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Ireland pardons soldiers who deserted to fight Hitler

Conor Humphries, REUTERS
Irish minister of Justice Alan Shatter (L) speaks with Polish vice minister Michal Krolikowski prior to a Justice and Home Affairs Council on June 8, 2012 at the Kirchberg Conference center in Luxembourg. (AFP/Georges Gobet)

Irish minister of Justice Alan Shatter (L) speaks with Polish vice minister Michal Krolikowski prior to a Justice and Home Affairs Council on June 8, 2012 at the Kirchberg Conference center in Luxembourg. (AFP/Georges Gobet)

The Irish government on Tuesday pardoned thousands of servicemen who deserted to fight for the Allied forces during World War Two after the Irish state decided to remain neutral in the war against Adolf Hitler's Germany.

Ireland maintained its neutrality throughout the war, saying any other course would have threatened its independence, secured from Britain in 1921, and President Eamon DeValera signed a book of condolences on the death of Hitler in 1945.

About 60,000 people from the Irish state fought in the British Forces during the war, including some 7,000 servicemen who deserted from the Irish armed forces.

The Irish government summarily dismissed all of those who deserted and disqualified them from state employment for seven years. Relatives say the deserters were stigmatized for decades.

"The government apologises for the manner in which those members of the defence forces who left to fight on the Allied side during World War Two were treated after the war by the state," Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter said in an address to parliament.

"In the almost 73 years since the outbreak of World War II, our understanding of history has matured," he said. "It is time for understanding and forgiveness."

Some former Irish officers have objected to the decision, saying pardoning deserters, whatever the circumstances, undermines the Irish armed forces.

But relatives, who have campaigned for years for a pardon, welcomed the move.

"It's not going to change the history, but it will remove the stigma," said Peter Mulvany, who led the campaign for the soldiers, in comments to state broadcaster RTE.

Ireland's relations with historic foe Britain are at their warmest for decades. The pardon comes year after a visit by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland, the first by the British sovereign since independence.