Reds on our sea bed! But in this shrinking world, how long can Ireland remain a neutral nation?

Neutrality has been a regular hot potato in Ireland, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
Reds on our sea bed! But in this shrinking world, how long can Ireland remain a neutral nation?

PEACE IN HIS TIME: Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain in Munich - The Edge Of War. As well as his policy of appeasement to Germany, the British Prime Minister negotiated a deal with Ireland in the 1930s that lost the UK its three Treaty Ports in this country

THANKS to a towering performance by our very own Jeremy Irons, Munich – The Edge of War is a superb and rather timely film.

Irons plays the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who has gone down in history as something of a naive Tory toff, who gambolled into Adolf Hitler’s Munich lair like a lamb and did a deal with the big, bad wolf.

In 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain clutching a scrap of paper full of Hitler’s soon-to-be broken promises, declaring: “I believe it is peace for our time,” ending his speech in Downing Street with a touching appeal: “Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

Britain duly sleepwalked into World War II, but the film tries to put a new spin on the reputation of Chamberlain, who is regularly cited as among the UK’s worst Prime Ministers, while his successor in 1940, Winston Churchill, is cited as the best.

The film prompts the question: How bad could a man be who yearned so much for peace? A man who once said: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Many Irish people would relate to that remark.

Interestingly, Chamberlain had some history with Ireland during his tenure. In 1938, he thrashed out a deal with Éamon de Valera to end the trade war that was damaging both countries.

Dev proved a tough negotiator and at one point, Chamberlain complained he had presented him “with a three-leafed shamrock, none of the leaves of which had any advantages for the UK”.

Eventually, a deal was struck, and Dev had to back down on his bid to put the issue of Partition on the table - a pragmatist, then, after all, just like Michael Collins had been 16 years earlier!

This agreement was the one that handed the three Treaty Ports, including one at Spike Island, back to Ireland.

Chamberlain was attacked in the UK for doing this at a time when war with Germany seemed imminent, most notably by Churchill, and he rather weakly claimed de Valera had given him an oral assurance that, in the event of war, the British would have access to the Ports.

When World War II broke out a year later, Dev went back on his pledge, and denied Britain access to the Treaty Ports, citing Irish neutrality.

Ah, yes, Irish neutrality: that old chestnut, which has raised its head frequently since it was adopted in the 1930s, is set to return to the agenda, both domestically and internationally, in the coming days, weeks and months...

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Just as Ireland awoke from its long Covid hibernation, and looked forward to a new spring, the Russian bear stepped blinking into the spotlight.

For months, its troops have been massed on the border with its neighbour Ukraine, and the international community has grown ever more anxious that it is about to invade.

It was easy, amidst the distraction of a pandemic, for countries like Ireland to look the other way. After all, there are 3,000km between Cork and Kiev, and surely our friends in America, Germany and Brussels have got this?

Then we learned that Russia’s sabre-rattling was venturing a little closer to home, and they were planning to stage naval military exercises just 240km off the southwest coast of Ireland, in waters that are within our remit.

I must say, I was surprised to find this apparent act of aggression is not in itself against what is called the International Law of the Sea, but there is little doubt Vladimir Putin is what is known in the undiplomatic core as s**-t-stirring.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney.
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney.

Our Foreign Minister Simon Coveney acted swiftly, and in more diplomatic terms, to declare Russia’s actions “unwelcome”, adding that the European Union would be holding it to account if it invaded Ukraine.

This was fine rhetoric from the Cork TD, but while he spoke of EU sanctions and restrictions against Russia, I couldn’t help wondering whether Ireland was heading into another big debate on neutrality.

If Russia does invade Ukraine, which appears likely - especially as the West is still preoccupied with the pandemic, and two of its allies, Britain and the USA, are led by moribund figures, to put it kindly - and if a military response is deemed necessary, will Ireland once again sit on the fence?

Although not in the EU, ties between Ukraine and the bloc have been deepening in recent years. What if the EU demands a co-operative response militarily to this act of aggression on its doorstep? Will Ireland offer to provide troops, in contravention of its neutrality? If it doesn’t, what will that do for our reputation as the model child of the bloc?

Equally, how would an invasion affect Ireland’s recently-won and treasured role on the United Nations Security Council? Would its neutrality be seen as an advantage? 

The Council can authorise the use of force if deemed necessary, but should a neutral country be allowed a vote on such an onerous issue, if none of its people run the risk of being brought home in body bags?

All of these questions will come into sharper focus should Putin invade Ukraine.

Neutrality has been a regular hot potato in Ireland.

It received its first test during World War II, when the Irish supplied intelligence to Britain and its allies, and many will be aware that weather reports from here aided the crucial timing of the D-day landings.

Just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you surely can’t be a little bit neutral, but that has been the Irish solution to the Irish problem of neutrality for more than 80 years.

We allowed U.S planes to land at Shannon Airport for years during its wars in the Middle East, but sending our troops to trouble spots such as Ukraine would be an entirely different ball game.

Certainly, any government move perceived to go against our widely cherished neutrality would cause political tensions, not least because Sinn Féin have consistently been dead against any step towards an EU army.

All of this may become moot, if Putin backs down, or if the EU, as usual, leaves any military action to the Americans or NATO.

But there is always another international crisis around the corner, and it’s fair to assume the formation of an EU Army is perhaps only a matter of time.

The question of Irish neutrality is going to remain with us until someone grasps the nettle.

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