Ireland needs to combat its domestic demons to begin defending its national interest abroad…

I’ve just submitted my annual review of the Irish blogosphere for Total Politics’ forthcoming Guide to the Blogosphere. In writing this year’s analysis it strikes me that one moment of transformation may come in October with the second referendum result on Lisbon, or more likely in its wake. From what I’ve seen of the official effort, the arguments don’t run much further or deeper than pointing to the fate Iceland outside the EU. No lessons seem to have been learned by the Irish political establishment. Dan O’Brien offers an insight into why. And the causes are not recent. O’Brien argues that they are generational, cultural and structural:

…on the eve of Ireland taking over the rotating presidency of the EU, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern conceded that Ireland was perceived as having drifted to the periphery of Europe.

That the man at the country’s helm for the previous six years could observe such drift, in the manner of a casual bystander, says much about the importance the political class attaches to foreign matters and the unwillingness and inability to pursue the country’s vital interests.

European engagement is a core national interest for Ireland; guaranteeing security is an eternal interest for all states. And here Ireland’s record is unique. When Nato was established in the aftermath of the second World War, Ireland remained neutral.

But unlike those other European countries who voluntarily chose that stance – Sweden and Switzerland – Ireland made no effort to guarantee its neutrality. Where the Swedes and the Swiss committed resources to their militaries, Ireland left itself undefended because it knew that its allies would protect it.

This is called free riding. No Irish person should be proud of it. But rather than being clear about this, self-deception took hold.

Non-participation in the Atlantic alliance came to be portrayed as noble aloofness from the conduct of the cold war. Implicit, if not explicit, in this position was that alliances among states for the purpose of enhancing security were in some way morally suspect.

Sustained self-deception more often than not has serious consequences. It certainly has for Ireland. As the EU logically expands its role in the provision of security, the decades-long failure of the political class to educate, persuade and lead comes home to roost. Fantasies abound of the EU morphing into a war machine and of Irish youth being press-ganged into some Euro-imperial army.

Ireland has simply not developed the national means to become a functioning world citizen. Not least, he says, because of the deep embedding of powerful and eloquent vested interests like the farmers:

Economic security has suffered even greater neglect. Multilateralism is the organising principle that every small country wishes to see operate in world affairs because it internationalises the rule of law. The weak benefit most from enforceable rules because they provide protection from the arbitrary actions of the strong. The World Trade Organisation is the most effective global multilateral construct that has ever existed.

The interests of any small, politically powerless country that is highly dependent on foreign trade dictate that it support ardently that organisation. Ireland does the opposite; consistently working against its own interests. Each time an effort is made to advance the Doha round of trade talks, Ireland is the most vocal opponent among the EU 27.

This position is seen abroad, by those who care to look, for what it is – the granting to a small vested interest (in this case farmers) of the power to determine policy to the detriment of the wider economy.

Lastly, government cabinets should be about capacity building, not just covering a party’s geographical bases:

What accounts for these failings? One must look first to the calibre of the country’s politicians in general, and foreign ministers in particular. The current Iveagh House incumbent is a school teacher. His four immediate predecessors were, respectively, a solicitor, a solicitor, a barrister and Ray Burke. None had any background in international relations or diplomacy. None had ever lived, worked or studied abroad. None had ever worked for a foreign company in Ireland. No other developed country entrusts its foreign relations to unqualified amateurs with no experience of the world.

In recent decades the international political and economic environment has been benign for Ireland. The years to come will be far more challenging. The most parochial and least cosmopolitan political class in western Europe has not been up to the task of conducting a strategically coherent foreign policy in the good times. One must fear for how it will fare in the stormier times ahead.