Taoiseach Éamon de Valera’s Starvation Order. The Emergency Powers (No 362) Order, which became enshrined in law as Section 13 of the Defence Forces (Temporary Provisions) Act, formally dismissed deserters, stripping them of pay, pension, and gratuity rights.
De Valera’s order was draconian in the extreme, depriving those who fought with the Allies the right to unemployment benefit or from obtaining any state or public sector employment for seven years. Not only were returning Irish soldiers disbarred from many kinds of work, they could not access their British demobilisation benefits.
Condemned in the Dáil by Fine Gael deputy leader Dr Thomas O’Higgins, as “an order stimulated by malice, seething with hatred, oozing with venom”, it came into effect on April Fool’s Day, 1946.
In a fiery speech aimed at defeating the order, O’Higgins thundered: “Any one of us who reads in the papers or knows anything of the horrors of war can have some little picture of what those men went through, of their experiences and their agonies.
“Yet, when the war is over, and when they come back, hoping to come back to a mother, to a young wife and to the little children, they find the government of this State stepping in to sentence them to seven years’ starvation, seven years’ destitution, and to find themselves branded, as far as the State can do so, as pariah dogs, as outcasts, untouchables, who cannot be employed or maintained here.
“They find the government of this State sentencing them to starvation or exile not for the crime of cowardice, not for the crime of deserting this nation in a time of danger, but for the crime of going to assist other nations in what they believed was a fight for the survival of Christianity in Europe.”
Records show 4,983 personnel deserted the Irish army during the war, although Dáil debates at the time put the figure at 7,000. Whatever the total, more than 4,000 of those who deserted joined the British services. Deserters who merely absconded and did not leave Ireland or who went to Britain to work did not face the kind of penalties endured by those who joined the Allied cause. Desertion was only punished if the soldier went on to serve with the British. The penalties only applied to enlisted men and not to Irish army officers who deserted and joined British forces.