The move came after a long campaign to restore a modicum of honor to the men, and bring some comfort to their families. This newspaper, along with other media, played a proper role, shining a light on an issue some would have preferred to leave forever in darkness.
Two years ago, the Irish government investigated the issue, and sent a damning report to the British government. It tore apart the legal and moral basis for the executions, and described the treatment of the Irish soldiers as “shocking, inconsistent, capricious and unpredictable.”
Finally, the British government has pardoned the 26 Irishmen, plus a further 280 soldiers from Britain and her then empire, and we welcome this gesture.
However, rather than hail the unfortunate victims as heroes, it is important, even at this late stage, to put events in their context.
The Great War was a dubious cause at best, and Britain’s involvement little more than an exercise in imperial maintenance. So unpopular was the war in Ireland that Britain did not even attempt to introduce the draft in Ireland. Those Irishmen who died did so as volunteers.
It cannot be said that they never heard the arguments against donning King George’s uniform. A political debate raged, and while it is true that reckless leaders such as John Redmond urged Irishmen to enlist, others argued cogently they should fight for “neither king nor Kaiser, but Ireland.”
As nationalists predicted, the British used misguided Irishmen as human fodder, ordering thousands of them to run straight into German machinegun fire. If they murmured an objection to this plan, they faced a British firing squad as “cowards.”
Whatever they were, they were not that.