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Tuesday May 7, 2013 saw a strange co-incidence in the restoration of dignity to two groups of those who served in WWII. Both had suffered injustices during and after the conflict.

In Ireland, the Government announced legislation to formally pardon Irish soldiers who ignored the nation's neutrality to fight against Fascism.  At the National Memorial Arboretum in England, the Countess of Wessex dedicated the memorial to the "Bevin Boys".

From the start of the war, soldiers in the Irish Army were well aware of the struggle taking place on mainland Europe with the forces of evil. Irish battalions formed part of the Empire forces in WWI, prior to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Virtually all would have joint Irish/British citizenship, or be eligible for it. Even easier than the Americans who joined Canadian services, Irish could cross the border and join up however the situation of those in the Irish army was more complex. With its uneasy history with Britain, neutrality was assiduously maintained:

Ireland barred the Allies' Atlantic convoys from sheltering in Irish ports, refused to accept Jewish refugees from continental Europe, and maintained cordial diplomatic relations with both Germany and Japan throughout the war. The prime minister, Eamon de Valera, was the only western leader to offer condolences to Germany following Hitler's death in April 1945.
Soldiers in the Irish Army were not able to legally transfer to other countries' forces so the only option for those who well understood that if Britain were to fall, Ireland would be the next target. They simply left and joined the British forces. More than 10% did so but after the conflict ended, they were to suffer the consequences.
As Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ireland drew up a list of around 4,800 men who had disappeared from Irish military duty to join Britain's armed forces. Dublin lawmakers passed an emergency measure that targeted these men, barring them from all taxpayer-funded jobs, including as postmen or garbage collectors. Those families targeted by the list called it a "starvation order."
On their return after the war, the former members of the Irish Army were charged and convicted of desertion. Their convictions by military tribunals meant that they were barred from employment in posts funded by the Irish government; lost their pension rights and  worse still, many were treated as pariahs by their neighbours:
In Paddy Reid's home there are pictures of his father Paddy senior serving alongside British troops in Burma. For years they remained in the attic largely ignored.

"I am sure when my dad came back he didn't feel ashamed but he may have been made to feel that," Mr Reid said.

"I was told as a kid - your father is a traitor, you should be ashamed of him.

"There was no relief, no sense of a job done... It was pretty oppressive in this country."

Paddy Reid senior was not to find a proper job until 1961.

Last year the Irish Government apologized for their treatment and Tuesday the Dail passed  legislation to grant pardons or amnesty to the soldiers involved:

(Justice Minister, Alan) Shatter said the Second World War Amnesty and Immunity Bill was long overdue because barely 100 of the war veterans are still alive. The bill describes their 1945 punishments as "unduly harsh" and ensures that no surviving deserter could face a court-martial if returning to Ireland from exile abroad.

Shatter said it should remove "any tarnish from their name or reputation" and highlight the reality that, by joining the British army, navy or air force, those Irishmen did most to protect Ireland's independence, despite the official hostility back home.

"Had Germany successfully invaded Great Britain, Ireland was next on the list. These individuals made a substantial contribution to protect the sovereignty of this country," Shatter said.

The Irish President will sign the bill into law in a few days.

On the other side of the Irish Sea, the last surviving Bevin Boys celebrated the formal dedication of the memorial to their service during WWII. They had been conscripted after the desperate shortage of coal became acute in 1943. Many miners had joined the armed forces and production had collapsed. Without the possibility of large scale imports; the coal that industry, trains and domestic heating relied on would run out that winter. Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, decided that 10% of new conscripts would be sent to the coal mines.

One of Bevin's secretaries would pull a digit between 0 and 9 from a hat. The conscripts that week with National Service numbers ending in that digit would be allocated to mining unless they had particular skills needed elsewhere or were unfit for work in mines. Conscientious objectors could also undertake mining as an alternative to military service. That led to many in the public assuming the "Bevin Boys" were all objectors, leading to a lot of abuse. Their only "uniform" was the safety helmet and steel toecapped boots the were issued so many were stopped by police on suspicion of being deserters or avoiding being called up. (The "Bevin Boys" march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall on remembrance Sunday proudly wearing their helmets.)

They were among the final conscripts to be discharged from National Service after the war with the last leaving in March 1948. There had been about 48,000 Bevin Boys. Until 2008 they received no formal award. A special "Veterans Badge" in place of a war service medal is available to them now, administered by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  

Former Bevin Boy Harry Parkes, from Nottinghamshire, has campaigned for official acknowledgement for decades.

The Countess of Wessex dedicated the memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The memorial has been in place for over a year, but Mr Parkes said the dedication had given the Bevin Boys "back our dignity that says we served our country".

"The Countess of Wessex name has given this memorial, I feel, credence, and it's given the Bevin Boys the right to stand tall and say I was a Bevin Boy," said Mr Parkes


Mr Parkes designed the memorial which consists of four grey plinths which will weather to black, the color of the coal they mined. They are carved from Kilkenny stone from the Republic of Ireland.


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Originally posted to Lib Dem FoP on Tue May 07, 2013 at 04:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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