Ireland was neutral in the war. But nearly 5,000 Irishmen deserted to fight against Hitler’s Germany. Upon their return they suffered discrimination. Some 70 years later, the Irish government is rehabilitating them.
On June 12, 2012, the Irish Minister of Defense, Alan Shatter, issued a statement: "On behalf of the State, the Government apologizes for the manner in which those members of the Defence Forces who left to fight on the Allied side during World War II, 1939 to 1945, were treated after the War by the State."
These are words Patrick Martin and his family were waiting for for a long time. The statement means that Patrick Martin's grandfather gets justice at last. Time was running out: Philip Farrington is over 90 years old. He fought with the British army against Nazi Germany. He even took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy, a bloody battle that claimed thousands of lives. He had just got married and wanted to make a difference, says his grandson. "When he came back he suffered, but he still worked all his life to provide for his wife and his seven children and then his grandchildren when he got older."
Trauma remains with him
Even today, Philipp Farrington never shows off the medals for bravery that he received from the British army. Nearly 70 years later, he's still afraid of the Irish authorities. Philip Farrington deserted the Irish army to fight for the British. That led to his being sent to prison when he returned to Ireland.
The trauma has remained with him. Strangers make him nervous, confirms his grandson. For decades now, his grandfather has been afraid that someone from the government would come knocking on the door again and punish him some more. "I want just something to make up for that," says Patrick Martin.
The statement by the Irish government comes a year after families of Irish soldiers who fought with the British forces launched a petition calling for a pardon for the veterans; among the signatories was Pat Cox, the former president of the European Parliament.
Officers were spared
Only ordinary soldiers were punished, however. Officers who did the same were quietly re-integrated into the Irish forces after the war - a blatant injustice, according to Paddy Reid. His father was among the first to desert and join the British army. He spent four years in India fighting the Japanese and was highly decorated.
But after Reid's father came back to Ireland, the family had to live in poverty. In reality a war hero, Paddy Reid senior was suddenly treated as an outcast. Nobody would hire him - the big local companies, the transport companies, the dock, shipping companies. "I am the oldest in the family and my early memories of growing up were not enough food, no money coming in," recalls his son. "He wasn't able to work because he just couldn't get a job."
He couldn't find a job because his name was on a list which the Irish government published in 1945 as the Emergency Powers (No. 362) Order 1945. Its aim was to penalize named deserters from Ireland's armed forces who went to fight with the Allies - principally with the British army. The list came to be known as the "Starvation Order" in Ireland.
Name on list = no job, no money
Almost five thousand names were on the list. There was a copy to be found in all government and personnel offices, and anyone on it would not be given a job. Patrick Reid was on the list with his full name, his date of birth, and the last address the Irish authorities had been able to find. "Psychologically for the family, for my mother, it was very difficult", recalls his son, who spent a lot of time as a child going to the pawn shop. His mother would send him with whatever she could get, he says. "She would send me around to the pawn shop with a pair of shoes or something, and that would be food for a day or two."
Irelandhad gained its independence from Britain two decades before. It did not want its men fighting for the former colonial overlords. For centuries the Irish had rebelled against British rule. There is even a monument in Dublin to remember those who died in the struggle.
The Starvation Order "was one of the most vindictive measures ever introduced by any Irish government," says Gerald Nash, a Member of the Irish Parliament for the country's Labour Party. He says it's important to keep in mind that "the relationship between Britain and Ireland when the state was formed in the 1920s to the recent times was quite tense."
Today, relations between Ireland and England have improved. For many, the pardoning of the onetime deserters is a further step in the right direction. And advocates of the pardon stress that deserters actually joined the war for the right reasons, while their own country remained neutral, and many Irish even sympathized with Germany.
But there are also some who still oppose the pardon, claiming it cannot be in Ireland's national interest. Eunan O'Halpin is a historian at Trinity College in Dublin and says states have to look after their own interests and think of the people who didn't desert. "Even though they would have made more money and might have got a medal, they still did their duty by the state. And I think to honor deserters is to insult the people who didn't desert."
Reconciliation at last
Harry Callan, for instance, did not desert. As a member of the Irish Merchant Navy, he was captured by German forces and was sent to the Farge concentration camp outside Bremen. He experienced many horrors there, but he survived. Today, only one thing matters for him - reconciliation, and that includes the deserters. "Politics is very hard for us to understand", he says. The Irish are known to like their fight, "and that was a fight for the Irish and they were there and they fought, that was that. I hope they'll get their pardon very soon, if not sooner."
Now the Irish government has officially apologized, and the defense minister has pledged to pardon all deserters officially this year. At last, after 67 years, Irish war veterans like Philip Farrington no longer need to be afraid.
Author: Veit-Ulrich Braun / nh
Editor: Michael Lawton