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The War on Ireland’s Neutrality

Since its independence, Ireland has maintained a decades-long tradition of neutrality – but now its commentariat has decided that the country needs to 'grow up' and learn to love NATO's war machine.

Ireland's Defence Forces, which are not part of NATO, are globally acclaimed as peacekeepers in conflict situation. (Credit: AP / Getty Images)

To understand how politics is discussed in Irish broadsheet newspapers, it’s worth noting a few assumptions made by most commentators. Initiatives likely to enjoy public support are, by definition, dangerous ‘populism’ and therefore undesirable. Activism is largely the remit of idealistic, infantile fools. Things only get done when serious politicians discard ‘ideology’ in the name of a hard-headed, apolitical pragmatism, which just so happens to align with the policies of centre-right parties.

This all amounts to a fixation with a certain ‌‘respectability’. It aspires to a European brand of cosmopolitanism, insisting that we imitate other ‘modern’ Western market economies. In the words of former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who models himself on leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, Ireland should strive to be an ‘island at the centre of the world’.

But Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has intensified Irish journalists’ desire to sit at the Big Table. Ireland’s record-high rents, pitiful healthcare system, and contemptible record on climate change—fruits of the civilised politics promulgated by broadsheet newspapers—are no longer sufficient: It’s time to ‘grow up’ and abandon our longstanding official policy of military neutrality.

Growing Up

A majority of recent articles about the subject of Irish neutrality have been bellicose in tone. ‘Neutrality served us well, but we’re grown-ups now,’ argued a piece by Frank Coughlan in the Irish Independent, in which the author implored Ireland to ‘crawl out of Plato’s cave’ and embrace militarism. ‘War in Ukraine glaringly reveals why Irish neutrality is morally degenerate,’ said an Irish Times op-ed later retweeted by Fine Gael’s spokesperson on European Affairs, Neale Richmond. ‘Irish Neutrality: I’d punch Vladimir Putin in the face,’ read the headline of a Newstalk article that asked if Ireland should reconsider fighting in wars abroad.

The argument basically goes as follows. Ireland is not committed to neutrality, therefore we should completely abandon the idea, sharply increase military spending and formally align ourselves with the Western military machine. 

Many of the calls for Ireland’s integration with NATO, written by people too old to ever see battle, are permeated by macho posturing. Political Editor of the Irish Examiner, Daniel McConnell – whose career highlights include numerous attacks on teachers demanding fair pay and safe working conditions, as well a bizarre op-ed about his belief that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s ‘sex appeal’ helped her ascend the ranks of her party – thinks this is the way to make Ireland look more grown-up on the world stage.

“…How can we, as a sovereign democracy, expect to be taken seriously when we can’t defend ourselves?” he whined in the Irish Examiner. “It is frankly embarrassing when you consider we can’t even man the few boats we have due to a shortage of personnel.”   

Ireland should buy planes and ships and host American missiles on its shores so the other boys will stop laughing at us. That really is the extent of much of the argument, hard as it might be to believe. A tradition of neutrality that spans decades and has built goodwill for Ireland as one of the few states in the West with a genuine understanding of the post-colonial Global South should be cast off, lest it cause our newspaper columnists embarrassment on their trips to Washington.

This view is deeply wrongheaded about the reality of Ireland’s geopolitical position. Retired Irish army commandant and former UN Peacekeeper Ed Horgan recently wrote that, in the overwhelmingly improbable event of an invasion by another country, Ireland could only hope to resist through guerrilla warfare—the same tactics that helped win Irish independence. Any expensive equipment we buy would likely offer only target practice to one of the world’s genuine superpowers, if we met them on the open field.

Elsewhere, Fionnán Sheahan took to his Sunday Independent column to condemn MEPs and TDs who dared to question NATO at this juncture. Any failure to wholeheartedly support Western military expansion across the globe was a frivolity from a ‘private school debating society’ or, perhaps, had something to do with Mick Wallace’s business exploits. After all, only wild-eyed socialists like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jack F. Matlock Jr could see any fault for NATO in the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It isn’t only the reliable clownshow of Irish newspaper columns where calls to end our neutrality have found favour. Senior members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have jumped on the bandwagon in recent weeks. Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless called the concept ‘outdated’, while Neale Richmond published an article in the Sun calling for a ‘realistic’ conversation on the issue. Pointing intercontinental missiles at each other from an ever-greater number of territories is modern and pragmatic, of course, whereas multilateralism and dialogue are best left in the past.

Degrading Neutrality

It’s true that Ireland has in the past given preferential treatment to certain countries. For example, during the Second World War, Ireland allowed RAF pilots to return home through the north of Ireland, while at the same time interning soldiers from the Axis powers. That conflict also marked the last time Ireland was seriously threatened with invasion, when it was proposed by Winston Churchill.

But neutrality held for most of the twentieth century until successive governments stepped up efforts to undermine it in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ireland is now involved in EU military integration, signing up for Permanent Structured Cooperation in 2017. Whereas once Irish soldiers were seen as some of the world’s most respected peacekeepers because of our neutrality, more recently they have become embroiled in imperial endeavours. They have participated in operations in Mali and Chad, led by French forces, raising questions about our alignment with France’s foreign policy goals in Africa. Irish soldiers have also been deployed to Afghanistan under the command of NATO. 

Ireland also indirectly provides support to US warmongering across the globe through Shannon Airport, which is effectively an American military base. This became a source of controversy in 2003 when one of the largest demonstrations in Irish history took place against the Iraq War. As is so often the case, the government lacks a mandate for allowing US marines to use Irish airports. Polls have consistently shown that the public is against it. Despite the rhetoric about protecting democracy across the world, Western militaries rarely pay much heed to democratic opinions in their own countries.

The predictions made by the anti-war movement about the atrocities Ireland would be complicit in if it allowed US warplanes on our soil were widely mocked in 2003. They turned out to be true. We now know that Shannon Airport played a ‘vital logistical role’ in CIA rendition flights during the War on Terror. This has prompted the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to call on Ireland’s government to inspect US aircraft, to ensure that Ireland is not complicit in torture, among other crimes.

That has not stopped Ireland’s establishment and their war drive. Last November, the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Green Party government made an attempt to establish an arms industry in Ireland, holding a seminar in the Aviva Stadium to discuss how Irish small and medium sized enterprises could better access the European armaments market. Irish institutes and universities were encouraged to pursue defence and military related research.  

Despite these efforts, neutrality has enjoyed popular support among the Irish public. Almost four out of five respondents (78%) to a 2013 Red C poll said Ireland should maintain a policy of neutrality. A 2016 Red C poll found that 57% of Irish people wanted neutrality enshrined in Ireland’s constitution. The most recent poll in February showed that 54% of people remained opposed to Ireland joining NATO.

Fighting for Peace

There isn’t any doubt among the Irish public that Russia’s war against Ukraine is inexcusable and horrifying. Irish neutrality, however, as Diarmaid Ferriter pointed out in a recent article, does not mean silence or inaction in the face of global conflict. In addition to taking part in peacekeeping missions around the world, Ireland has supported initiatives to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in circulation. Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Aiken was the first signatory on the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

Whether it deserves it or not, Ireland enjoys a unique position in world affairs. It is recognised in the Global South as a post-colonial country and, indeed, its struggle against imperialism is widely respected. This is particularly the case in Latin America, where Irish people have contributed to liberation struggles. But it remains a part of the West nonetheless. This embroils Ireland in much of the economic structures which foster global inequality. Further integration into the West’s military institutions will, without doubt, erode memories of our anti-colonial past and cast Ireland and its people in a very different light. 

The world does not need more militarist states. It does not need more states spending vast sums on weapons of war while they cannot provide decent healthcare or housing or jobs to their people. It does not need more countries prepared to dance to the American tune in international affairs, one which might rightly express outrage over Ukraine yet falls entirely silent when it comes to the crimes committed by Saudi Arabia, Israel or NATO itself.

Ireland can help Ukrainians—and people fleeing other conflict zones like Syria and Yemen—by letting refugees resettle here, sending humanitarian aid, and expressing solidarity with anti-war movements, which in Russia are being targeted by Putin’s brutal regime. We should also try, like former Irish army captain Tom Clonan has suggested, to use our neutral status and membership of the UN Security Council to facilitate communication between Moscow and Washington, in the hope of preventing the conflict from escalating any further. 

Joining a military alliance isn’t growing up. It’s an act of regression. Real responsibility involves paving the difficult path towards peace.