Sometimes (rarely) wars are seen as battles between the forces of good and evil. The war of the Allies against Nazism is the classic example in modern times. Except the Irish state chose to sit that one out, unwilling to line up alongside the ancient British enemy – then on the side of the angels – less than 20 years after its war of independence against the old oppressor.
I would suggest that the savage and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia comes into this category. In less than three weeks Putin’s merciless generals have unleashed a campaign of terror unseen since the Second World War: they have pounded residential areas, targeted hospitals, mined and bombed agreed ‘humanitarian corridors’ and forced four million and a half Ukrainians to flee their homes. Putin appeared to threaten nuclear war when he warned that Russia’s response to anyone who stood in its way in Ukraine or “creates threats for our country and people” will “lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.” 39 countries, including Ireland, have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.
Ireland is proud of its neutrality (although decisions like allowing US troop planes to refuel at Shannon en route to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show how governments can interpret it as they will). But during the seventy years of Soviet rule was the Irish Free State/ Republic of Ireland, among the most conservative and Catholic – and therefore anti-communist – countries in Western Europe, really neutral? Didn’t it shelter under the nuclear-armed NATO umbrella to ensure Ireland’s security? Given its tiny air corps and navy, didn’t it rely on the RAF and the Royal Navy to secure its air corridors and shipping lanes (and to support its limited search and rescue capacity)? Isn’t this a classic example of what Fintan O’Toole calls Irish people’s ability to be in two minds at the same time: neutral and anti-communist, anti-British and reliant on Britain?
I feel a real thrill of pride when I see Ireland’s blue-bereted soldiers flying off on United Nations duty in dangerous places like Lebanon and Liberia, or Irish naval vessels saving the lives of African refugees in the Mediterranean. But neutrality has its darker side too. Perhaps the most shameful episode in a century of Ireland’s international relations was Éamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy in May1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler. This extraordinarily foolish – not to say immoral – gesture helped to ensure that Ireland had few friends in the world in the years immediately after World War Two.
But are Irish people neutral in the battle for Ukraine? Absolutely not. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dail on the afternoon of the Russian invasion that while Ireland was militarily neutral “in this conflict Ireland is not neutral at all. Our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional.” Former President Mary Robinson, speaking on the Late Late Show, called the Russian invasion “a flagrant breach of the UN Charter. Of course we’re not neutral. How could we be?” Her successor, Mary McAleese, said Russians had to be told: “Your country is now a pariah in the world.”
There has been a huge upsurge in support for taking refugees from the war there (we have been told by government ministers that we may have to take up to 100,000 refugees, and at time of writing the Irish Red Cross had logged 14,500 offers of accommodation for them). Our government’s ‘let them all come’ policy is in sharp contrast to the mean-minded, ultra-bureaucratic response of official Britain. Many thousands of people have protested outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin’s Orwell Road. There is something primordial, deeply rooted in Irish history and folk memory, that rises at the sight of a powerful nation attacking its smaller, peaceful neighbour.
There is little dispute in most European countries that the EU needs to rearm and prepare to defend itself against this suddenly much more dangerous Russia. Other European neutrals like Finland and Sweden have put their money where their mouths are and sent arms to Ukraine. 53% of Finns are now in favour of NATO membership, the first such majority ever. Ireland and Finland share similar sized populations and economies, and are both militarily non-aligned. But that’s where the similarities end. Finland’s defence budget is around five times the size of Ireland’s; it has mandatory military service for men over 18; it has just bought 64 ultra-modern F-35 fighter jets from the US; it has more than 200 naval ships compared to Ireland’s nine (even though its exclusive economic maritime zone is 30 times smaller than ours); and it is a world leader in countering ‘hybrid threats’: cyberattacks, social media disinformation and foreign powers attempting to interfere with elections.
On 1st June Danish voters will be asked in a referendum whether to end their country’s opt-out from EU defence (negotiated in order to salvage the Maastricht Treaty after it was rejected by Danish voters in 1992). Its prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has announced “the largest investment in Danish defence in recent times” in response to Putin’s “pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine.” As the leaders of the European Union, meeting in Versailles last week, moved towards “a stronger and more capable EU in the field of security and defence” (and President Macron proposed a €200 billion leap in military spending across the bloc), we in Ireland will have to make a difficult choice, almost certainly in a referendum.
The Irish government can, of course, go along with Sinn Fein and much of the Irish left, and decide it doesn’t want to join any efforts to enhance EU security and defence, but Ministers are acutely conscious of how isolated this would leave us, says the Irish Times‘ well-informed political editor, Pat Leahy. He goes on: “Central and eastern European countries would point to the solidarity extended to Ireland during Brexit and wonder at the lack of reciprocity when they feel threatened…Failure to join a new common defence effort would be seen by other countries as ‘very odd and a lack of solidarity’, says a senior diplomat from another (neutral) EU country. ‘Why would we support your Northern Ireland policy – which we do – when you cannot contribute to European security?’ asks this person. Another EU diplomat from a different country says that failure to join in EU defence would be seen as ‘a kind of Brexit.”
Leahy continues: “If the Government decides to run a referendum, expect it to be fronted by the Taoiseach. He would present himself as a lifelong supporter of military neutrality who has been convinced by events that Ireland must play its part in defending the EU; not an abandonment of neutrality, but a commitment to self-defence. It would strongly reject the idea of equivalence between the EU-NATO side and Russia” (as proposed by MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, honoured guests of the murderous Assad regime).”It would say: time to pick a side.”1
However, seeing this as a contest between good and evil is the easy part for us in Ireland. Our solidarity with Ukraine will only be really tested when we start suffering from oil, gas and even food shortages because of the war. And Europe backing the ‘good guys’ in Kiev with increased arms supplies won’t be nearly enough to bring this horrible war to an early end.
In an instructive if depressing article last week, Gerard Toal, professor of government at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (who is Irish), warned that “attractive as ‘good versus evil’ thinking is right now, it is the enemy of de-escalation and the ugly compromises needed to give this war’s victims a good enough peace, an opportunity to return home quickly, to mourn, and to rebuild.” He proposed a package of ‘ugly compromises’: Russia and Ukraine to sign a treaty which would see Ukraine committing to becoming a neutral state in return for Russia supporting its bid for EU membership as a neutral state like Ireland; the UN to administer self-determination referendums in Crimea and Donbass; Ukraine to agree to dissolve far-right armed groups on its territory; in a phased process, the US and EU to drop sanctions against Russia; and NATO and the Russian Federation to commit to negotiating a new military security order in Europe, involving closing the door to future NATO membership to Ukraine and five other former Soviet bloc countries situated between Russia and the EU.2
Is this the only way to stop Russia threatening Europe? To reward Vladimir Putin’s aggression by giving him much of what he is demanding? Is this the best way to defend the values of peace and democracy which European countries have spent more than 70 years painstakingly building through the EU and its predecessors, and which Putin’s Russia has worked so hard to undermine? Values like liberal democracy; human rights; open societies with freedom of movement and information; fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression and peaceful assembly, and as much human (including racial and gender) equality as a capitalist economic system will allow. I just don’t know. What I do believe is that it is time for Ireland to stand fully alongside our European partners and friends, even if our odd half-in, half-out neutrality has to be sacrificed at this grim turning point in European history.
1 ‘Any decision on neutrality will come at a price’, 12 March
2 ‘There’s a way out of this, but it’s not good news for Ukraine, Irish Times, 12 March