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Spying on Ireland

By Florence Donoghue | Published in History Today

Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War - By Eunan O'Halpin

Oxford University Press   335pp   £30 

ISBN 0 19 925329 6

In 1939 IRA bombers were active: five people were killed in Coventry. The Cabinet  refused to reprieve two of the convicted bombers. In Dublin de Valera was to allow hunger-strikers to die, there were executions of  IRA men for capital crimes, and many were interned.

De Valera’s anti-British reputation was not lessened during the war, despite Hitler’s early  victories in Western Europe and the possibility of an attack on Ireland as a prelude to invading England. Betjeman’s task was to cultivate the Irish media and to counter Axis propaganda. It was thought that he was spying and he was reputedly an IRA target.

German efforts to help the IRA were largely futile because of close liaison between Irish and British Intelligence. German agents were landed and were caught. Herman Goertz, one of the toughest, made contact with Dr. Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, and smuggled letters out to sympathisers. G2 (Irish Military Intelligence) suborned his guards and used a bogus message from Hempel to get Goertz to give details of this mission. G2 even told Goertz that he had been promoted to major as reward for his pre-arrest labours.

Allegations of Irish assistance to German submarines appeared in the British press, but thorough naval and air  surveillance led to an Admiralty report that the rumours were groundless. In May 1940, de Valera used a speech in Galway to condemn German attacks on neutral states, i.e. Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries, earning ‘a menacing rebuke from Hempel’.

A year later Maffey passed on a request from Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty, for commercial plans of seventeen Irish ports. The response from de Valera was positive, ‘since if they wanted  to go to the trouble, the British could get all the information without recourse to us’. Weather reporting from Irish meteorological stations continued, vital for British vessels. But de Valera refused to hand back the Treaty ports which, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported in 1938, would be difficult to use without active Irish cooperation. Instances are here provided of de Valera’s ‘un-neutral’ activity. For example, Cecil Liddell, who had established MI5’s Irish Section in 1939,  noted: ‘Dev has agreed to the establishment of radar at Malin Head ... to enable our Air Force to locate their position when dealing with U-Boats.’

O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College, Dublin, has benefited from the recent liberalization of policy on the release of security records. The book describes how Hempel’s communications with Berlin became readable by the British in 1943 as part of Pandora (the cover term for decoding German diplomatic material) and thus provided evidence that he was passing on war information. Churchill bristled. Dublin warned Hempel and on December 20th, 1943, ‘Maffey saw de Valera and later reported that the removal of the set from the legation was imminent’. O’Halpin emphasizes that the handover of the transmitter is shown by many documents as ‘absolutely central to British concerns about Ireland.’

Maffey wrote in 1945: ‘In this underground of intelligence and intrigue ... a British authority could never achieve what was achieved by a native authority. The dog of the country hunts the hare of the country.’ And the in-house history of MI5’s Irish Section prepared by Cecil Liddell has this: ‘It is at least arguable that, as things turned out, Eire neutral was of  more value ... than Eire belligerent would have been.’

In his victory broadcast Churchill had a memorable stab at de Valera on his ports policy ‘so much at variance with the temper and instinct of thousands of Southern Irishmen who hastened to the battle-front to prove their ancient valour.’ O'Halpin makes much use of archival material, including that at Churchill College, Cambridge for this splendid study.

Florence O'Donoghue is a barrister at the English and Irish Bars. He is currently writing a book on Ireland from the Union of 1800 to the death of Parnell in 1891.

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