The Irish establishment has been using Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine as an excuse to launch an assault on the idea of Irish neutrality. Richard Boyd Barrett takes on their arguments and makes the case for defending and strengthening Irish neutrality.
The Irish political establishment, led by Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael, want to exploit Putin’s heinous invasion of Ukraine in order to undermine Ireland’s neutrality and move towards joining NATO as well as contributing to building up an EU army. They must be opposed.
The arguments they present do not withstand the least bit of scrutiny and are also fundamentally dishonest.
They claim that the Russian invasion obliges us to reconsider how Ireland defends itself in today’s world. This is absurd. In 1945 the Red Army marched into Eastern Europe essentially taking over Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria. Ireland remained a neutral country. In 1956 the USSR invaded Hungary to crush the Hungarian Revolution. Ireland remained neutral. In 1968 it invaded Czechoslovakia. Ireland remained neutral. In 1979 it invaded Afghanistan. Ireland remained neutral. In 1981 the USSR backed a military coup in Poland to crush the Solidarnosc trade union. Ireland remained neutral. In 1999 Russia invaded Chechnya and destroyed Grozny. Ireland remained a neutral country.
So the idea that the invasion of Ukraine, monstrous as it is, requires Ireland to reconsider its neutrality makes no sense.
We only have to ask the question, ‘Who are we supposed to be defending ourselves against?’ to see how absurd this is. Does the fact that Putin has marched into Ukraine, which borders on Russia, mean that he is coming for Ireland next? This is ridiculous. The whole of Europe lies between Russia and Ireland. And IF Russia invaded and conquered the whole of Western Europe (which isn’t going to happen) and reached the edge of the Irish Sea it wouldn’t matter one bit whether Ireland was neutral or had increased our military spending to €3 billion a year.
Perhaps the enemy we are defending against is China, the old ‘yellow peril’. That is even more ridiculous. But it can’t be China, or surely we would not have rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Chinese President Xi Jinping (another tyrant, by the way) when he came to visit. That leaves the US or France, or perhaps Britain is bent on reconquest. It just gets more absurd.
So weak is this argument that Fine Gael spokesperson, Neale Richmond, tried to throw drug cartels, cyber attacks and ISIS into the mix. So do we need to join NATO and an EU army to counter the Kinnehan gang or to prevent ISIS turning Ireland into a caliphate with an expeditionary force from a besieged enclave in the Middle East?
The reason these arguments are not just ridiculous but also totally dishonest is that the Irish political establishment, and especially Fine Gael, have been trying, stealthily, to undermine Irish neutrality for many decades. And in practice they have succeeded in ensuring that in terms of actual policy Ireland has always operated firmly in the camp of US imperialism.
This is why the Irish government has for decades been allowing the US military to use Shannon airport as a base for operations in the Middle East and for the foul practice of extraordinary rendition (shipping prisoners to destinations where they can be tortured). It is why they will not condemn Israel despite massive support for Palestine among Irish people. It is why they will not speak out against the Saudi’s brutal war on Yemen and why when the Saudi King died they hung the flags at half mast on Leinster House. And why, come rain or come shine, the Taoiseach always goes to present the US President with a bowl of shamrock on St.Patrick’s Day, even when that President is Donald Trump.
Yes, some of this is just symbolism, but it is symbolism that says ‘we are with you. We are loyal junior partners in your global empire’. And they mean that.
An element in all this is the blueshirt political psychology of Fine Gael. Ireland’s neutrality is a legacy of the Irish Revolution of the struggle against the British Empire, which made the new nation reject the idea of lining up with an empire. ‘For neither King nor Kaiser,’ as James Connolly and the Citizen Army put it in 1916. Fine Gael was born out of the counter revolution which aimed in the Civil War to crush the Irish Revolution. Visceral hatred of Irish republicanism and all it stood for, including Irish neutrality, is in their political DNA. Neale Richmond is on record as saying that he finds the Easter Lily ‘offensive’.
But there is much more to this than political psychology. There is greed and ambition. The Irish political establishment want to cosy up to American big business and EU big business because that is where the most profits and the investments are and what their big business backers and donors – the people they really represent and depend on – demand. Of course they will turn a blind eye to Russian money flooding in through the IFSC – that is the nature of the greasy till – but when push comes to shove Russian money is not in the ha’penny place compared to US and EU money.
And in terms of political ambition the likes of Varadkar and Martin and Simon Coveney, having clawed their way to the top of the Irish political tree, see their next step as being players on the world stage with the ‘big boys’ and that means going along with every wish and command of the US and the EU.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that this whole manoeuvre has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom, democracy, liberal values and so on. These ‘universal values’, as Micheál Martin calls them, are invariably set aside when economic interests are at stake. Hence the silence on Yemen and Palestine or the War on Iraq or the dictatorship in Egypt or countless other moral outrages. The truth is that if the US and the EU had chosen, for their own reasons, to turn a blind eye to the invasion of Ukraine, as they did to what Putin did in Kazakhstan a few weeks ago or to Grozny in 1999, the Irish government would simply have followed suit.
And here we in People Before Profit do have the moral high ground of consistently opposing imperialism, brutality and oppression whether from the US or Russia, East or West. We denounced the Russian invasion of Chechnya and destruction of its capital, Grozny. We condemned the Russian suppression of workers in Kazakhstan and Russian support for the monstrous Assad in Syria and we stood in solidarity with the people’s revolt in Honk Kong and with the oppressed Uighur people in China. While at the same time, of course, opposing the Iraq War, the War on Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, the occupation of Palestine, the siege of Gaza and US imperialism as a whole.
Nor is NATO, as they claim, a defensive alliance. In reality it is an offensive instrument for the projection of US imperial power across Europe and beyond and is deeply implicated in aggressive and terrible actions, such as the devastating bombing of Libya. For Ireland to join NATO would be to become directly involved in US imperial aggression.
In terms of the Irish ruling class’s long standing goal of getting rid of Irish neutrality they have always faced an obstacle: the deep popularity of neutrality with the Irish people. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown big majorities in favour of neutrality and NOT subordinating Ireland to the NATO war machine. Now, Varadkar and Co see an opportunity to get round this obstacle. They hope to exploit the mood of revulsion at Putin’s brutality and aggression to advance their own long established goal. We should not let them get away with it.
There are also strong positive reasons for defending Irish neutrality. The fact that Irish troops were not sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, is not only morally something to be proud of, it does also make Ireland less of a target (though not immune of course) for terrorist attacks than the UK or France. It also contributes in a small way to keeping racism and the Far Right at bay in Irish society.
And potentially it gives Ireland a platform to give a positive political lead in the world. This has happened before. The Easter Rising and the War of Independence inspired freedom struggles in colonial countries from India to Sudan. And the boycott of South African Apartheid goods by the Dunnes Strikers in 1984 might seem a small event but it had a huge resonance in South Africa and was recognised by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela himself for the international lead it gave.
Imagine Ireland did actually expel the Israeli Ambassador, the Saudi Ambassador and the Russian Ambassador in one go. It would send an immensely powerful statement against imperialist occupation and oppression round the world. Of course short of a genuine Left Government this is not going to happen, but it does show the real potential that lies in Irish neutrality if we defend it and make real use of it.
There is a kind of weary cynical argument you sometimes hear on the left which runs, ‘Irish neutrality has already been so eroded that it is not worth defending any more’. But this misses the point. Even the fig leaf of neutrality that still exists does constrain our political establishment to some degree, which is why they would like to get rid of it. Moreover, a successful people power campaign to defend it would offer the potential to make the neutrality much more real.
Finally we have the fact that the attack on Irish neutrality goes hand in hand with the attempt to increase military spending and Ireland’s contribution to an expanding EU army launched by Leo Varadkar by signing up to PESCO in 2017. Every euro spent on this bogus project of the Irish ruling elite is a euro less on the housing crisis, on health and education, on the welfare of the Irish people.
In short, it should be rejected root and branch and actively campaigned against.