Introduction

During the 1930s, the government of Éire frequently stated its commitment to independence in foreign policy.

In April 1939 de Valera made it clear he would keep his country out of any potential war.

On 4th September 1939, three days after Germany invaded Poland, the Dáil passed the Emergency Powers Act, giving the government extensive powers over the country.

De Valera declared Éire would remain neutral in the Second World War, which was referred to as 'The Emergency'.

Éire was the only dominion in the Commonwealth not to join the war.

Why did Éire remain neutral?

Neutrality was a way of showing Éire’s independence from Britain.

This policy had been made possible by the return of the Treaty Ports in 1938.

Éire was not equipped to fight a war because its army was small and its weak economy meant money was too scarce to be spent on military action.

De Valera feared supporting the war would split the government and country, and although many sympathised with the Allied cause, the majority of the Irish population wanted neutrality because it was a British, not an Irish, war.

Some people felt more of a connection with Germany than Britain given the former's assistance during the 1916 Rising.

Other countries, such as the USA, had declared their neutrality in 1939, and Éire followed their example.

Why did Britain want an end to Éire's neutrality?

As the war continued Éire came under increasing pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to join the fighting.

Britain made several attempts to persuade Éire to enter the struggle, especially after Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Britain in May 1940.

The British wanted to end Éire's neutrality (remove link) because::

  • Britain was suffering heavy shipping loses in the Atlantic. Re-routing British merchant ships to ports in Northern Ireland, instead of using ports in Éire, was placing a great strain on the vital supply route across the Atlantic from the USA
  • Britain was worried Éire might be invaded and used by Germany as a base to attack it from, effectively becoming a ‘stepping stone’ to Britain
  • Éire did not have blackout regulations. Therefore, Northern Ireland was an easily identifiable target for the Luftwaffe.

How did the Allies attempt to get Éire to join the war?

As the war continued Éire came under increasing pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to join the fighting.

Britain made several political and economic attempts to persuade Éire to enter the struggle, especially after Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Britain in May 1940.

Political pressure

In June 1940, Churchill proposed the ending of the partition of Ireland in return for British forces using Éire's naval bases.

De Valera refused the offer because he was unsure if the British would honour the decision after the war, especially if the unionists were unwilling.

He thought Britain might lose the war so the promise would be worthless. He also did not want to compromise Éire's hard won independence from Britain.

Several subsequent attempts by Churchill in 1941 and 1942 to secure an end to Éire's neutrality were unsuccessful.

Economic pressure

Britain reduced the number of its ships used both to transport goods to Éire and to protect Irish cargo ships. Éire did not receive international financial aid under the USA's Lend-Lease programme because of its neutrality.

Propaganda pressure

After the USA joined the war in December 1941, its President, F D Roosevelt, also put pressure on Éire to join the Allies.

He felt Éire’s neutrality was detrimental to the war effort, so a media campaign portraying de Valera as pro-German was launched.

Relations deteriorated further in 1942 when, in spite of de Valera’s protests, US troops arrived in Northern Ireland to train and to help with defence.