Ireland's Neutrality in World War II
The great test of Irish sovereignty came in 1939, when England and Germany went to war. The United Kingdom expected that Ireland would join the war against the Axis powers. Ireland refused. In addition, de Valera refused to allow the British navy to use its former naval bases on Irish soil. In Ireland, World War II was known as “the Emergency.”
Why Ireland Stayed Neutral
Ireland received a great deal of criticism for its choice of neutrality. Many English considered it a betrayal of their long-term relationship, and their government initiated an unofficial economic war of sanctions against Ireland. Americans were shocked that Ireland would not take an official stance against Germany. De Valera's government was under immense internal pressure as well, from a population whose sentiments were overwhelmingly on the side of the Allies.
But de Valera wanted to prove a point: Ireland was no longer a part of the British Empire, and the most decisive way to demonstrate that fact was to maintain firm neutrality in the war. One of the traditional arguments of the Republican movement had been that Irishmen should not have to die for another country's empire. It was a tough stance to take, but de Valera was not going to lose his chance to take it. Moreover, Ireland was in no condition to fight; years of warfare had reduced it to a state of poverty with an army of only 7,000 poorly equipped soldiers.
The War Years
Despite the official stance of neutrality, Ireland did support the Allied cause in a number of quiet ways. Thousands of Irish citizens were allowed to volunteer for Allied armies. While downed German airmen were interned, downed Allied soldiers were promptly handed over to Northern Ireland. When Axis bombing set Belfast ablaze in 1941, de Valera promptly sent fire trucks from Dublin, Drogheda, and Dundalk to help combat the fire. Ireland also suffered its own war wounds: a German bombing raid intended for Liverpool lost its way and bombed Dublin, killing thirty-four civilians.
When the war was over, both British and American diplomats harbored resentment against Ireland's seemingly unfriendly stance. But to de Valera and his government, Ireland had demonstrated once and for all that it was in charge of its own destiny.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland used the war to show its dedication to the United Kingdom. Thousands of Northern Ireland's citizens volunteered to fight. Belfast's shipbuilding industry played an important role in supplying warships for the British navy. Because of its economic importance to the Allied war effort, Belfast was the target of heavy German bombing; more than 1,200 people died in the “Belfast Blitz.”Northern Ireland's sacrifices had a significant impact on its relationship with the British government in later years.
In 1945 de Valera shocked international observers by visiting the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Adolph Hitler. The Americans and English could not understand the gesture, but de Valera viewed it as the appropriate action for the head of a neutral state.