Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is "The World". During the Second World War, five thousand soldiers defected from the Irish army and signed up with the British. They fought with the Allies on the beaches of Normandy in the Battle of the Bulge and in the jungles of Burma. They helped to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They came home to Ireland not to a hero's welcome, but to find that the Irish government had put them on a blacklist. Now, pressure is growing on Dublin to pardon the Irish vets. Irish Senator, Mary Ann O'Brien is advocating on behalf of the men.

Mary Ann O'Brien: I would like to see their situation brought to justice and I would like to see a full pardon granted both to them and to their families and I just think it would be such a wonderful gift to those people, and it's such a small gift to make sure that they're properly pardoned and recognized for what they did for their continent and their country.

Mullins: Irish Senator, Mary Ann O'Brien. The BBC's John Waite has made a documentary about the soldiers from Ireland. He says the Irish government gave them the cold shoulder because of the country's relations with Britain at the time.

John Waite: In 1939, these relations were probably at rock bottom. If you think the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish Rebellion that had been put down "viciously", as the Irish would say, you think about the civil war, you think about the Black and Tans. That's, again, a vicious paramilitary group that was unleashed upon the Irish. They really didn't didn't like the British. So when ten percent of their own army, that's around five thousand people as you say, deserted, that's the word they use, the Irish army, which was neutral during the war, to join up with the Allies because they wanted to join the fight against fascism, because anti-British [xx] was so high, when they came back, they were villains, not heroes.

Mullins: So they joined up not because they were looking for a job, they already had a job, but for ideological reasons?

Waite: Most of them did I think, Lisa. Some joined up because conditions were better, but I mean the Irish army did nothing during the war. I mean it was neutral so it had nothing to do. It [xx], and for many of these men, you know, you remember in Ireland they didn't even admit it was a war. They called it an emergency. These men could see that Europe and then the world was engulfed in this war and they were part of Europe and they wanted to take part in fighting fascism and that's why most of them did it, and so they didn't desert in the sense as desert as run away, they ran towards gunfire.

Mullins: What happened when they returned from the war? What happened to them and their families?

Waite: They were, I think the word has to be "vindictively", punished. They were put on this blacklist that you mentioned. It was, in fact, a book with all their names and addresses. It was handed around to all town halls, all those public buildings, where if they went for jobs, the people could look up their names and if they were on the list, they weren't to be given a job, so they could get no work. They could get no pensions, they could get unemployment payment, they could get no widows benefits if their loved one had been killed in the war, their children were often taken into care into institutions which were quite wicked in themselves, state-run and church-run institutions where sexual and physical abuse was wright. They were punished beyond all measure for what, as you say in America and as we would think here in Britain, they ought to have been held as heroes. They were, in fact, treated in, I think everyone agrees now, a most despicable way.

Mullins: One of the men with whom you spoke, one of the veterans, is John Stout. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He's eighty eight years old now. Let's hear what he told you about the way he and his fellow vets were treated when they got back.

John Stout: We were put down as renegades, traitors, and I know in my heart that we'd done the right thing. We fought for our nations and we liberated the camps. There were people being slaughtered. I would never regret it. I would do it again all over again.

Mullins: So he says that he would do it all over again. He left Ireland; others stayed and lived in extreme poverty as their children did. Why is the Irish government, right now, taking up this issue again?

Waite: I think this issue was buried for a very long time. I think when people, if they knew about it at all, they were embarrassed about it, ashamed about it, hoped it would go away, and of course every year that's gone by, there were fewer and fewer people like John Stout there to remind people of the suffering, but it's become a live issue right now. There's a new government as you know, a relatively new government in Dublin. Fine Gael is now in coalition with the Labor Party. Now Fine Gael was in opposition in 1945 when these measures, "starvation orders" they were called, were issued and they voted against it then. Now they're in power and if ever there was a time when this appalling piece of legislation can be revoked and possibly pardons given to these men, these few men that still survive, now is the time and all we hope is by highlighting this, and it is a story so few people know about, that it will help the Dublin government do the decent thing, and everyone I've spoken to in Ireland, when they heard about this story, everyone to a man says, "These people should be pardoned and recognized as the heroes they were."

Mullins: How many of these men are left?

Waite: It's very difficult to say because nobody wants to admit to being on the blacklist, Lisa. In fact, I've had the greatest difficulty talking or even finding or getting men to speak to it. They want to forget about it because they were outcasts, and one man who's ninety two, he appears on my documentary, Phil Farrington, he still has nightmares that he will be arrested for being a deserter. He was put into prison when he came back on leave and when he was released from prison, he joined up again with the Allied Forces and he still feels that he may be arrested in the last years of his life. He's frail now and I really don't think has too far to go. These are the things that keep him awake at night. He's frightened of that period in his life. So it's very difficult to talk to these men, very difficult to get them to talk about it and therefore very difficult to say how many there are, but there can't be more than a few hundreds. Possibly less.

Mullins: The BBC's John Waite. We have a video clip about his radio documentary on Ireland's punishment of it's soldiers who fought in World War II. You can find the link at theworld.org. Thank you, John.

Waite: Thank you, Lisa.