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|From: Irish Foreign Affairs: Editorials|
|Date: January, 2022|
Ukraine and Irish Neutrality
| Ukraine and Irish Neutrality
Neutrality is one of, if not THE, founding ideas of Irish Independence. The impetus for 1916 was the threat by Britain to introduce conscription. The Irish as a nation—as expressed in its vote in 1918, which it repeated in a series of Dáil and local elections in 1920-21—decided that it was no longer prepared to be the cannon fodder for Britain’s endless imperialist wars. Some advanced thinkers, notably Casement and Connolly, had seen merit in supporting Germany, but the slogan that prevailed and captured the public mind was “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland!” During the Treaty negotiations of 1921, the Irish side made it clear that while its goal was full Irish sovereignty, it was prepared to formally agree to exercise this with a “certain consideration” for Britain and to rule out allowing Irish territory being used by any hostile alliance to attack Britain.
The main issue on which the anti-Treaty side opposed what the Dáil Delegation signed under a threat of “immediate and terrible war” was the Oath of Allegiance. This is treated by historians as much ado about what was no more than a trivial formality. But the reality of the Oath was its consequences in annulling sovereignty, especially in military, foreign policy, financial and related matters. Without these, the deal amounted to mere Home Rule. These consequences were made brutally explicit in the “Treaty”, including in Britain’s retention of fortified seaports in the Free State, a veto over foreign policy, full Royal Navy control of Irish waters, and restrictions on Irish defence capabilities. These amounted to a certainty of Ireland having to participate in future British wars. In 1938, de Valera exploited a moment of British weakness to negotiate the return of the ports and Irish control of its own defences, effectively making neutrality possible in a new conflagration. This would not have been possible without the 1938 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Despite considerable Irish public aversion to the ethos of German National Socialism, and support for the ideal of “collective security” through the League of Nations, the Irish were again wary of the siren calls of British propaganda in 1939. The government, supported by all parties in the Dáil and the mass of the public (apart, of course, from The Irish Times), declared the state’s neutrality in the latest conflict while making it clear that it valued the principles of liberal democracy.
Britain in 1939-40 desperately sought out allies for its latest crusade. Semi-fascist and anti-Semitic Poland was its chief one, but others it courted included the anti-Semitic “authoritarian” Romania and the straight-forwardly Catholic-fascist powers of Portugal and Spain. It convinced Franco, who was just concluding his own mass-elimination of political opponents, to pursue a neutrality essentially beneficial to Britain. It even continued to court Mussolini, who only finally opted instead for Hitler’s side in June 1940 as France was collapsing. In 1939-41 there was as yet no talk of a “war against fascism”!
A recent Dublin Review of Books opinion piece described the Irish stance in WW2 as arising from an aversion to being put in harm’s way, i.e. cowardice. The notion that neutrality has anything to do with cowardice or weakness would surprise many, not least in West Belfast or Derry. Serious Irish casualties were suffered by Irish troops on UN peace-keeping missions in the Congo in 1961 and in the Lebanon and other areas seized by Israel in special military operations in the 1960s-80s. The popular pride in these missions and spirit of the Irish soldiers involved was well chronicled by the late Robert Fisk in his 1990 book, Pity the Nation. No voices are ever raised arguing that such casualties should cause Ireland to refrain from peace-keeping missions – if anything the opposite. In September 1940, when Churchill, not for the first or last time, had the Royal Navy develop a plan to seize Irish ports in a special military operation, Britain’s ambassador to Dublin warned the Admiralty against any such plan. They should, he wrote, be in no doubt about the “determination” of the Irish “to fight bitterly against whomsoever first invades EIRE.” (Michael Kennedy, Guarding Neutral Ireland, 2008, p. 97).
Irish Neutrality and Ukraine
Despite intense propaganda about a fundamental Good v. Evil conflict in Ukraine, the Irish seem not to have lost some of their more finely-tuned instincts. In near unison, the commentariat of the liberal-democratic and often British-derivative media, as well as some political leaders, have declared the conflict a “game-changer”, necessitating a “fundamental re-assessment” of Irish Neutrality, meaning its abandonment. Despite the intense war propaganda, an Irish Times/Ipsos poll in early April found that an overwhelming majority of 66 per cent favour retaining the current policy of neutrality, with only a small minority of 24 per cent convinced it must be changed.
The results showed a generally similar attitude across all demographic and political groups, with the young just as, or even more, wedded to it as the old. The position is thus fundamental and enduring. Those most critical of current policy, but still opposing significant change by a significant majority, were Fine Gael and Green supporters, with support for the current stance highest among Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin voters. But the differences between the two groups were small.
Significantly, these results were almost the same as in a similar poll in 1996, also during intense propaganda on a Good v. Evil conflict, underway in the Balkans. 69 per cent favoured retaining neutrality and 20 per cent wanted change.
Even among the current small minority favouring “change”, support is stronger for some form of common EU Defence than for joining NATO, indicating the persistence of a certain EU-idealism. The poll also showed a large majority against participating in military intervention in or in arming Ukraine. All of this is despite a natural outpouring of sympathy for the Ukrainians in their terrible plight. But the Irish, like so often before, seem to smell a rat in what they are being told brought all of this about.
The enduring popular position on neutrality finds little political or media expression, with politicians at best straining not to adopt an unpopular position but few coherently expressing why the popular position is as it is. As in previous matters, it has been President Michael D. Higgins who has articulated it and by doing so strengthened it. He selected an event on 9 April celebrating the restoration by community effort of an “EIRE” wartime neutrality sign on Howth Head and honouring the service of the local “coast-watchers”, Ireland’s first line of defence in that 1939-45 conflict, to make the point. While denouncing the Russian action in Ukraine, he equally attacked “the bellicose language of militarism” infecting the world and pointed to the duty of neutral nations to step in and “build and promote the cause of peace” by “making the case for diplomacy to the very end”:
“We must seize every glimmer of hope through diplomacy, reflect on that great principle that is lodged in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its affirmation that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.”
Higgins was arguing against escalation – the favoured position of NATO, the EU, The Irish Times and the current Ukrainian leadership. But, as in the Armagh affair last year when, to great public approval but political and commentariat hostility, he had refused to participate in a national humiliation celebrating the creation of “Northern Ireland”, he captured the public mood, which was then reflected in the subsequent Irish Times/Ipsos poll.
Neutrality embodies a definition of Irish independence. It is experienced as a proud and distinct international foreign policy stance, one that rejects messianic world conquering ideologies of whatever hue. Its strength is its appreciation of the diversity of the world, of the need for compromise and a rejection of “winner take all” absolutes in international relations. It was a stance which made Ireland an exceptional force at the UN for decades, when it knew what it was.
The stance of the Ukrainian leadership in the current war with Russia stands in stark contrast to Irish neutralism. It has taken an exact opposite approach. Its leaders have subordinated their country, and its interests, to those of the Western Powers (i.e. the USA), apparently in the conviction that, suitably hyped, NATO will come to their active assistance and restore the status quo ante whatever the cost. All of their most extreme demands, up to and including a glorious defeat of Russia, can, they claim, be achieved, if only the “cowards” among western nations are silenced. In a key interview,
“President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that Ukraine is not willing to give up territory in the eastern part of the country to end the war with Russia, and Ukraine’s military is prepared to fight Moscow’s military in the Donbas region” (CNN, 17/04/22)
US President Biden, who from the start of his term has railed against European-Russian economic integration and demanded that it end, despite the consequences for France and Germany, has constantly upped the ante since the war commenced. He has declared that the vast quantities of war materials pouring into Ukraine be used not only to halt the Russians to enable a settlement, but to retake the Donbas and then the Crimea, the majority ethnic Russian regions who do not share the West-Ukrainian Banderite nationalist identity that has been declared the only true Ukrainianism.
In the US view, there can be no negotiating with “war criminals” and Ukraine “can win this”. There can be no “capitulation to tyranny”! The Russian insistence that this war has been ongoing since 2014 is dismissed with contempt. It is notable that the US did nothing before the war commenced that might have averted it, nor make a single move since it started that might help end it. The only solution it sees is escalation and, as Biden has put it, a Ukrainian “victory”. Zelensky has dutifully ordered his troops trapped in the Azovstal in Mariupol (“City of Mary”), despite a Russian offer of an honourable surrender that would end the destruction and killing, to fight to the end. He has made it clear that the only settlement is a full Russian withdrawal, including from Donbas and Crimea, the restoration of Ukraine’s “full territorial integrity”, and its integration with “Europe”. The Ukraine leadership seems happy to fight this war on behalf of the US to the last Ukrainian. And the US, the EU and the Irish government seem happy to cheer him on to the bitter end.
Anyone who advocates a settlement on terms other than those insisted on by Zelensky and the US, or who equivocates on the western media narrative on what the war is about, such as the MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, is shouted down in a torrent of hysterical abuse. Daly and Wallace in their actual speeches have changed from a rather incoherent position at the start of the war, denouncing all sides, to support the very coherent neutrality-based position articulated by Michael D. Higgins, and the Irish media has not, as yet, dared to take that on directly.
But for all the huge popular sympathy and support for the Ukrainian population in Ireland, the feeling that a bigger game is being played out, with the UK and US to the fore, means people are agnostic on what it is really about. The threatening mob besieging the Russian Embassy in Dublin, with the streets around festooned by government initiative with Ukrainian flags, has drawn little active public support, and pro-Ukraine rallies are notably smaller than ones in previous years protesting various USUK or Israeli “special military operations”.
This is a legacy of the First World War, which had been presented to the Irish as a war to defend religion, justice and the rights of small nations: gallant, corrupt little Belgium! But when the war was over the national rights of Ireland were quickly forgotten. Like in the current war, a diet of atrocity (raped Belgian nuns) was served up, only to be proved false long after they had served their purpose. The Irish at some level suspect that not all is as it is purported to be in the David v Goliath story they are now being fed. They know little of the religious and national divisions of the vast territory proclaimed to be an “indivisible Ukraine”, which has a population more than a third that of Russia itself and the military backing of the entire western world, or of the racism of West Ukrainian nationalism and its WW2 roots, its views today of the “Russian orcs” as an “Asiatic horde” and themselves as “pure European Slavs”, or of the history of the non-Ukrainian areas incorporated into “Ukraine” in recent times. But they certainly suspect there are things they are not being told.
Morality of course has little to do with what is happening, apart from the medium through which the propaganda occurs. Nor have the rights of small nations: gallant, corrupt and not so little Ukraine! At the time of writing (24 April), it seems inevitable that the strategy of the Anglosphere, with the rest of the “West” in tow and in the palm of its hand, and with the Ukrainian leadership itself urging it on, is for ever greater escalation, culminating in a major NATO intervention justified by alleged atrocity. The aim is to inflict a disabling defeat on Russia and capture the Ukraine glacis for the “West”, even if only this in the end is only its actually western chunk west of the Dniepr.
Before military action began, Russia said it wanted a legal agreement setting a durable security architecture for Europe to end the instability the lack of this was generating on its borders. It wanted a pull-back of offensive nuclear weaponry, arms control, rules on military “exercises” at its borders and a permanently neutral and non-nuclear-armed Ukraine. All of this was rejected by the US/UK and Zelensky, with the rest of the “West” diligently if sullenly falling into line.
Ireland, as a nation, should have the self-confidence to see and act in its national interest and eschew the hysteria being generated by a resurgent, aggressive and lethal imperialism.