Parliamentary elections in 1932 had brought the Fianna Fail Party to power, and Eamon de Valera became president of the executive council. In April 1938, de Valera negotiated agreements with London that removed British naval installations and troops from the republic, making Eire responsible for its own defense. Other agreements provided for Ireland to pay a final settlement of the land annuities, as well as annual payments to compensate Britain for losses sustained in the violence of the 1920s. Each nation was also accorded favored-nation status in trade with the other. All causes of difference between Great Britain and Eire were thus removed, except for the vexing question of partition. Benefiting from popular support for the diplomatic agreements, de Valera won the elections of June 1938, giving the Fianna Fail a decisive majority.
The outbreak of World War II provided de Valera another opportunity to show that Eire was independent of Great Britain. In contrast to other members of the British Commonwealth, Eire at once declared its neutrality, a stance supported by the majority of its 2.9 million people. In any case, the country was in no position to make a major military contribution in troops. In September 1939, its army numbered about 7,500 men, its navy consisted of two patrol boats, and its air service had only four effective fighter aircraft. However, the inability of the Royal Navy to use the ports returned to the Irish in 1938 was a serious handicap for the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic. During the war, de Valera steadfastly rejected British government offers, tendered even by Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, to resolve partition in return for an end to Irish neutrality.
There was also some pro-German sentiment among the Irish. Anti-Semitic bills were brought before the Dail (the Irish Parliament), and de Valera refused to expel Axis diplomats; further, on Adolf Hitler's death, he went in person to the German Embassy to express his condolences. However, Eire did allow British overflights of its territory, and it returned downed Allied pilots to Northern Ireland instead of interning them; it also allowed British patrol craft in its waters. Thousands of Irish also volunteered for service in the Allied armies. During the war, more than 180,000 people left Eire for Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, 38,544 of whom volunteered for service with the British armed forces, including some 7,000 deserters from the Irish army and several thousand Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom.
Acts of violence by the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) were a problem for the Eire government, which feared the British might use these incidents as an excuse to intervene. During the war, de Valera sharply increased the size of the Irish army and auxiliary forces to some 250,000 men (albeit poorly armed and trained) in order to forestall this possibility. Ireland suffered economically during the war, but de Valera doggedly pursued his policies. In 1948, Eire became the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland was an important base for Allied operations during the war. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that Northern Ireland and Scotland would provide bases for the Allied troop buildup for the invasion of France. The Americans agreed to take over the defense of Northern Ireland, thus allowing British soldiers to be deployed elsewhere. Ireland officially protested this agreement.
The first of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers arrived in Northern Ireland in late January 1942. During the course of the war, the United States constructed new bases and airfields and improved the naval facilities at Derry. Early troop deployments to Northern Ireland trained and took part in Operation torch and the North Africa Campaigns. Northern Ireland also played a major role in the massive buildup for the Normandy Campaign. U.S. troops at bases in Armagh, Cookstown, Lurgan, Newcastle, Newry, and Omagh trained for the D day landings, and units of the Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces operated out of the air base at Greencastle. Aircraft assembly, testing, service, and repair stations were built in Langford and Lodge. Airfields and ports were also used to protect the convoys ferrying troops and materials across the Atlantic Ocean.
Recognizing the importance of Northern Ireland to Allied plans, the German Luftwaffe bombed targets in Belfast as well as the Greencastle airfield. Throughout the war, however, the people of Northern Ireland accommodated American soldiers by building cinemas and clubs. As in Britain, local groups arranged entertainment and hospitality events. Unfortunately for the people of Ireland, sectarian violence continued on the island after the war, as the IRA sought to bring about the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Robert W. Duvall and Spencer C. Tucker
Carroll, Joseph T. Ireland in the War Years, 1939–1945. Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1997.; Doherty, Richard. Irish Men and Women in the Second World War. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999.; Fisk, R. In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster, and the Price of Neutrality, 1939–45. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.; Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600–1972. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Robert W. Duvall and Spencer C. Tucker