Analysis – State Failures: Neutral Ireland Adrift with Atlanticists

By Harry Browne. Originally published in The Ditch's State Failures.

History’s gift to the Atlanticist Irish establishment was to stick the unloved, unlovable face of Eamon De Valera on our mental picture of the nation’s neutrality. To be fair it should be said that even Dev, the dry old stick, got one of his finest moments out of the policy after Winston Churchill celebrated victory in Europe in May 1945 by declaring that he had come oh-so-close to attacking southern Ireland. 

 “It is, indeed, hard for the strong to be just to the weak,” Dev replied – and praised, faintly – his British counterpart for not “adding another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record of relations between England and this country”. Nice one, by Dev’s standards.

However as campaigners have been keen to point out, the first Irish Neutrality League was formed, soon after the outbreak of World War I, out of more based material: Constance Markievicz, James Connolly, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons and other heroes of the era. The campaign for Ireland’s neutrality back then, serving “neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”, was an early emanation of the socialist-nationalist-feminist alliance that rose again at Easter 1916.

If we regard the current republic as the inheritor of that rising – a big if, admittedly – neutrality is not a historical accident that came after we got caught in the headlights of 1939, or some contingent moral failure to join the fight against Nazism, but is rather in the state’s DNA.

The principle and the practice have not always lined up perfectly, for good or ill. Dev’s neutrality was decidedly pro-Allies; Frank Aiken’s independent foreign policy of the late 1950s had its moments, but this confessional society was hardly neutral on godless communism, nor did the state make the jump to the global Non-Aligned Movement; in the last six decades, Ireland has rarely taken a strong stand against US interests or policy.

Economics has also played a part. Up to the 1980s, it was possible, at least for some on the left, to speculate that Ireland not only extended a high level of popular solidarity to the Third World, but was in some depressed, neocolonial sense, actually part of it – complete with guerrilla warfare against remnants of empire. Wealth, along with the peace process, distilled Ireland into some version of western normality.

Quietly, in the meantime, Irish neutrality has been eaten away by a succession of developments in military and security policy, mostly linked to Europe. The Shannon pitstop for the US military is merely the most visible, and publicly opposed, part of a history of increasing integration into EU and NATO structures.

These developments have been aided and abetted by a media that shifts effortlessly from ignoring to shrugging – do we even know what we mean by neutrality – to positively cheerleading for the moral imperative of proselytising western values. Academics too. That’s hardly surprising, given what Karen Devine of UCD, a rare and isolated critical voice, told a people’s forum in June, “I think I am the only lecturer in Ireland and Britain who lectures on EU policies and is not paid through the EU.”

It is true that there is no constitutional line on neutrality. But as 1914 teaches us, Irish neutrality, at its best, is a rejection of the logic of war. The section on international relations in article 29 of the constitution begins, “Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.” How sweet.

Plausible liberals, chats with the natives

Why did the government recently decide to press hard and noisily on the question of neutrality in Ireland’s foreign policy, with, for example, a consultative forum in June 2023? It has looked, more than anything else, to be an audition by the taoiseach and tánaiste for plum roles in the EU or other multilateral bodies after they’re drummed out of government in the next year or so. (See Dan Finn’s article elsewhere in this collection for more on Europe’s role in providing jobs for the boys). Given the likelihood of Sinn Féin coming soon to a government building near you – and Fianna Fáil, if it’s there, sure to be Martinless – it can hardly be construed as a serious plan for changing policy.

Nonetheless an array of experts from Ireland and abroad who are happy to shrug off mere constitutional ideals was on show in the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy at various locations around the state. The array’s demographics were telling: the panellists were overwhelmingly European. Not only was the non-white world completely absent from participating in the discussions but there was remarkably little attention paid to the elephant in the international security room: the United States.

The EU? Sure. NATO? Serious discussion, Partnership for Peace, doncha know. The UN? Hmmm, tricky, a problem to be solved. The world’s only meaningful global military superpower, with hundreds of bases outside its own national territory, constant activity within Ireland, and an unparalleled record of smashing countries up and murdering millions of people over the last three-quarters of a century? Nothing.

At the time of writing at the beginning of October 2023, the dame in the forum’s chair, Louise Richardson, had not yet issued the report that Micheál Martin promised would be delivered to him in September. An occasionally interesting scholar of terrorism and very much Irish herself, Richardson is far from the monstrous Tory depicted in some erroneous memes. She is, if it is possible, a more dangerous type: a plausible liberal expert who has earned the trust of European and British establishments – check out that Damehood, awarded presumably for valued advice – but can still just about talk to the natives. 

That type, and their British and European equivalents, constituted a substantial majority at the forum. The key attribute, and red flag, was an institutional affiliation that includes words like peace, strategic and security. A British accent with a soft Celtic burr was the archetypal voice of the discussion, and tough-minded expert realism about the need to unite against Russia and China was the archetypal message. 

 “Thousands of these kinds of shitty security forums filled with arms industry shills happen all over the world every year,” a friend who was glued to the livestream of the forum messaged. “Why the fuck is our government funding one?”

The context for all this Natophilia is, of course, the Ukraine war, with the Irish anti-neutrality push being just the local variant of a Europe-wide campaign based on the aphorism to never let a good crisis go to waste. Some dominos of neutrality (Sweden, Finland) have fallen.

Under the sway of this ubiquitous push, we are not encouraged to question the underlying idea that the answer to war is not – as good old article 29 puts it, “adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination” – but is, rather, more war. 

If you were to make spotting hypocrisy the mainstay of your political analysis, you’d be kept busy. While the arm Ukraine crowd lined up to cheer every bloody inch on Europe’s new Somme at the Dnieper, long-time advocates for Palestine were left bemused by the rather different attitude to slaughter, invasion and occupation between the Jordan and the Mediterranean – even as Israel steps up its wholehearted and bipartisan commitment to all those activities.

Western values: settler-colonialism and apartheid

Ireland’s difference from other western states, its place in the world that sometimes gets called neutral, has long been most clearly marked on the Palestinian question. In Gaza, I once heard that the Irish are the crème de la crème of international solidarity. Governments here have trailed behind activists, but certain politicians – Martin occasionally included – have evinced plausible concern for the issue. Ireland has even been regarded as a leader in European terms in mobilising the minority of EU states willing to criticise Israel. 

Notably though, as the current government fades to black, it has become indistinguishable from the awful EU norm – lip service to Palestine, tangible material support mixed with a few weasel words of criticism for peripheral aspects of Israeli policy. They left the Occupied Territories Bill to die on the vine and have buried any other possible initiatives in a blizzard of verbiage about our European partners. Martin and Varadkar are determined to pass that audition!

Such naked pursuit of self-interest is rarely attractive, but there is something to be said for this policy line. After all, as long as we are standing up for western values, what could be a truer and more meaningful reflection of those values than settler-colonialism and apartheid?

The question of where in the world you find Ireland, a question that goes to the heart of talk about neutrality, has been firmly answered by these politicians. When the electorate renders its judgement, one can only imagine that it might demand some relocation. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to imperialism and militarism. Currently, the Irish state has chosen complicity with these potentially world-destroying forces. 

The Irish people can do better. 

Harry Browne is a senior lecturer in the School of Media at Technological University Dublin, where he is co-founder and coordinator of the Centre for Critical Media Literacy. An experienced journalist, he is the author of three books: Hammered by the Irish (Counterpunch/AK Press 2008), The Frontman (Verso, 2013, with other editions in Spanish and Italian) and Public Sphere (Cork University Press, 2018).

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors