A neutrality vote will force us all to take a side... I’ll be on the side that stands up to bullies like Putin

If men and women have to fight and die to preserve peace on this continent, then how can we stand idly by and allow our fellow citizens in the EU to do so on our behalf? So asks John Dolan in his weekly column
A neutrality vote will force us all to take a side... I’ll be on the side that stands up to bullies like Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

FOR a life-long politician, a party leader for 11 years, and latterly a Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has made precious few enemies.

Sure, I imagine Mary Lou McDonald isn’t on his Christmas card list, and a few Fianna Fáil backbenchers might be counting down the days before they can do an impression of Brutus on Caesar.

But the Corkman is an affable sort, hiding his ambition behind a reasonable, man-of-the-people demeanour.

It’s fair to say, however, that Micheál and his erstwhile predecessor Bertie Ahern have a chilly enough relationship.

I wonder, then, if Bertie will allow himself a quiet chuckle in the weeks and months ahead, if a decision he made 20 years ago returns to haunt Mr Martin.

It came in the wake of the 2001 Nice Treaty referendum, when voters defeated an attempt to enlarge the EU. It was a pathetically small turn-out and a variety of issues were blamed - but chief among them was a fear the Nice Treaty would challenge Ireland’s long-cherished ideal of neutrality.

Bertie brought the Nice Treaty back to a second referendum a year later - but with this coda inked into the Constitution: “The State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence... where that common defence would include the State.”

Thirty-five words in total, stating baldly that Ireland would join an EU army over its dead body - or not, when you think about it.

Thus was the concept of Irish neutrality, at least in relation to an EU army, enshrined in law, and it got the Nice Treaty over the line at the second attempt.

For 20 years, that sentence has lain, untroubled, in the Constitution. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and all changed utterly for Ireland - a nation that has positioned itself squarely at the heart of the EU.

I wonder if Bertie will allow himself a wry smile at what in sporting terms is a ‘hospital pass’, a bomb with a 20-year fuse.

Yes - I am returning to a topic I wrote about here several weeks ago, when most people believed the presence of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border was a mere negotiating tactic. Recalling the Cold War of my childhood, and the perils of an autocratic Communist Soviet Union, I feared otherwise.

I said on January 29: “If Russia does invade Ukraine, which appears likely... and if a military response is deemed necessary, will Ireland once again sit on the fence? The question of Irish neutrality is going to remain with us until someone grasps the nettle.”

The time for grasping that nettle just got a whole lot closer.

The inconvenient truth for Micheál Martin - and indeed for Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, who takes over as Taoiseach in December - is that they both know, as the war drums to create an EU army grow ever louder, that they will have to hold a referendum if they want Ireland to be part of it.

If they and their parties are in favour of sending troops to join such an army, they are going to have to convince the majority of the population the era of neutrality is over... or risk Ireland being ostracised and isolated in the EU.

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Could this be an issue the two main government parties can kick down the road? As tempting as that might sound, a tipping point may be hurtling down the tracks faster than people think.

The two unedifying scenarios in Ukraine are that either the war will drag on for months, claiming more and more lives and causing more and more destruction, or that some kind of fragile truce will be brokered with Russia.

Either way, the instability will lead to increased calls for an EU army to be formed, to defend whatever parts of Ukraine are left independent of Russia, and those other countries which may be next in Putin’s sights.

If French President Emmanuel Macrin is re-elected, which seems certain, he will surely set about putting his dream of an EU army into motion - with the full support of new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has himself done what was described as a “paradigm shift” on his country’s defence policy in the wake of the new threat from the east.

That is how fast the tectonic plates are shifting since Russia invaded Ukraine just a month ago. As Lenin himself said: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

If a plan for an EU army is unveiled by the summer, what will Ireland do?

The two main government parties owe a debt of gratitude to the bloc after its unwavering support during the Brexit talks. Would Micheál and Leo now cite neutrality and risk offending Germany, France, and the nations in eastern Europe for whom Russia is a clear and present danger?

If they put the question to the people, will they try to persuade them to vote one way or another? And will the people listen?

How this issue plays out will be fascinating to behold.

There may be another power play to bear in mind too. The issue of neutrality may pit Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael head on against Sinn Féin - and any referendum may have a bearing on the next General Election.

Barring a screeching U-turn, Sinn Féin would be almost certain to oppose scrapping the neutrality clause in the Constitution and have consistently opposed an EU army. Could this be an issue that dents its current support? Or, indeed, if the public mood remains in favour of neutrality, could it boost it?

At present, the people seem to favour neutrality. A recent poll indicated 76% supported it, just 15% were in favour of dropping it.

What is sure is that any attempt to circumvent the neutrality question and send Irish troops to a ‘rapid reaction force’, as Defence Minister Simon Coveney proposed this week, will backfire: The public are not mugs and know an EU army when they see one.

If neutrality can be defined as sitting on the fence, then a referendum will force people to take one side or the other.

An EU army will mean Irish men and women possibly fighting, and dying, in a European war. Anyone who votes to end Irish neutrality would have to face that.

For my part, I can only answer that, if men and women have to fight and die to preserve peace on this continent, then how can we stand idly by and allow our fellow citizens in the EU to do so on our behalf? Such a move would be unconscionable, to cling onto an outdated notion of neutrality, which, in a shrinking world, is no longer fit for purpose.

There’s no doubt Putin would love to see Ireland vote to stay neutral - and may even try to influence a poll on social media.

If it comes to a referendum, I will be voting in favour of Ireland joining an EU army. Will you?

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