Lenin memorably remarked: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
We just witnessed one of those weeks.
For decades, Germany was a reluctant power. Its economic might was never surpassed by military might. Germany’s partners in NATO complained that they would not spend any money on European security.
But last week new Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would supply arms to Ukraine, reversing a decades-long policy of not arming third parties in a conflict zone. He later told the Bundestag that Germany would double its defense spending this year.
The EU also had one of these weeks.
It has struggled at every turn to formulate a coherent foreign policy. The pressure to get 27 countries with different, often competing interests to agree on anything usually meant that the EU was a contender on foreign policy matters.
Last week the Union agreed an unprecedented series of sanctions against Russia, some of which run counter to the financial interests of some EU countries. Even more surprising was that the EU agreed to provide Ukraine with 500 million euros in military support, including arms. The EU is finally flexing its muscles.
Ireland said it would not directly support the fund that bought weapons, instead putting €9 million into a ring-fenced fund for non-lethal equipment. This Jesuit sleight of hand makes practically no difference. We’ll all put money into one pot, and that pot will buy guns.
The idea that the coins with harps on them are used to buy medical equipment but not weapons allows Irish politicians to claim that Ireland remains true to its policy of neutrality.
Neutrality has been around for so long that it has become a canon of Irish political life. Few reject it or even question it. Even now, with the security of Europe threatened by Russian aggressors, a new poll suggests three-quarters of Irish people support Irish neutrality.
But neutrality is and always has been a policy rather than a principle.
For Éamon de Valera there was an obvious need to address Britain’s security needs. For them, neutrality was a kind of guarantee that Ireland would not serve as a base for an attack on Britain. In return, Ireland’s waters were protected by the power of the British Navy.
When Fine Gael’s James Dillon questioned the policy of neutrality in 1941, he was a lone voice on the right-hand side of history. But de Valera’s policy of neutrality in the war was pragmatic rather than principled.
World War II was the first war in which the Luftwaffe played a decisive role. We could no longer count on being an island behind an island. Keeping Ireland out of the war meant Ireland emerged unscathed from another major European conflict.
We then made a virtue out of necessity. We maintained that it was moral to stay out of wars between great powers. Of course we chose sides in this war. We just haven’t done much to help our side.
And Ireland is at pains to point out that we are not really neutral on the invasion of Ukraine. We rightly sided with Ukraine.
As Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil last Thursday, we are undeniably part of the “system of the West,” a system based on liberal democracy, the rule of law, a social market economy and multilateralism.
The fact that he mentioned multilateralism, the building of alliances, shows that however we understand our neutrality, it is not about rejecting pacts with other countries to advance and protect our interests.
Nor is neutrality about upholding our own foreign policy. The deepening integration of Europe makes it impossible to maintain this fiction.
Even last week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin (wrongly, I think) ruled out our unilateral expulsion of the Russian ambassador, believing that this should be a step at European level.
We tend to interpret neutrality as non-militarism. It’s a weird mindset, eh Neutral countries usually spend a lot of money on military to protect themselves. But our security budget remains small as we are free riders with UK and US security. It’s dishonest, but it suits us, as the same RTÉ poll shows a clear majority against raising taxes to spend more on our defense.
Oddly, however, we are happy to acknowledge that intervention would be morally right (though perhaps unwise). A clear majority supports the NATO intervention.
The Taoiseach acknowledged that arming Ukraine is “very, very understandable given that the Ukrainian people are being subjected to such attacks” and that it would be “unthinkable” for Ireland to try to prevent EU military intervention.
Perhaps last week Ireland began to consider what has been unthinkable for decades – whether we should join a common defense alliance capable of actually standing up for itself.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and politics at Dublin City University
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/time-for-us-to-throw-off-irelands-fictitious-flag-of-neutrality-41415664.html Time for us to drop Ireland’s fictional flag of neutrality