• February 1, 2023

One assumes that to be appointed the Ambassador of a large power you have to have some degree of intelligence and education however when it comes to neutrality, history and World War 2 the Russian Ambassador to Ireland seems somewhat challenged.

In an article reported by the Irish Times Yury Filatov is quoted as being critical of not just Irish neutrality but that of Sweden and Switzerland. He suggests Ireland’s application of neutrality has been questionable in the past, not least in WW 2. Which the Russians call ‘the great patriotic war’ (more on that later).

Necessarily in times of global conflict neutral States tread a fine line, Sometimes they have to compromise on strict neutrality to retain the very neutrality they hold dear. That may seem like a contradiction but it’s not! In WW 2 for example Sweden allowed troop transports of Germans across its territory and exported iron ore. However it also exported material to the UK and trained Norwegians on its soil for the day of liberation for Norway from Germany. Switzerland during the war allowed accommodations with Germany however in 1940 its Air Force fought battles with the Luftwaffe over transgressions of airspace and later during the bombing offensive against Germany its planes intercepted USAAF aircraft.

It was assumed at the start of WW 2 Spain would be an ally of Germany but although it was sympathetic it denied approaches for a formal alliance and more crucially would not support plans to use Spain to attack the UK outpost in Gibraltar. On the Iberian coast Portugal also was neutral leaning towards the UK and later in the war it leased land to the US in the Azores.

Which brings us to Ireland! One of the reasons of course that there is a Russian ambassador in Dublin and that Russia was successful in ‘the great patriotic war’ (more of that later) is that UK – Russia Arctic Convoys from 1942 carried much needed munitions to Russia – it was a parallel of the effort today globally to support Ukraine. Of course the material had to come across the Atlantic first to constitute the convoys that gathered at Loch Ewe in Scotland before sailing for Russia’s Murmansk. Crucial to this success (for the convoys) was the ‘Donegal Air Gap’ which allowed UK aircraft based on Lough Erne and at airfields such as Aldergrove to range out over the Atlantic . This was absolutely vital particularly at the start of the war when the range of some maritime reconnaissance aircraft was limited.

The Russian Ambassador was critical of De Valera in his Irish Times rant but what he overlooked was that at war’s outset De Valera agreed the transfer of six of the worlds largest tankers to the UK shipping register leaving Ireland without such vessels to carry fuel. It was a conflict with neutrality but in hindsight probably the right thing to do. More pertinently in January 1941 (when Russia was still chums with Hitler) De Valera met with the British representative to Dublin, Sir John Maffey. An agreement was reached whereby the Lough Erne based flying boats were permitted to fly across a 4-mile (6.4 km) stretch of neutral territory from Belleek in Fermanagh to Ballyshannon in Donegal. It was designated an ‘air sea rescue’ route to deflect German criticisms however it soon became one of the busiest air routes and Lough Erne one of the most concentrated areas for RAF flying boats and also land based Liberators using airfirlds in the six couties. De Valera also used his meetings with Maffey to continually remind him of the bigger picture which for the Dublin government was the six counties!

Turning to Russia while De Valera was doing what’s morally right in January 1941 what was Russia up to? Well far from waging a ‘great patriotic war’ it was in alliance with Germany and used the country’s preoccupation in 1939 with preparing to attack Poland to try to invade neutral Finland. Later after the Germans invaded Poland Russia stabbed the country (Poland) in the back and occupied almost 50% of it, swallowing up the Baltic States of Estonia Latvia and Lithuania in a squalid little deal with Ribbentrop in the process.

Russia’s ‘great patriotic war’ only kicked off after their erstwhile chums in Berlin rolled tanks onto Russian soil. Then of course Russians who had sat on her hands while the allies were building the Atlantic Convoy routes with the aid of Ireland were glad of all the help they could get.

Of course Russia suffered greatly in World War 2 but you would have hoped the memory of that suffering would have given it pause for thought before launching a conflict that has killed civilians including children, infants and the elderly in Ukraine.

Ironically the current Russian government has damaged European neutrality significantly. Events in Ukraine have forced previously neutral States like Finland and Sweden to seek the shelter of the NATO Alliance. Russia is criticising a mess of its own making!

Images: Flyboats such as these PBY Catalinas and Short Sunderlands gathered at Castle Archdale on Lough Erne used the Donegal Air Gap agreement reached between De Valera and Maffey in 1941.

Bernard Moffatt

AGS Celtic League (31 January 2023)

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