The country thought it could have its cake and eat it, by relying on the hated British for its defence
Published: 1 July 2022
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is posing Ireland – which is not a Nato member – with difficult choices. In its happy position of having next door a neighbour that used to be an enemy but had become its best friend in the EU, it has been cosily accustomed to having its cake and eating it.
Governments spoke piously from the high moral ground of the sacred tradition of neutrality and contributed some modest peace-keeping forces to UN operations. But the reality was that they had always spent a pittance on defence because they knew that the UK would come between them and any international danger, however much they badmouthed the British for their wickedness over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Take what happened in March last year when Russian long-range aircraft, for the third time in a week, headed south down the Atlantic in air space controlled by Irish authorities but which the country did not have the resources to police. Three RAF fighters scared them off. This was not an unusual event – just a routine Russian reconnaissance. And post 9/11, Ireland had a confidential agreement that the UK Government would deploy aircraft if there was an immediate threat to life.
Ireland was in a happy place, revelling in smiles and back-patting from the EU Commission for its readiness to sacrifice its sovereignty in the name of internationalism and to be used as a weapon in the Brexit negotiations. And it was part of a little club of countries whose neutrality was well respected.
But Putin has changed everything utterly. Finland and Sweden are speeding ahead into Nato, an organisation hitherto widely ridiculed as a pointless relic of the Cold War, which is now seen as a saviour. In a referendum, 66 per cent of Danish citizens have just voted to abolish their EU defence opt out.
Disturbing questions are being asked by European countries, and even by the US, about Ireland’s commitment to collective defence. And disobliging people are harking back yet again to Ireland’s failure to fight the Nazis (although in fairness its government was neutral, but in practice pro-Allies).
It has been fortunate for democracy that Ireland’s two traditional political enemies are governing in coalition, allowing the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and his deputy, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, to agree swiftly a responsible line. In the month before the invasion of Ukraine, Martin began clarifying that the country’s position was militarily but not politically neutral.
After it, Varadkar went further in the Irish parliament. The country was militarily unaligned but “not neutral at all … support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional”. Irish public opinion, which is volatile and often Left-wing, became deeply sympathetic to an invaded country with which it identified. The doors were opened to unlimited Ukrainian refugees and Ireland now has more than it can accommodate.
Saying little on the war, however, is Sinn Féin – a party that eulogises the terrorists of the IRA but speaks of neutrality as a sacrament – which has been so embarrassed by its past pro-Russian sentiments that it wiped them all off the party’s website.
Its president, Mary Lou McDonald, is playing it safe: Sinn Féin’s foreign policy priorities, apart from Irish unity, are “firmly asserting Ireland’s position as non-aligned” and actively exercising maximum international pressure against Israel’s “apartheid regime”. Its vicious propaganda has turned Ireland into the most anti-Israel country in the EU.
But McDonald is no fool, and she knows that in the middle of a European war, with Ireland outside Nato, and Britain and America the leading defenders of Ukraine, this is no time to be controversial.
So Irish neutrality – complacent at the best of times – has now become untenable, and perhaps its politicians will finally resolve to do something about it.
In May, Simon Coveney, the minister for foreign affairs and for defence, told a Harvard gathering that the Russian invasion would be bringing about a shift in attitude in Ireland. “Neutrality means Ireland decides when we get involved and when we don’t. Ireland is not neutral.” It was sending non-lethal supplies, such as medical equipment and humanitarian aid, to Ukraine, he explained, and he believed they would in the future be more open to collective approaches to security. Praising the Biden administration for getting the balance right “supporting Ukraine while at the same time not letting the war spread beyond the borders”, it was no longer “sustainable” to be “an outlier” spending only 0.3 per cent of its GDP on defence.
Referring to Brexit as “a pebble in the shoe”, he said that in the context of Ukraine, “we have to get our act together as a continent”. Resolving the problem of the Protocol could yet be an unintended consequence of Putin’s disastrous war.