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7 November 2009

The Republic yet again sits back as young men die for freedom

My mobile rang on Thursday when I was in my local London supermarket. “Can you believe the Irish Times didn't cover the killings of the five soldiers in Helmand?” said the caller from Northern Ireland. “They must have,'' I said. “Not a line,'' he said. “Not one line. And this in the week of Remembrance Sunday.

“At least the Irish Independent had a few paragraphs — even if they were at the back of the paper. With all the talk about reconciliation down south, they're still hung-up about the British Army.''

I tried to think of an explanation and failed. I looked again at the front pages of all the British national dailies. Broadsheets and tabloids alike all led with heartbreaking reports of the treacherous murders of the soldiers by one of the local police they were mentoring.

After a hot and dusty patrol, soldiers and police had returned to the primitive police station, pulled off their helmets, unslung their rifles, shrugged off their body armour and had tea and something to eat. They were easy prey for the Afghan policeman on the roof with a powerful machine gun, the eight wounded included two Afghan police.

I searched the Irish Times from cover to cover and had to admit that my caller was right. There wasn't one word about the tragedy that had gripped the United Kingdom — this universal story of treachery among comrades — and was making hundreds of thousands of people question if there was any point in being in Afghanistan.

RTE did have, as item 3 on the News at One, an item about the Taliban stepping up the insurgency, but it was off their radar by evening. And I couldn't find any coverage in the Examiner on-line.

I've thought and thought about this, and have concluded this is not malign. Just ignorance.

In many respects, the Republic of Ireland has grown up. Recently, it has honourably sought to make up for those dark decades when people were ashamed to admit they had had relatives in the British Army, when the 35,000 Irishmen who died in World War I were demonised for having fought in the trenches rather than in the General Post Office in Dublin, when the IRA supported Hitler, when governments ignored remembrance ceremonies, sympathisers were afraid to wear poppies and republican thugs attacked the British Legion.

When, in 1998, Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese unveiled the Irish Peace Tower, it was a wonderful moment for all those brave campaigners who had ploughed a lonely furrow for so long.

It was a moving moment personally for me too, as I thought of those years growing up in Dublin when I thought I was the only Catholic child who had had a grandfather in the British Army.

Ignoring such a story as the Helmand massacre is not about anti-Britishness, I think. It is about parochialism.

As they argue obsessively about how to rescue their ruined economy— except for relatives and friends of southern Irish members of the Royal Irish Regiment who have been on the front line — the citizens of the Republic of Ireland think Afghanistan is an irrelevant, faraway war.

They love Obama for his rhetorhetoric and for not being George Bush, but they ignore his belief that Afghanistan is an essential war, that withdrawal or failure would lead to a take-over by the Taliban and that Pakistan would probably follow and present al-Qaida with a nuclear weapon.

Unlike the US, Britain, France, Spain and many other parts of the world, the Irish have so far escaped Islamist violence and — despite having a growing Muslim population with its fair share of radicals — they think comfortably, and foolishly, that they have nothing to fear from al Qaida.

My countrymen had the luxury of being neutral in the Second World War and having the rest of Europe save them from Hitler. Subsequently, they erected neutrality into a useful principle and, though they feared communism, during the Cold War they could hide behind the skirts of NATO.

During the years of horror in Northern Ireland, apart from the obscenities of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, they were able to bang the nationalist drum without suffering any consequences.

Now, with the West facing a new and terrible threat, with Islamist preachers throughout Europe urging the gullible young to jihad and, despite the graphic evidence of the destruction of the Twin Towers and the carnage in London and Madrid, the Irish are happy, once more, to let others do their dirty work.

They keep their eyes shut and refuse to acknowledge that any US or NATO soldier who dies in Afghanistan is dying for the freedom of the West.

The UK government deserves much of the blame for this: Gordon Brown couldn't sell Christmas to Santa Claus.

And no realist could expect Taoiseach Brian Cowen to think beyond December's budget. But journalists are paid to pick up on what politicians miss.

The media of the Republic of Ireland would do well to remember the words of John Donne: “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.

In the case of the Western soldiers who die in Afghanistan for the cause of preserving Western civilisation from the bad and the mad, the bell is tolling for all of us.

Including the Irish Times.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards