This was not a matter of principle, and Eamon de Valera, who dominates this volume, was not a neutralist. In the 1930s, he argued in vain for “collective security”. In the confrontation between Britain and Germany, his sympathies lay with the British.
Neutrality was a highly practical policy — always assuming that it could be maintained at all. We were almost defenceless. We could not have resisted a German invasion except with the help of the British. Something less than an invasion, namely an aerial blitz, would have harmed us more in relative terms than the actual blitz hurt Britain. In addition to the loss of life and physical devastation, our trade would have been ruined.
Secondly, it was an assertion of independence, 18 years after the Treaty (and only 16 years after the civil war).
But how could a small, desperately poor and weak country pull it off? Almost certainly it could not have been achieved while Britain still had naval bases — always inaccurately called “the ports” — on our territory. Probably only de Valera could have persuaded Neville Chamberlain to hand them over to us in 1938. And probably only de Valera could have resisted successfully when the British, in dire straits, demanded that we return them and threatened to take them by force if we refused. Handing them over would have grossly breached neutrality and made German retaliation certain.