The British Pressured This Country to Break Its Neutrality During World War II

The British Pressured This Country to Break Its Neutrality During World War II

John killerlane - October 6, 2017

Although the Republic of Ireland remained neutral during World War II, it came under intense pressure from Britain over access to ports located in the Republic which had only a few years previously been handed back by the British. The Republic’s denial of these ports came at a cost, as Britain imposed economic sanctions by way of punishment, which resulted in the country’s economy stagnating as well as extreme hardship for its people for the duration of the war.

The outbreak of the Second World War provided the recently established Irish state with a platform to assert its sovereignty to the wider international world. By displaying an independent foreign policy, and one which differed from Britain’s, Ireland sought to stand apart from its imperial neighbor. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland), Eamon de Valera opted for a policy of Irish neutrality during World War II. He did so not only because it reflected the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, but to set the Republic apart from the other dominions of the British Commonwealth who had all followed Chamberlain’s lead by declaring war against Germany.

The decision was made against a backdrop of an ongoing territorial dispute over the partition of the country as a result of the Government of Ireland Act on May 3, 1921, which saw the creation of two separate states on the island of Ireland, namely Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. De Valera also believed that Irish involvement in the war would lead to conscription and that the resistance it would create could strengthen support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which he had outlawed in 1936.

The British Pressured This Country to Break Its Neutrality During World War II
Eamon De Valera. The

From the outset of Fianna Fail’s accession into government in 1932, the party, under de Valera’s leadership, set about revising the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 out of existence. In April 1932, the government passed the ‘Removal of Oath Bill’ which ended the requirement of Irish ministers to swear an oath of allegiance to the British King to take seats in parliament. The Office of the Governor-General was also abolished, effectively removing the British King from the Free State constitution. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement on Finance, Trade and Defence in 1938, and more specifically the handing back of the ‘Treaty ports’ of Berehaven, Cobh, and Lough Swilly proved to be a crucial pre-war development.

Irish control over these ports in the face of mounting pressure from the British government became the main contentious point between the two countries during the early years of the war. The significance of the return of the ‘Treaty ports’ to the Republic was not lost on one lone voice in the British House of Commons, where on 5 May 1938, Winston Churchill foresaw the possibility that upon the outbreak of a Great War that “the ports may be denied us in the hour of need.”

The British Pressured This Country to Break Its Neutrality During World War II
Sir Winston Churchill. 1stdibs

Economic Sanctions

By 1940, Churchill, who was now First Lord of the Admiralty, frustrated with de Valera’s unwillingness to allow Britain access to these ports asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood to devise a plan to punish the Republic for its insubordination. Wood instructed the Ministry of Shipping to withdraw charter facilities to the Republic, which resulted in the country receiving only 25% of its needs during the war. What Wood had instituted in effect was the implementation of economic sanctions on the Republic where supplies of fuel and other commodities would be greatly reduced for the duration of the Second World War.

In response to these shortages, the Irish government appointed Sean Lemass as Minister for Supplies, whose primary responsibility was to deal with the rationing of goods during the period known as ‘The Emergency‘. In December 1940, petrol pumps ran dry all over the country. Reacting to news that the three main British distributors had informed their Irish subsidiaries that petrol supplies might be cut off completely the government forbade petrol sales temporarily to check stocks. Upon resumption of sales, the ration for private motorists was reduced by three-quarters.

Supplies of coal were also affected, being cut to half a ton a month before being removed altogether for domestic use. Rations were imposed on tea in January 1941. A ration of two ounces per week was introduced before being reduced to one ounce at the beginning of April, which was then cut by half a few days later. Wheat imports were stopped completely and a policy of compulsory tillage was introduced to meet demand. Farmers increased the pre-war tillage area by one million acres, wheat jumped from 21,000 acres in 1932 to 230,000 in 1938 and 640,000 in 1944.

Early in 1942, the informal committee under the Dominions Secretary, assigned by Churchill in 1941 to maintain a persistent economic pressure on Ireland, was reconstructed as a full war cabinet committee under Clement Atlee. The committee’s general policy was one of keeping the Republics’ economy operating “on a minimum basis.”

In the six counties of Northern Ireland, which was part of the United Kingdom and therefore at war, Nationalists loyal to the Republic and who sought a united Ireland, wholly supported the Republics’ decision to remain neutral. They viewed the partition of Ireland and the British military occupation of Northern Ireland as reason enough to abstain from supporting Britain in the war effort.

On the opposite side of the political divide in the North, the biggest fear for Unionists was that of Chamberlain’s offer of Irish unity in exchange for an end to neutrality in the Republic. Unionist fears were quickly averted by de Valera’s refusal for any such deal; his decision undoubtedly influenced by the ill-fated judgment of the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, to support Britain in the First World War.

The British Pressured This Country to Break Its Neutrality During World War II
Heinkel He 111 Luftwaffe bombers. wiki

The Republic did, however, provide some support to Britain during the war. It allowed limited use of Irish airspace as well as the use of radar and radio facilities. It operated a campaign of strict censorship of newspaper reports of key information such as weather forecasts. The government also did not place any restrictions on Irish citizens joining the British Army. An estimated 50,000 from the twenty-six counties of the Republic served in the British Army.

However, the Republics’ contribution paled in comparison to that of the belligerent North. If the Second World War presented the Republic with an opportunity to distance itself from Britain, the opposite was the case in Northern Ireland. Unionists saw the war as an opportunity to further align itself with Britain. Northern Ireland contributed to the war effort in two main areas; munitions and food production.

Belfast-based munitions manufacturers produced 75 million shells, 180 million incendiary bullets, 50,000 bayonets, and a variety of other military material over the course of the war. Between 1940 and 1944 Belfast shipyards produced 140 warships, including six aircraft carriers. Harland and Wolff provided 500 tanks and over 13 million aircraft parts for the war effort. The Short and Harland aircraft factory supplied 1,200 Stirling bombers and 125 Sunderland flying boats. A total of 38,000 men and women from the six counties of Northern Ireland enlisted in the British Army, Air Force, and Navy.

Between 1939 and 1945, Northern Ireland provided Britain with an average of £3 million worth of cattle and sheep a year, as well as 20% of its total supplies of eggs. 25,000 gallons of milk were despatched daily to Scotland from Northern Ireland ports.

Both Northern Ireland and the neutral Republic were bombed by Luftwaffe bombers during the war. Belfast suffered from four separate nights of Luftwaffe bombing in 1941, totaling ten hours, where 1,100 people were killed and over 56,000 houses damaged leaving 100,000 people temporarily homeless. The Republic was also bombed on a number of occasions between 1940-41.

On May 31, 1941, a bomb which landed in the Phoenix Park in Dublin exploded, shattering the windows of the President’s residency, Aras an Uachtaráin. Later that same night, in the most deadly bombing raid on the Republic during that period, 28 people were killed and another 90 were injured in the North Strand area of Dublin. In 1958, West Germany paid £327,000 compensation to the Republic in reparation for the bombings.

Despite ongoing British pressure and sanctions, the Republic remained neutral for the duration of the war. The Republic’s continual denial of access to the “Treaty ports” made the North’s ports even more vital to Britain. Churchill later remarked that “but for loyal Ulster’s granting of the full use of the North Irish ports and waters during the early years of the war Britain would surely have been confronted with slavery and death.”


Sources For Further Reading:

Imperial War Museum – How Britain Hoped to Avoid War with Germany in the 1930s

The Guardian – Neville Chamberlain’s Declaration of War

History Channel – Irish Free State Declared

Culture Trip – The Partition of Ireland: A Short History

Irish Times – What Happened in 1921 In Ireland?

BBC – Historians Declare 3 May as Northern Ireland Birthdate

Irish Central – Northern Ireland Comes into Existence In 1921

International Churchill Society – What Did Churchill Really Think About Ireland?

RTE – How Ireland’s Emergency Introduced Restrictions on Daily Life

Irish Times – Was the Bombing of Dublin Really A Luftwaffe Mistake?

The Irish Times – Redmond Pledge That Nationalists and Unionists Would Fight Together In First World War