1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

Irish neutrality — a scrap of paper

Sometime this year or next year, the Irish people can expect a constitutional referendum on the issue of neutrality.

The need for a referendum has been sparked by the possibility of the Republic of Ireland either joining the “Partnership for Peace” or some form of common European defence network. The debate has only really commenced and as it can be expected to be rancorous the government is possibly relieved that it will be settled by a popular vote and not a government decision. It follows a recent pattern in Ireland whereby divisive social issues are dealt with by referenda, avoiding the need for politicians to openly commit themselves.

The issue of Europe producing a political controversy is unusual in Ireland where, unlike Britain, there has been no large-scale Euro-scepticism. However the possible dropping of neutrality is perceived to involve an irreversible change in Irish national sovereignty and hence evokes a visceral response from Irish nationalists. To the socialist, the whole question of neutrality exposes a great deal of the stale cant in capitalist politics and confusion within society about the true meaning of “national sovereignty” and the origin of war.

Isolationist Ireland
Irish neutrality has become to many of its supporters a key part of the distinct identity of the modern Republic of Ireland. In fact the successful Sinn Fein independence movement of 1921 was in large part fuelled by opposition to the threat of London extending conscription to Ireland in 1917. The avoidance of Irishmen being sent abroad to fight in foreign wars at the behest of the colonial power was claimed as one of the major advantages stemming from independence.

The identification of neutrality with Irish freedom was further strengthened by the government’s policy during World War Two of remaining aloof from the conflict. The country’s non-belligerent status, while not unanimously approved of, was welcomed by a clear majority of the people, eager to avoid the waste of modern war. Memories of the struggle against Britain were too recent to allow Ireland to join the Allies, and apart from a fringe element within the IRA. there was no appetite for collaboration with Nazi Germany.

In World War Two neutrality conveniently coincided with pragmatic politics but a more opportunistic attitude to the principle itself was revealed in 1949. Ireland was approached to join NATO, expressed an interest but in return wanted Britain to end partition and arrange reunification with Northern Ireland. The proposed deal in effect fell through and Ireland passed through the Cold War era as a member of no military alliance. It is true to say that, whatever the original reasons, the passage of time has meant that neutrality is now regarded as an honourable principle of Irish foreign policy by many people. Thus, although not constitutionally enshrined, it is accepted that any significant changes to it would require a referendum.

While the debate is in its early days the opposing sides have started to take shape. Against any change in the current status of neutrality are the nationalist/traditional wing of the Fianna Fail party, an assortment of left wing groups and leftist elements within the Labour Party and Democratic Left, the Greens. Sinn Fein and what can be generally termed as Irish Irelanders holding to the founders’ original ideal of an independent isolationist Irish state. The assorted nature of this nascent coalition can be seen by noting that Fianna Fail, the largest party in Ireland, are currently in opposition while both the Labour Party and Democratic Left form part of the current coalition government. The constituents of such a widely disparate group have obviously differing motives for their position but in the final analysis they all believe in national sovereignty and have a gut suspicion of trans-national institutions. On the pro side of the debate are the modern Irish “establishment”, in the loose sense of the word. Euro-enthusiasts and of course the army which anticipates that an expanded rôle for it will deliver more funding and prestige.

Disappointing debate
To date — from a socialist perspective — the debate has been quite disappointing in its content. Those against closer defence co-operation with Europe say weakening Ireland’s neutrality is in effect an inevitable pro-war strategy and they make valid, though in this context somewhat irrelevant points, about the pernicious effects of the European armaments industries in the developing world and the use of nuclear weapons. They also complain loudly about the future possibility of Irish people being conscripted into a European army, seemingly unaware or indifferent to the fact that at the moment Irish workers can be peremptorily conscripted into the Irish army. On the other side those in favour of joining some NATO-based system say maintaining neutrality will leave Ireland isolated and open to the charge of “free-loading” on western security arrangements. They make clearly erroneous counter-arguments that a united European defence network would have averted the protracted debacle in Yugoslavia and will in the future provide “stability” for the continent.

Socialists oppose both camps who promulgate empty and useless platitudes about being opposed to war while seeking futile measures to avoid its occurrence. Unlike these groups, we are able to draw on a long and principled history, backing up our claims of complete opposition to all conflicts between nation states; this is because we recognise that war is an inevitable feature of the market economy no matter how it is configured. Socialists eschew a nationalistic line as we are as much opposed to workers being conscripted into “their” own armies and fighting for “their” countries as being conscripted into and fighting for anybody else’s.

Neither do we have a legalistic or altruistic view of a policy of national neutrality. As shown with Belgium in 1914. Holland in 1940 or Cambodia in 1970,  protestations of neutrality are no protection if a large power decides that strategic military necessity means invasion of a neutral bystander. When the war needs of any power require intervention, which in a class-based society means the needs of the ruling élite, then they will do so.

Irrespective of the wishes of the majority of the world’s people, wars will, inevitably occur as long as our planet is divided into rival economic units and blocs. Debating the pros and cons of neutrality while passively accepting that the world will continue to be segregated into competitive class-based societies is in the long run a futile exercise. A more gainful approach is to recognise that if we can build and live in a world where the causes of armed conflict no longer exist then neutrality debates, along with war. will become part of our curious history.

Kevin Cronin