Eamon de Valera was the Commandant of the Irish Volunteers at Bowland’s Mills during the Easter Rising of 1916. The Bowland’s Mills Garrison was one of the last outposts to surrender after the week -long rebellion, about the same time as Michael Mallin, Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army at the St. Stephens Green outpost reluctantly accepting surrender, but only when countersigned by ICA Commandant General James Connolly.
De Valera was cunning as well as lucky as the treaty talks of December 1921 were to prove. He was the president of the First Dail and, by de facto, the Irish Republic yet, as President, he did not attend the peace talks in London with British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Surely as the leader of the fledgling Irish Republic, he would, should, have wanted to meet his opposite number face to face, wouldn’t he? Apparently not, de Valera sent Michael Collins to do his dirty work along with Arthur Griffiths, who was not even a republican, George Gavan Duffy, Eamon Duggan, Robert Barton and Erskine Childers, who was the secretary to the Irish delegation.
Now let us take a look at his record during the emergency (Second World War) and it cannot be denied he did pull off some wise and clever moves in maintaining the twenty-six counties neutrality, often termed a “benevolent neutrality” benevolent that was towards the allies. Even de Valera realised as bad as the British occupation of the North was/is and the oath to the monarch was a loathing, the possibility of a Nazi victory and invasion and conquest of Ireland was a far worse prospect. Prior to the outbreak of the war, and just in time, he had negotiated an end to the “Economic War” [1932-38] with Britain which gave back to Ireland the treaty ports. These were Irish ports used by the British Royal Navy and had this remained the case there was no way the twenty-six-county free state could in any shape or form have claimed neutrality. Whether Dev could see war coming and for this reason insisted on the ports being returned to Ireland or whether it was pure good fortune who knows, but the clouds of war were gathering for anybody who cared to look. Personally, I would give de Valera the benefit on this one.
Another aspect of de Valera’s war policy was to return any crashed pilots from the allied side, US or British - unlikely any Soviet pilots would have crashed over Ireland - back over the border to re-join the war, which, of course, was unofficial. This did not, by the same token, apply to any Luftwaffe pilot who may crash over “neutral” Ireland. They were sent to the Curragh for the duration, a strategically clever move by the de Valera Government.
Then came a situation in May 1941 when the “neutral” de Valera Government sent fire tenders to Belfast helping to extinguish fires caused through German bombings. This could have been deemed a breach of neutrality by the Nazi regime in Berlin and, in late May 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed the North Strand on Dublin’s north side. The Irish media still to this day would have us believe this was an error by the Luftwaffe. This is not true. It cannot be because firstly the German pilots, despite their political misgivings in many cases, were among the best in the world. They may have mistaken Dundalk for Newry, but Dublin for Belfast? Never in a month of Sundays! Could a more rational explanation for the “error” be that the Nazi leadership considered sending fire tenders to the North a breach of neutrality? On this assumption could de Valera have got on the phone to Berlin, his right as a “neutral” head of government and inform the German authorities that under the 1937 constitution Belfast was part of Irish territory and he was acting in the interests of the Irish people, could this have been the case? Hitler would have found this argument difficult to argue against, particularly as under “Operation Green” he intended invading the Free State anyway, why create a problem unnecessarily? Could this be a more rational argument than the rubbish still put out by the Irish media about the bombings of North Strand being a mistake?
Hitler demanded from “neutral” Ireland the handing over of 6,000 Jewish people, a demand de Valera refused. The head of the Third Reich reportedly told de Valera if these were not handed over his forces would come and get them. Still de Valera held his nerve and refused to hand over “Irish citizens” to Germany. Was de Valera banking on an allied victory, which in 1941, before the USSR and USA became involved looked unlikely, or was it a genuine principled stance against anti-Semitism? Again, on this one I am leaning towards giving de Valera the benefit.
After the war Winston Churchill remarked, ‘let de Valera frolic’ with Britain’s enemies which de Valera certainly did not do. The twenty-six counties, without breaking neutrality [at least officially] did all possible to aid the allies. Perhaps Churchill was pissed off because he had offered de Valera the six counties back if “Eire” entered the war on the side of the allies. De Valera was walking a tightrope and refused Churchill’s request, which in fact was almost a demand. Critics of de Valera, and I am one, as I would be of any capitalist administration, should look at certain aspects which strategically were as good as his earlier cunningness and sell outs were bad. Eamon de Valera lucky, cunning, devious and to be fair in a time of crisis held firm.