the Soviet friend and ally, and Britain did not have its own nuclear bomb anyway for a few years more.

After the surrender of Germany, the US had to give priority to its war—the war with Japan which it had deliberately provoked.  And by the time it might have turned its mind to destroying its Soviet ally in Minister Shatter's universal war for Freedom, it was too late.  Against all expectations, Russia had made its own nuclear bomb by 1948.

How was it that an unquestionable war for Freedom, which Ireland branded itself as a moral bankrupt by refusing to participate in it, ended like that?

RTE a couple of years ago broadcast a couple of programmes about Ireland's complicity in Evil, because of its neutrality.  The late Cathal O'Shannon, son of the Connolly socialist of that name, was a central figure in them.  He explained how he went off to fight Fascism (though not as a deserter) and his act was not properly appreciated when he came back.  But it turned out that where he had fought Fascism, in an RAF uniform, was in Burma/Myanmar.  This was problematical, since Burma had been a country conquered by the British Empire and subject to Imperialist oppression until it was liberated by Japan, after Japan was given an ultimatum effectively demanding its surrender and it decided to fight instead.

Japan had been the protector of the British Empire in Asia during the 1914 War.  It was humiliated at the post-War Congress at Versailles, at which the League of Nations was founded, when its proposal for a declaration of racial equality was rejected.  Then Britain, acting under American pressure, refused to renew its Alliance with Japan.  In the practice of international affairs, that meant that Britain marked it down as an enemy.  And then Britain in 1941 seconded an American ultimatum with which Japan could not comply without ruining its economy.  Japan responded by bombing an American naval base in the middle of the Pacific and by running through the British Empire in Asia.

It was then defeated by America, but the British Empire never recovered, though not through want of trying.  Burmese Independence was proclaimed under Japanese auspices.  When Cathal O'Shannon and the British Army tried to force Burma back under Imperial rule, the Burmese wouldn't have it.  Whatever O'Shannon did in Burma, he did as an Imperialist oppressor putting down Freedom at the drag end of Empire.

Britain had to give up Burma to a Burmese independence movement inspired by Sinn Fein and made effective by Japan.  Churchill was outraged.  He said that the Burmese leader, Aung San, should be prosecuted as a war criminal and collaborator.  But that was crying for the moon.  Aung San became Prime Minister of his country, which Japan had inspired to assert its independence—but he was blown up with his Ministers at their first Cabinet meeting.  The British Foreign Office decided to reveal a couple of years ago that the assassination was the work of the British security service.  The person chosen to make that revelation was the BBC's secular saint, Fergal Kane, so it can hardly be doubted.

If Minister Shatter is allowed to proceed with his intention to overrule the decision taken by the Government of the day about deserters from the Irish Army to the British, on the basis that the deserters contributed to war against Fascism and therefore placed themselves above national law while the Government of the day was morally bankrupt, it should at least be done on a case by case basis, taking account of the fact that Britain was an Imperialist Power in this war, and that it waged war against other things than Fascism.  At the very least, participation in the British Imperialist attempt to undo the Japanese liberation of Burma should not be counted as anti-fascist action.

If Fascism is to be the justification of desertion to the enemy, Minister should say something about the fact that his own party, Fine Gael, was a fascist party during the fascist era of the 1930s.  He should also mention that the reason Ireland did not become fascist was that Fianna Fail (now described as the morally bankrupt party) held the ring for Parliamentary democracy throughout the 1930s.

Shatter's remarks on moral bankruptcy were made at the opening of an exhibition on the Shoah (Jewish Holocaust) in his Department.  They were accompanied by a statement that "the doors of the Irish state were firmly closed to Jewish families fleeing from persecution".  (It has become necessary to specify 'Jewish' Holocaust because there is now to be another official Holocaust.  The French Parliament is to decree that the Turkish treatment of the Armenians who were roused to rebellion by Tsarist Russian propaganda in the Great War was genocide and that it is a crime to question this.  No notice is taken of the many peoples who were literally exterminated during the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power in the world.)

A supporter of Shatter's project has commented that General Franco kept an open door in Spain for Jewish refugees, unlike De Valera.  And it was the case that many more Jews found refuge in fascist Spain than in democratic Ireland.  Fine Gael might cite that fact in defence of its own fascist phase, if it had no chosen to pretend that it was never fascist.  It campaigned vigorously for the recognition of Franco's insurrection as the legitimate Government of Spain, as against the elected Republic, from 1936 onwards.  De Valera refused to recognise Franco's Government until it had made itself the de facto Spanish State in 1938.

There were two significant differences between Spain and Ireland (besides the obvious difference in size).  Spain had a land border across which Jews could flee.  And Spain had fought an authentic Civil War, unlike the Irish one—which was a conflict manipulated by Britain between two bodies of people with the same aim.  Authentic civil wars are capable of producing a strong regime (e.g. England, America).  The victor is militarily triumphant, self-confident, and in command of a unified regime.  The spurious Irish 'civil war' was debilitating.  The victor won with British guns, British money, and British propaganda backing, spurred on by British threats.  He was not driven by a fundamental disagreement with those against whom he fought about the kind of State there should be.  Therefore, when he won, he could not command the situation morally.  There was a rupture between material and moral force.  The party defeated in war retained the moral force and became dominant within ten years of defeat, but could not restore the situation as it had been in 1921.

Britain had an entirely reasonable purpose in making the Irish fight each other in 1922.  It was to ensure that the Army that had fought it to the negotiating table in 1919-21 would not be the Army of the State which it was obliged to recognise in Ireland.  The Irish State, which declared neutrality in 1939, was essentially unarmed.  Its achievement was to convince Churchill that he would nevertheless meet with strong national resistance if he acted on what he took to be his right to occupy Ireland.  Franco's neutrality was the armed neutrality of a state made strong by victory in an authentic civil war.

Franco might have given victory to Hitler by joining him in the War and closing the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy by taking Gibraltar.  Instead of doing that, he made it clear to Hitler that he would have to fight his way through Spain to get to Gibraltar.

The crucial part played by Spain in the War as declared and fought by Britain makes its characterisation as a war against Fascism ridiculous.  The Anti-Fascist War was the Soviet war of defence, in which German power was broken.  But the victory of the Anti-Fascist Power would probably have led to war with Britain, if Britain had still been capable of a major war effort at that point.

It might be added that Britain and France (with their Imperial hinterlands) were the only Allied countries which were involved in a war of choice.  Every other country maintained a neutral position until attacked, or the threats of the great Western democracy forced them to end their neutrality (i.e. the Latin American states).  If de Valera's Ireland was morally bankrupt, it was in good company!

It is absurd that the deceptive shibboleths of the war propaganda of what was a very confused War with regard to principles should be bandied about in Irish politics almost 70 years later by a Government Minister for the purpose of making nonsense of Irish history.

Fascism was not an internationalist system that threatened civilisation.  It was a means by which various capitalist countries, thrown into disorder by the Great War and the disruptive peace that followed it, preserved Capitalism against the force of international Communism, which had also been generated out of the chaos of the Great War.  Churchill, the mythical leader of the "Anti-Fascist War", was an ardent supporter of Fascism as the only effective defender of capitalist civilisation in post-Great War Europe.

Countries that were reduced to an antagonism of their social elements by the recklessness with which the British Empire brought about world war, conducted the war, and re-made the world according to its whims at the end of it, were forcefully drawn back into functional capitalist nation states.  Fascism did for capitalism, by drastic means in a situation of dire emergency, what we call Democracy does by routine in normal situations.  

The main fascist country that ran its full course (i.e., that was not broken by external intervention) was Spain.  Fascist order was imposed on a chaos within which Communism was seen to be developing, was preserved by force for about forty years, and was then modified into the representative system that we call Democracy.  Representative government was restored on the understanding that the Fascist era would be treated as a necessary development out of chaos which made orderly representative government possible.  In recent years a Spanish judge was overcome by a feeling that this was an outrage on justice, and he began to issue indictments which treated the fascist era a criminal outbreak.  This struck at the authoritarian roots of the democratic state (all states have authoritarian roots), and endangered the system.  Spanish democracy has now acted to protect itself by prosecuting that judge for treason.

In recent times there has been a democratic mania for knocking down functional authoritarian states, rather like Franco Spain, because they are authoritarian, and replacing them with make-believe democracies.  This was done in Iraq with Irish approval and marginal Irish participation on the grounds that it must always be a good thing to destroy 'tyrannies'.  Today Iraq is free.  It was not free under Saddam.  Under Saddam very few people were killed by the political process.  A great noise was made by Amnesty International about those who were killed—but the figures for political killing under the tyranny were so small, compared with today's figures, that it is too embarrassing to mention them.  And the allied countries in the 'Coalition of the Willing' that brought down Saddam did not collect figures for civilian casualties consequent upon their invasion.

When the media tell us of improvements in the Iraqi situation the base year that they use is not 2001, when the tyranny was operative, but 2006, when the 'freedom' introduced by the 'liberation' had brought about general mayhem.  Details of life under the tyranny cannot be mentioned, because they would make it appear as a Golden Age.  The humanitarian ideology, so much in evidence when the invasion was being prepared, is now strictly subordinate to the requirements of Utopian capitalist democratic ideology.

Democracy is nationalist in tendency, no less than Fascism was.  And, when it becomes "international", i.e. Imperialist, it does so on the basis of its nationalist core.

Conor Cruise O'Brien saw that Democracy was nationalist in tendency.  He saw it in the course of his brooding over the French Revolution in learned mode, but he lacked the moral courage to follow through this insight in his political mode.  He also saw that Democracy, constituted into into a general ideology, is capable of being immensely destructive.  This is not something that his leading apostle, Eoghan Harris, learned from him.  Harris, as publicist for the fantasist Ahmad Chalabi in the invasion of Iraq, gave free expression to the democratic utopianism that revolted O'Brien in his learned musings on the French Revolution.  And then he went quiet.

The nationalist character of Democracy is plainly evident in the most influential democracy in this region of the world.  The British State was a kind of oligarchic tyranny for about a century and half following the establishment of a stable regime around 1715.  Then it gradually phased the populace into the electoral system of the state until it became a democracy in the militarist Imperialist atmosphere of 1918.  Imperialist militarism does not survive in it today in connection with some remnant of the old ruling class.  It is carried by the democracy proper.

The stable transition from Oligarchy to Democracy was seen as a possible development by the ruling class in the late 19th century in the context of militarism and Imperialism.  It was democratic Britain that ignored the Irish Election of 1918, fought the Black-and-Tan War, and lost Ireland.  It is democratic Britain that is now seeking to clean up that piece of history and to erode the national morale of the country which it lost so disgracefully—by rewriting its history and ridiculing its culture.  

And this is the project that the present Government proposes to carry forward.

The BBC, an agency of the nationalistic, democratic, imperialistic British state, was doing its proper job when it made the running on the issue of the outrageous refusal of the Irish State to recognise a right of desertion to its Army.  On 4th January it carried a very misleading and impressionistic programme on Radio 4, in which a number of people were given free rein to make wild assertions.  One of these was that orphans of soldiers who had died for Britain were put into Industrial Schools with a code attached to their names "SS", to mark them out for harsher treatment.  There were complaints too about the deserters being ostracised by their neighbours.  But Radio 4 had shown considerable disregard for factual reporting on 3rd August 2011 (at 7.40 am) on its prestigious Today programme when it conducted an interview with Robert Widders, the author of a book on these Irish deserters.  That interview had been flagged as follows:  "Also on today's programme, the story of the thousands of Irish soldiers punished for choosing to fight Fascism". Here is a transcript of the interview which followed.  
Radio 4 interview
RW Good Morning

BBC Just tell us the typical story of what happened to any one of these 5,000 or so who deserted.

RW Yes, what happened is that these men deserted from around 1940-41 onwards when the threat of invasion had disappeared. and they made their way across to England, joined the British Army or the Navy or the Air Force and served throughout the 2nd World war fighting against Fascism.  In many cases the Irish State at the time imprisoned their children, either during the War or post-War, where they were singled out for special treatment, which meant increased abuse.  Some of these men died, in many cases during the liberation of Europe, some of them on the beaches of Normandy on the 6th of June.  And, after the War, they were all court-martialled, the dead and the live men.  And they were also banned from employment for seven years.  This was known informally in Parliament as the Starvation Order, and the implications are obvious.  And these men were treated very badly and their treatment compares very badly, compared to men who deserted and who didn't fight with the Allies, for instance men who became criminals or even the handful of men who fought with the Waffen SS.  They were not treated in the same manner.

BBC It is a very, very interesting tale.  You know, what was going on?  Was it just because they were fighting with the hated English?  I mean, what was the—— Why do you think they were treated so harshly?

RW Well I think it was—— the Government had to do something.  In fairness the Irish Government had to make some sort of a response and can't be blamed for that.  But it's the nature of the response that's at fault.  Because it was unconstitutional and it was illegal by Irish law, and there was an element of vindictiveness in this legislation.

BBC And we should say there's something of a campaign now, isn't there?  I don't know whether that's as a result of your book, but a campaign to essentially to essentially to get those verdicts overturned?

RW Yes, there is a campaign.  And it is as a result of the book.  Because of course this had been hidden away for half a century and the book brought this into the public domain.  And a guy called Peter Mulvaney in Ireland, another ex-soldier like myself, he took the issue up and started a campaign and I'm working with him on this.  And we're calling upon the Irish Government to show some humanity and compassion and pardon the handful of very old men now and allow them to die with dignity and honour.

BBC But what's so significant—— I mean some of the children who were, I mean rather few of the men themselves are around, but some of the children who were punished on behalf of their father's activity must still be around.

RW Oh, there are a lot of them around, and I've spoken to many of them.  And in fact one lady showed me a School Register only a few weeks ago.  And on this register it's marked, some of the names are marked "S S", which stands for Special Treatment for the children of British soldiers.  And when I say schools, it was really more like a prison, because there were given routinely, routinely they were physically and sexually abused.  They were denied medical treatment and they were rented out as slave labourers to work in the fields for farmers.

BBC What an extraordinary tale, Robert Widders.  As I say the book is called Spitting On A Soldier's Grave.  Thank you very much."

The Right To Desert.  Editorial
The Euro:  Realities And Abstractions.  Jack Lane
Deserters:  Ireland A Fascist State?  Report
Readers' Letters:  Views Of Sinn Fein.  Stephen Richards
Iran Not Trying To Develop A Nuclear Weapon—US Defence Secretary Panetta.  David Morrison
Not Sufficient To Be Sour.  Jack Lane responds to Desmond Fennell
Shorts from the Long Fellow (Pensioners;  Failed States;  When Was Independence?;  The Media And Change;  Mary Raftery;  'Unexpected' Death)
Raymond Crotty's Appeal To England:  
Introduction.  Brendan Clifford
Eire:  A Land Where Emigrants Are Born.  Raymond Crotty
Some Comments On Raymond Crotty's Article.  John Martin
Es Ahora.  Julianne Herlihy  (Elizabeth Bowen, Lies, Spies & Academics—Qui Bono?;  CUP & Einbhear Walshe)
Deserters And Their Champions Equally Unworthy Of Trust.  Donal Kennedy  (Unpublished Letter)
'The Further One Gets From Belfast'.  Niall Meehan replies to Jeff Dudgeon
The 1934 Larkin Affidavit:  A Comment.  Jeff Dudgeon replies to Manus O'Riordan
Crozier Antidotes For Hart Maladies.  Manus O'Riordan
Items From The Irish Bulletin, 1919.  Number 7
Does It Stack Up?  Michael Stack (Inside Job;  Corporation Tax;  Fee-Paying And Public Schools;  Ultra-Privileged Schools)
Needs Sectioned?  Wilson John Haire  (Poem)
The Guilds And Capitalism.  Mondragon, Part 4.  Labour Comment