The Thin Edge of the Wedge

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

In the past months, there have been several developments of significant note with regards to Ireland’s foreign and defence policy; 

Firstly, that there was a scheduled Russian military exercise in international waters, but in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone, and that this exercise was moved at the request of the Irish government and Irish fisheries in order to protect local maritime industries. 

Secondly, a report has been published on the Irish Defence Forces making a series of recommendations about reorganisation and funding of the Defence Forces, in particular trebling the current level of funding.

These developments come at a time of heightened tensions between NATO (and its allies) and Russia (and its allies) over the situation in Ukraine, in which a Russian military build up along the Ukrainian border is being sold by NATO as a sign of an imminent military invasion. Ever eager to be seen as part of some big geopolitical power play, the Irish liberal commentariat raised hell about the Russian military exercises, and the reports widely publicised shortly afterwards on Defence Forces funding are the perfect cherry on top for their political narrative. The government has avoided calls for better pay and conditions for rank and file soldiers for years, but has been happy to entertain the thought of buying more toys for the troops to occasionally play with while they otherwise rust away in some port or hangar. 

The majority of Irish people have always viewed neutrality as the crown jewel in Irish foreign policy - as a nation subjected to colonialism and imperialism, there is a strong anti-militarist instinct in the national consciousness. The people of Ireland do not want to wage war, and we certainly do not want to be dragged into any military conflict not of our own making. 

But that’s changing. Incidents such as those of the past few weeks add fuel to the fire - a recent Ireland Thinks poll indicated that 34% of the population would be in favour of joining NATO, the military alliance that has waged genocidal war across the planet for decades. This is nearly three times higher than polls in 1996 where 13% of the population was in favour of NATO membership.

This support for NATO does not fall out of the clear blue sky. It is part of the long march by the Irish establishment to get us there - keep in mind that Young Fine Gael endorsed Irish membership of NATO in 2013. Whilst nobody can seriously think what the baby Blueshirts want actually matters, it is more sobering to recognise that in the decade since, many of them have gone into the senior party and will be making up an increasingly large proportion of future TDs and Ministers.

European Integration

The slow swing against neutrality is not an accident. The contradictory Irish support for European integration, whilst having extreme distaste for everything that it has caused (the legacy of the Troika looms heavily over every current social and economic problem we are facing), has been a convenient tool for the establishment to erode public support for our anti-militarist tradition. Every EU referendum, the question of neutrality is raised and given - correctly - supreme importance. And every referendum, we are assured that there is no threat to neutrality. The facade of respect for our tradition of neutrality has resulted in a consistently high level of support for military integration with Europe. Yet it is undeniable that Ireland’s increasingly deeper integration with the EU has made it more of an appendage to the warmongering of NATO than ever before. Of course it would - the overwhelming majority of EU members are also members of NATO. 

Irish support for “defence cooperation” on an EU level has been used as the thin edge of the wedge for militarisation. Irish involvement in EU Battlegroups is viewed as an essentially harmless arrangement, with nobody ever expecting these Battlegroups to actually be put to use. In reality, Irish troops are already being deployed as part of European imperial adventures in Africa and the Middle East, such as the highly praised Irish deployments to Mali to train and provide military intelligence to French-backed and French-aligned troops. Not to mention Irish involvement in PESCO and Operation Sophia, an EU naval military operation to destroy refugee routes in the Mediterranean. 

This is not isolated from Irish deployment in support of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, and of course the movement of NATO troops through Shannon Airport and consenting to NATO military exercises just off the coast of Donegal (speak nothing of the British troops still in the North). It is part of a concerted, decades-long effort to destroy Irish neutrality by stealth and then manufacture public consent for it after the fact by pretending that nothing has fundamentally changed.

Arming the Defence Forces

This brings us to the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which proposed a significant upgrade in terms of the military and organisational abilities of the Irish military. There are two natural responses to this report; The first, is that of course as a neutral country we should genuinely fund our military to make sure it is well equipped and capable of dealing with what threats we as a large island in the Atlantic might actually face, as few as those threats are. It’s the principle of the matter. The second, is that as a small and fundamentally weak nation with regards to our potential military capabilities, there is virtually no point in military investment. I have been guilty of the latter, but on reflection I really think that both points miss the mark.

Ireland, a small country of a few million people, has waged war against much mightier foes than ourselves over the past century, and has seen some success (though far from the victory we wanted). Our struggle against the British Empire was not won because of our military might, but because of the collective political commitment of the Irish people towards a cause - national liberation. The British were not pushed back by Irish tanks - because we didn’t have any - but by the strength and mass support for a political cause. So, if we want to give more money to our military - sure, why not, as long as we tax the rich for it and solve the housing crisis while we’re at it. But more warships and fighter jets are utterly irrelevant to the question of neutrality, because neutrality is ultimately not a military matter. This brings us to the key point.

Preserving or undermining neutrality doesn’t just present itself in Irish troop deployments, but in the nation’s political stance. Ireland’s alignment with the European Union on foreign policy is a de facto alignment with NATO. This is why Ireland has expelled Russian diplomats and is threatening sanctions against Russia, despite equally criminal and often worse transgressions from not just the United States, but our immediate neighbours. Governments have attempted to justify this departure from neutrality by creating an artificial separation between “military neutrality” and “political neutrality”, but this fundamentally ignores the axiom that all war is just politics carried out by another means. 

If you are politically aligned, you cannot be militarily neutral.