I very much welcome this timely debate on a very important issue, particularly for the families of those unjustly executed.
This year marks the 90th anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. For too long, the experiences of lrishmen who fought in the First World War, and the losses suffered by their families, were not talked about or commemorated as they deserved. In recent years, we have taken steps to change that, something perhaps best exemplified by the joint inauguration by President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II of the Memorial Peace Park at Messines in 1998. There, supported by Government funds, a round tower has been built using stones from every county in Ireland.
On those foreign fields, the men of the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division fought side by side, just as other young men from this island fought side by side for four awful years from the Somme to Gallipoli. Altogether, perhaps 50,000 young men from this island did not return. As long ago as 1966, the late Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, commented as follows.
In later years it was common — and I was also guilty in this respect — to question the motives of those men who joined the new British armies formed at the outbreak of the war, but it must, in their honour and in fairness to their memory, be said that they were motivated by the highest purpose.
We share that sentiment and will therefore mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in a fitting manner in July. This year will also mark the 90th anniversaries of the deaths of eight of the 26 young Irish volunteers executed while serving in the British army during the First World War. For their families, as for the families of each individual who fell at the Somme, those were terrible and painful events which had a permanent impact on their lives.
It was in the spirit of recognising the experience and sacrifice of all our countrymen who fell during the First World War that the Government lent its support to the campaign to secure pardons for the 26 Irishmen shot at dawn, that is, executed for military offences between 1914 and 1918. In October 2004, the Government formally submitted a comprehensive report on the issue to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office through our embassy in London. Prepared using material from the original British Ministry of Defence case files, the report thoroughly evaluated the men's courts martial and sentencing.
In its findings, the report described a military system of justice that was seriously flawed, that appeared to ignore clear evidence of medical afflictions, and that was marked by class bias and a disparity in the treatment of different nationalities, including in particular Irish soldiers. This report is not an attempt to rewrite history or to impose today's norms on the past. The simple reality is that the offences for which these men were executed, and the manner in which they were tried and found guilty, were the subject of concern and controversy at the time. In response to increasing public concern and political campaigning both during and after the war, the British Parliament decided by 1930 that these offences should no longer carry the death penalty. It is clear, therefore, that these executions during the First World War gave rise to grave concern 90 years ago and they continue to do so today, so much so that they have become the subject of an ongoing campaign in Britain and Ireland. The Irish Shot at Dawn Campaign has attracted overwhelming support across political and religious divides, North and South. In 1999, Mr. John Hume and the Reverend Ian Paisley together sponsored a Bill on this subject in the House of Commons.
A substantive response to our report by the British Government has been delayed by a legal petition for pardon on behalf of the British soldier, Private Harry Farr, lodged by his daughter. The latest hearing in this case was held yesterday and it is our hope that a judgment will be forthcoming before the end of July. The Farr case has the potential to be resolved in a manner that would set a wide precedent affecting the Irish cases and, therefore, while that case is before the courts, the British Government has indicated that it is not in a position to respond comprehensively to our concerns. Nevertheless, we are in regular contact at official level to ensure a satisfactory resolution to this matter is secured in the shortest timeframe.
However, to facilitate a fully informed debate in the Seanad, I decided to lay the Government's report on this issue, which we gave to the British in October 2004, before the Oireachtas. The text of the report has not been released until now, although the case files have been publicly available since 1990. The report also draws on the published research of the Irish campaign headed by Peter Mulvany — whom I met earlier and who is present in the House — and of respected authors such as Dr. Gerard Oram, JulianPutkowski, Julian Sykes and Myles Dungan, among many others.
We have been in regular contact with the British Government on this issue since the submission of the report and it is our firm hope that this will lead to a mutually agreeable solution. While there are differences between ourselves and the British Government on the issues raised in the report, the British Government is cognisant of the need to address them. In our contacts, the British Government has made clear it is also motivated by an enduring desire to ease the pain and suffering of the families of all the 306 men who were shot at dawn, including the 26 Irish cases examined in our report. Our unwavering objective is to engage in finding an agreed resolution on this issue that would bring comfort to the families of those executed.
This issue is emotive but the merits of our arguments are strong and compelling and that is why they have gained such widespread support. The full force of this issue is, however, impossible to comprehend without firmly grounding it in the human experiences of those involved. It would be wrong to take one case to stand for the others. I therefore recommend that anyone with an interest in the issue should take the time to read the report and the case histories it contains. However, it would be equally misguided not to try to imagine the conditions in which these volunteers found themselves — the situations in which some were charged and executed for cowardice or deserting their post, without any proper recognition of medical conditions like shell-shock or the appalling pressures soldiers on the front faced on a daily basis.
One testimony from a member of the Irish division caught in a poison gas attack at Loos in 1916 gives an idea of the nature of this war and its overwhelming effect on the young men who found themselves in the middle of every awful aspect of it, namely, the shelling, the trenches, the charges into no-man's land, the shell-shock and, in this case, the poison gas. He stated:
Luckily for us, with the rising sun the wind began to change and we immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy off, but the Dublin Fusiliers had been caught unawares and their casualties were very heavy. When it was over, I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead. They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark. They were nearly all gassed and I buried about 60 of them in an enormous shell hole.
A total of 338 Irishmen died in that attack. Tom Kettle, one time Nationalist MP for Tyrone, was killed at the Somme. That year he wrote to the leaders of the Easter Rising stating: "These men will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down — if I go down at all — as a bloody British officer."
It is the intent of the Government that this is not how he or any of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War should be remembered and it is our intention, therefore, to honour their memory. As in the case of those "shot at dawn", it is our objective to recover their memory from the dishonour that was done to them 90 years ago. It is an act of national solidarity with those of our countrymen who volunteered to fight in a truly terrible war and with the always complex and often tragic experiences of previous generations as a whole. It is the whole range of our experiences across all traditions that has shaped our present from which we are determined to build a shared future on this island never rewriting the past but always seeking to understand it better, and honour the memories, sacrifice and vision of all those who came before.