Irish stew in the name of the law
CampNinety years on and the chickens are coming home to roost. Except they weren't chickens. They were shell-shocked. They were mentally ill. They were country lads completely out of their depth. At the end of 2004, a report commissioned by the Irish government was handed over to its British counterpart. In it was revealed damning evidence of the anti-Irish racism and fundamental injustice of British 'field general courts martial' during the First World War. These were military courts in the proximity of the front line, speedily dispensing exemplary 'justice' including death sentences.
The report contains a close examination of the cases of 26 Irish soldiers executed by firing squad. It asserts that, based on the evidence in the surviving files (the team had access to all but one), all the cases could have been successfully appealed had a normal set of legal standards been applied, including the need for sufficient proof and the proper consideration of medical evidence. The courts martial files were kept secret for 75 years by the British authorities, only being released in 1990.
If you were Irish – whether Protestant or Catholic, Ulsterman or Dubliner, whether fighting out of loyalty to the Union or for the promise of Home Rule – you were five times more likely to be shot by firing squad. In the rest of the British army one in every 3,000 troops was sentenced to execution in this way. Among the Irish soldiers the figurMaking an example
The report makes a revealing comparison between the Irish and the New Zealand regiments, which were known for their harsh discipline. The recruitment figures for both countries were similar and yet there were 10 times as many death sentences in the Irish regiments.
The indications of the 26 cases of execution – 23 for desertion, one for disobedience, one for quitting his post and one for striking an officer – are that death sentences were imposed as a form of exemplary discipline. The report describes the behaviour towards the Irish involved in these cases as 'capricious', 'inconsistent' and 'shocking'. It also condemns subsequent attempts by the British Ministry of Defence to justify this military justice in the field as 'fundamentally flawed'.
In 11 of the cases, the death sentence was clearly linked to bad discipline in the units and a perceived need to set an example. The report concludes:
'Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential.… Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected – in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training – must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty.'e is one in less than 600.aign to clear the names of Irish soldiers executed by firing squad