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Europe is menaced by Putin. And Ireland has outlived its neutrality

Philip Stephens / Jun 2023

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Europe is menaced by Vladimir Putin’s war. Germany has woken up. The European Commission is supplying weapons to Ukraine. Long-neutral Finland and Sweden have turned to Nato. Denmark has scrapped its EU defence opt-out. Emmanuel Macron’s call for a serious European military is no longer dismissed as reheated Gaullism.

All rules have exceptions. Zeitenwende has yet to reach the shores of steadfastly neutral Ireland. As Ukraine launches its summer counter-offensive, Ireland is sitting uncomfortably on the sidelines. Dublin offers Kyiv political backing and non-lethal aid. But the Republic has held fast to its historic military neutrality. There is history and principle here, but it helps too that ultra-low defence spending gives the nation an economic edge.

The emotional commitment is lodged deep in the national psyche. Neutrality became at once an expression of independence and a standing rebuke to partition of the island of Ireland when the Irish Free State broke free of 700 years of British rule in 1922. The lines were never more sharply drawn than during the second world war.

In May 1945, during the war’s closing days, Eamon de Valera paid an official call on the German ambassador in Dublin. The Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, carried to Eduard Hempel his condolences on news of the death of Adolf Hitler. It is hard to imagine a more provocative gesture of defiance of Ireland’s former colonial master.

The predictable fury in London was accompanied by much annoyance in Washington and disbelief among the rest of the allies. Staying out of a war that had pitted democracy against fascism had been widely viewed as ill-judged. Lamenting the suicide of a Nazi leader who had wrought such terrible death and destruction seemed positively perverse.

De Valera was wholly unrepentant, responding to American protests in a private note to Robert Brennan, the Irish ambassador in Washington. It would have been an “unpardonable discourtesy”, he said, to have stayed away: “I acted correctly and I feel certain wisely”.

Five years earlier De Valera had brushed aside Winston Churchill’s offers to pressure Northern Ireland into Irish reunification in return for the south’s entry into the war. Partition had initially left Britain with de facto control of the new state’s security. But in 1938 De Valera had wrested back control of the Free State’s navy ports and diluted ties with the Commonwealth. Joining the war against Germany, he judged, would have meant surrender to imperial Britain.

In truth, De Valera was more flexible in practice than he sometimes sounded. In 1941, foreign minister Joseph Walshe secretly listed more than a dozen ways in which Dublin provided clandestine help for Britain and the allies. Intelligence was being shared, German and Italiancommunications were being routed through London, the Irish authorities turned a blind eye to “very frequent” use of Irish air space by the RAF.

The same pragmatism has been apparent in the decades since. Officially, neutrality still forbids the overseas deployment of more than a handful of Irish soldiers without a decision by the government, a special vote in parliament, and a mandate from the United Nations. Dublin also has a special exemption from the EU’s foreign and security policy.

For all that the Republic has long been an active player in UN peace-keeping missions and, more recently, has found a way to join EU missions in Africa. Governments have bent the rules in the cause of realpolitik. When George W Bush went to war against Iraq in 2003 the then government permitted US forces to transit through Shannon airport. Today’s political leaders draw a clear distinction between political and military neutrality. De Valera mostly avoided criticising Germany. Leo Varadkar has not hesitated to condemn Putin’s aggression..

For all that, the war has upturned an underlying assumption - that wars on the European continent had been consigned to the past. Russia now poses a potentially mortal threat to the postwar European order. Ireland has prospered as an engaged and active member of the EU. It has lost its excuse to stand back. True, Austria is clinging to its neutrality, but it can hide behind the deal struck by the west with the Soviet Union in 1955.

There are indeed voices in Dublin questioning whether no defence can any longer be held up as the best defence. There is some embarrassment also that spending on the military stands at less than half of one percent of national income. The government is cautious. Public opinion is firmly in favour of the present stance. As far as Varadkar has been ready to go is to stage a series of public consultations on the Republic’s security. They start this week. The rhetorical question they might pose is whether modern Ireland’s “Europeanness” demands it plays its part in the defence of the continent.

Ireland has mostly left behind the days when anti-Britishness substituted for national identity. The essence of the Good Friday agreement was recognition that Irish unity depends not on driving out the Brits, but on winning the consent of Northern Ireland unionists. Yet residual resentments remain - apparent only the other day recently in a warning from president Michael Higgins against re-opening the neutrality debate. The paradox is that to close it down would be to deny the Republic its present place as a modern, self-confident, European state.

Philip Stephens

Philip Stephens

June 2023

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