Too easy to simplify the past

Historian and author of The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, Diarmaid Ferriter, writing in the Irish Times, argues that present-day political sensibilities should not be the basis for demanding apologies from contemporary politicians for the perceived sins of their political ancestors – Apologies for past not the answerWhile his focus is on the recent comments by Irish President Mary McAleese, he is less interested in the more publicised remarks than the question of to what extent she, as current President, should be asked to take responsibility for decisions made by Eamon De Valera in the 1940s –

Apologies for past not the answer Diarmaid Ferriter

Should contemporary politicians have to apologise for the perceived sins of their political ancestors, or is it the case that those demanding the apologies are simplifying the past in order to satisfy present-day political sensibilities?

The furore created by President McAleese’s comments on the Holocaust and sectarianism in de Northern Ireland diverted attention from two other issues that were raised as she travelled to Auschwitz. The first was whether or not she should make amends for Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German ambassador, Edouard Hempel, to express condolences on behalf of the Irish people following the suicide of Hitler in May 1945. The second was if there was an onus on her to express shame at our failure to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis, created by Hitler’s Germany, by not allowing more Jewish refugees into Ireland.

De Valera acknowledged in private that he could have made himself unavailable in May 1945 to avoid expressing such condolences. He knew that what he was doing would be criticised, but he went ahead anyway, on the grounds that Ireland retained diplomatic relations with Germany and that it was correct protocol. It may have been perceived as foolhardy, but for him, it was a logical act, and the ability to act independently went to the core of his political project during the 1930s and 1940s.

Although it is true that the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were beginning to emerge, it is also the case that the lifting of the ferocious censorship that had operated in Ireland since 1939 would not make Irish people or their politicians experts on foreign atrocities overnight. There was much that was not known, not only about the Holocaust, but also about Ireland’s neutrality, and its various contradictions.

It is easy, 60 years after the event, to suggest, even demand, that a public apology should be made by Ireland’s current head of state. President McAleese did suggest Ireland should be ashamed it did not take in more Jewish refugees, but fudged the question about de Valera’s condolences by maintaining it was impossible to find an apology “to blot out that period of human history”. A more honest and fitting reply would have been to simply state that it was not for her to apologise for de Valera’s actions 60 years ago. She would have been criticised for this too, but at least, in doing this, she would not have been taking the easy way out, just as de Valera did not choose the easy option in May 1945.

It is difficult to define accurately Irish people’s relationship with neutrality in the 1940s. During his victory broadcast at the end of the war, Churchill attacked the Irish position, and if the public reaction to de Valera’s dignified response is anything to go by, there was a sense that neutrality was seen as something to be cherished and defended as the ultimate expression of Irish independence. But it is also the case that the Irish contribution to the allied war effort, directly and indirectly, was immense. Thousands of Irish born people served in the Allied forces and the immigrant Irish made a vast contribution to the British wartime economy and health services.

Churchill’s denunciation was also disingenuous given MI5’s own account of its Irish activities. As revealed by historian Eunan O’Halpin, MI5 was more than happy for Ireland, as a neutral country, to have diplomatic relations with Germany, because it enabled British intelligence to monitor closely the German legation as a result of the “friendly and unofficial channel for co-operation” with Irish army intelligence.

One would imagine, given de Valera’s visit to Hempel, that the Irish Jewish community would feel more aggrieved than anyone else. But de Valera was regarded as a friend of the Jewish community. State papers released last month reveal how, in the mid 1960s, the Irish Jewish community funded the planting of a forest of 10,000 trees in Israel in honour of de Valera, who only agreed to this tribute provided the fundraising received no publicity. In a letter to the committee that organised this honour, he expressed thanks, but added: “I feel I did nothing for the Jewish community except to express the general goodwill of our people towards them and what the Constitution demands.”

In all this, it can be seen that contradictions abound. The lifting of censorship, the benefit of hindsight, and decades of research, have all combined to ensure that most of us now have a certain view of the morality and immorality of various decisions made during the second World War. But we should not be seeking easy answers to the dilemmas of a previous generation or reading history backwards by imposing contemporary certainties on our interpretation of the events of 60 years ago. If we do believe we should learn from history, we should be ensuring that in our response to contemporary ethnic cleansing, refugee crises and military neutrality, we leave no doubt as to where we stand.[my emphasis]

© The Irish Times