As domestic politics faces seismic political shifts, Ireland’s neutrality faces challenges amid international tensions
Malachi O'Doherty surveys the situation
WHILE politics in Ireland is very interesting, big challenges and developments are coming at a time when global politics is more worrying than perhaps at any time in the lives of most of us.
That puts our problems into perspective.
The genius of the peace process was the way in which a problem was made more manageable by being made bigger, involving more parties.
So the Irish, British and US governments coordinated their efforts and put together an agreement which treated the Northern Ireland trouble as a conflict implicating and making demands of all of them.
And the EU was there with financial support. It had been there from the very early days too as a forum which amplified the need for improved relations between Britain and Ireland.
In the coming year we may see a Sinn Féin led government in Dublin and, more immediately, we will find out if the DUP can get itself back into Stormont to produce a functioning executive in partnership with Sinn Féin. The party appears split on whether to accept a financial incentive to compromise put forward by the British government before Christmas.
Perhaps it will have to let that split work itself through, lose some senior members and hope that the next election will endorse a brave decision.
Sinn Féin taking the lead in the south worries other parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may be able to form another coalition to keep them out but many will feel that the party with the most votes should not be ganged up on and excluded in that way.
The incentive to keep Sinn Féin out of government includes fears that its past association with the IRA may survive as a threat to security. Bluntly, can a party that endorsed the Provisional IRA campaign, and has former senior militants within it, be trusted with the intelligence information that ministers might have access to? The IRA claimed to be the legitimate army of the Irish nation and Sinn Féin in the past at least recognised it as such. A future Sinn Féin defence minister might have a job persuading some in the armed forces of his or her unalloyed commitment.
But the current global scene makes these concerns look small, so small that there is little prospect of the US government, for instance, devoting much attention to resolving them.
Great international powers will be asking not what they can do for Ireland but where Ireland stands in relation to the bigger problems they have to deal with. Officially the Republic is neutral. It is not a member of NATO. Yet it has been impacted on by the major upheavals of recent years.
Ireland took in large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, a sacrifice which clearly expressed greater empathy with one side in Russia’s war.
Russia has had ships sniffing around seabed internet cables off the Irish coast, perhaps just to remind us that it could banjax international communications if it chose to get really angry with the West; perhaps also to remind Ireland that it is a small country totally at the mercy of greater powers.
Ireland can’t fire a missile over a Russian ship to unnerve the captain and send him scurrying into deeper waters for safety.
We learnt in the past year that Ireland’s airspace is defended by the RAF. This is a logical arrangement to Britain’s advantage too but it was never much talked about for fear that Ireland’s proud neutrality might not look so bold and confident.
George Orwell accused Ireland of blind nationalism during the Second World War, His example of that blindness was dependence on Britain for defence.
Fintan O’Toole made basically the same point in an article mocking the state of Irish defence forces in a week in which Russia had been persuaded not to conduct military exercises close to the Irish fishing fleet. He wrote: “It would be vastly too expensive to create and maintain a real air force. Better to admit that the RAF does that job.” (The Irish Times, Feb 3 2022)
The Irish have tried to meet international responsibilities as peacemakers rather than as warriors. Irish troops are based with the UN in southern Lebanon, now a war zone with daily exchanges between Hezbollah and the IDF.
Ireland has expressed anger and dismay at the pulverising of Gaza and been coarsely insulted by the Israeli Foreign Minister for being a little more euphemistic than he thought was appropriate in welcoming the release of an Irish child, one of the hostages held by Hamas.
Sinn Féin has been arguing for stronger protests against Israel, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the country identifying itself with the South African case against Israel, accusing it of genocide before the International Court of Justice, of which Israel has agreed to be bound.
Ireland is a small country already seeking to have its say on international affairs at a time in which tectonic shifts may be occurring in the world order.
It can do no harm at home for it to disengage from its petty differences and notice how much more serious are conditions abroad.