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World War II and Northern Ireland by Jonathan Hayes

 Conscription and the Home Front, 1939-41

The process of conscripting men into the armed forces had been utilised by several European countries during the First World War. Irishmen were not ultimately conscripted into the British Army, in spite of governmental attempts to extend legislation to Ireland, although conscription was utilised in Great Britain from 1916 until 1919 under the terms of the Military Service Act. In May 1939, with war again looming, Britain's Conservative government revived conscription legislation in a limited form. In September 1939, the more comprehensive National Service (Armed Forces) Act was enacted, enforcing full conscription on all men between the ages of eighteen and forty one, except those exempted under grounds such as employment in crucial war work or conscientious objection. Conscription was extended even further in 1942, to include women between the ages of twenty and thirty.

However, despite remaining part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was not subject to conscription legislation during the course of the Second World War. This seems surprising at first, given the presence of a Unionist government at Stormont. In fact, the desires of the Unionist leadership to be fully involved in the British war effort can clearly be seen in the comments of the Prime Minister Lord Craigavon to the House of Commons on the 4th of September 1939. In a statement steeped in the time tested rhetoric of loyalty to crown and empire he declared that, ‘We here today are in a state of war and we are prepared with the rest of the United Kingdom and Empire to face all the responsibilities that imposes on the Ulster people’.[1]

[1] NI Hansard, 4 Sept. 1939, (Vol. 22, 1938–39), pp 1901–2.

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Jonathan Hayes is currently a third year student in the School of History and Anthropology at QUB. He is in the process of writing an undergraduate dissertation on the organisation and effectiveness of war pensions for disabled ex-servicemen in Northern Ireland during the inter-war period.

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