Clean hands

FitzJamesHorse pithily describes the formality that Irish is the “first national language” as Ireland’s “first national hypocrisy”. But Ireland is not short of hypocrisies. Its second national hypocrisy has long been the pretence that Ireland is somehow free of the sin of abortion. And to this list we should add a third, the conceit that Ireland is a “neutral country”.

The second and third national hypocrisies are remarkably similar. In both cases Ireland has dodged a controversial issue by washing its hands, in the sure and certain knowledge that its old enemy next door will pick up the slack. Just as the NHS in Liverpool has allowed Ireland to keep pretending that pregnancies never go wrong, the RAF at Brize Norton and the Royal Navy in Portsmouth allow it to pretend that fish poaching is its gravest military threat. When Russian bombers skirt Irish air space, it is the RAF that intercepts. When destroyers cruise near its coast, it is the Royal Navy that follows alongside.

Ireland is a proudly independent state, but a passive spectator in its own air and sea defence. Ireland’s army is widely respected, and justifiably so. For an island country in no immediate danger of land invasion, its armed forces are highly effective at the roles they have chosen to take on. But for an island country bordering some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, its coast guard navy and propeller-powered air force might as well not exist.

Like it or not, military defence is still important. The world is still recovering from the Great Recession, economic imbalances have not been addressed, and populist nationalism is on the rise. A superpower conflict in Europe is thinkable again after nearly 30 years of comparative harmony. History teaches us three potentially relevant lessons. Economic collapse increases the chances of military conflict; the new conflict is never the same as the old one; and military neutrality is a strategy, not a principle.

Neutrality, like any military policy, only exists to the extent that it can be enforced. Declarations of neutrality in the face of open aggression are as ineffective as thoughts and prayers. Belgium declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the Second World War, as did the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. All were conquered without a second thought. What saved the likes of Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland from occupation was either military strength, political submission, or strategic irrelevance.

During the Cold War Ireland enjoyed a uniquely privileged position. Far behind the Iron Curtain, detached from the mainland and lacking heavy industry, it was unlikely to be the scene of a ground invasion. And with the superpowers facing each other across the Arctic, it was never going to be as useful to air defence as Canada, Iceland or Norway. But the unspoken truth was that Ireland was trying as hard as it could to pass unnoticed.

The voluntarily neutral countries on the front line of the Iron Curtain – Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and (after 1968) Albania – maintained significant armed forces to deter invasion, not because they were important in themselves but because, like Belgium in 1939, they were in the way. Finland and Austria had neutrality imposed upon them as the price of their independence. Every other European country larger than Malta joined one of the main military alliances – with the notable exception of Ireland.

Rolling up like a hedgehog is a good defensive strategy for a small neutral country, one that Switzerland has employed for centuries. But to be a hedgehog, one needs spikes – and Ireland has never invested in a meaningful national defence. The other option is to get somebody else to protect you – but this means either an explicit deal with equitable terms and conditions, or subservience to someone else’s interests. If you can’t defend (or buy a defence of) your territory on your own terms, someone else will defend it on theirs.

Or as Trotsky might have put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

When it comes to the old enemy, Ireland remembers everything yet learns nothing. It cherishes every remembered consequence of occupation, settlement, annexation and rebellion, but has never fully come to terms with the cause, or its implications. Ireland was not conquered for its oil or its gold. Ireland was conquered for its coastline. If England had not secured Ireland for itself, Spain or France would have done it instead. Both tried, and it is only a roll of the historical dice that they failed.

Ireland was conquered precisely because it was neutral and undefended, and the lesson that Ireland learned from the experience is that being neutral and undefended is akin to sainthood.

And so Ireland indulges itself in doublethink. It is fully committed to its deep economic ties with its European and American friends and partners, but refuses to openly acknowledge that military interests will inevitably align with economic ones. When challenged on this, Irish politicians trot out the same list of contradictory excuses. Irish diplomacy is dependent on neutrality, even though Norwegian diplomacy is not. Military spending diverts precious funds, even though the US built its post-war economy on it. And the best thing we can do to advance global security is to stand back and let the grown-up countries deal with it, because the most important thing is that we don’t get our own hands dirty.

Just like abortion.

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Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.

Twitter: @andrewgdotcom