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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

An alternative defence for Ireland

Rob Fairmichael looks back at – and forward from - a short pamphlet from 1983:

"An alternative defence for Ireland – Some considerations and a model of defence without arms for the Irish people" is available as a PDF in the Pamphlets section (Published as part of Dawn magazine, Nos 95-96, 8 pages, A4) Page numbers below (in Roman numerals) refer to the pamphlet.

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In this piece I will first of all discuss around the topic before picking out some of the points from the original pamphlet. I believe it shows Ireland neither needs, nor would benefit from, developing military cooperation in the EU or with NATO.

The year I wrote the short pamphlet "An alternative defence for Ireland", 1983, Margaret Thatcher was being re-elected to power in Britain, Ronald Reagan was calling the Soviet Union the 'Evil empire', 'supergrass' trails were happening in Northern Ireland, and peace activists formed a 14-mile human chain between Greenham, Aldermaston and Burghfield in England, all nuclear weapons related facilities. The Cold War was still at its height, the collapse of the Soviet Union half a dozen years away. In Ireland, the anti-nuclear weapons movement, mainly in the shape of CND/Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was in rude health, both in the North and the Republic.

But those concerned about aspects of EEC, now EU, membership had quite rightly pointed to the dangers to Irish neutrality of EEC developments toward common foreign and military policies. Irish neutrality is portrayed by its opponents as being a negative, a not-position, a failure to stand ground with other countries in resisting threats. However its proponents see neutrality in a very different light, as being a voice for sanity, an opposition to negative power blocs, and an opportunity to build peace and not divisive and lethal military alliances. A short fact sheet on neutrality is available here.

Opponents of neutrality have tried to portray it as Ireland (the Republic) hiding behind the coat tails of NATO, as benefitting from NATO policies but not contributing. Proponents of neutrality have seen it as an opportunity to reject the madness of militarism and military blocs, and have questioned why NATO should continue after the end of the Cold War and the fall of eastern European communism in 1989. One of the effects of NATO has surely been to contribute to renewed tension with Russia, e.g. regarding Ukraine.

In an era, today, of the Republic being a member of NATO's 'Partnership for Peace' (sic), and of EU battle groups, there is the question of how long Ireland can be considered to remain a 'neutral' country. The answer should be 'a very long time yet'. There are many positives in Irish neutrality which can be built upon, and many negatives and pitfalls that can be avoided, though the Irish government (or all hues to date) has avoided the obvious in not refusing to let the USA continue to use Shannon Airport and the Republic as a staging post for its wars and military machine.

This is where credible plans for a positive neutrality kick in. We do not need to be part of a NATO/EU military alliance to be good European citizens, even less so to be good citizens of the world. The opposite is the case. There is enough military madness around without Ireland adding to it. Ireland can be an honest spokesperson for a more rational and relational viewpoint of international affairs. It can continue to emphasise the importance of talking, and talking, and talking, of walking the talk, and of inclusive peace processes based partly but not exclusively on the experience of Northern Ireland. It is being part of a military alliance, or derogations from a neutral stance (e.g. Shannon usage by the US military) that would make Ireland more of a target for any 'enemy'.

If there is to be an Irish army, then there is no reason to depart from the current model of military peacekeeping being conducted under the aegis of the United Nations, indeed this could be extended to further investigate unarmed peacebuilding modes. Ireland may be small but that does not mean what it does has no significance. In fact what route it chooses is of great significance; to sell its soul to the highest bidder or bidders (USA and EU) or to strive to oppose military madness from whatever source it comes. Irish neutrality has the support of the population of the Republic.

There is of course a very real danger in the development of western European military policies. We have already seen 'Fortress Europe' put in place in relation to refugees coming to Europe and their human rights being denied or avoided. If the world goes in the direction it is travelling at the moment then a European army may be a participant in not just in 'steel curtains' later in the 21st century but also actual resource wars. Of course, for public consumption at home, this will be dressed up and portrayed as military action for humanitarian, human rights or other purposes. We have also seen an example of such greed close to home this century with British oil companies clambering for oil concessions in Iraq; fight an unnecessary war and make a profit from it. We need to avoid going down the military path.

So what would an alternative defence for Ireland look like? Although some of the context has changed since I wrote what I did in 1983, much has not, and the main considerations hold. There are a couple of points to be made here. The first is that what was written is not set in stone, it is one particular take on a possible policy, it shows – I believe – that it can be done, that it is possible. And as any such policy depends on collective, societal buy-in, it would require widespread debate, adaption and adoption.

Who would want to invade Ireland? Well, in the past it could have been anybody, in the sense that Britain felt vulnerable from attack to the west and might have made a pre-emptive strike – though give the history of British colonialism in Ireland, maybe that is part of the story anyway. Spain or France could have been allies to Irish people wanting to kick out the British. In the Second World War Irish neutrality was pro-Allied and protecting a belligerent Ireland from attack would have been more costly to the Allies than a neutral Ireland. Some republicans were pro-German in both World Wars but an invasion by Germany in either was never on. Some people might have fantasised about a Russian invasion during the era of communism but realistically it was an island far too far, even if the Soviet Union wanted to invade, which it did not.

It is not clear who today might want to invade Ireland. With advances in technology the strategic advantage of holding territory like Ireland has receded. But even if we look at eastern Europe, the same arguments apply for a nonviolent defence. Arms did not stop the takeover of the Crimea or eastern Ukraine by Russia, and it is extremely debateable whether Russia actually has much more in the way of territorial gains it would like to make. It has seemingly secured its bases in Syria, where it continues military action in support of its ally Assad, and it is probable that that is as far as it wants to go – although that remains to be seen, and Putin is clearly an opportunist. However it is the USA which has military and naval bases all over the world.

Ireland had, and has, no viable military defence against attack but then you can argue it has no viable potential military attackers regarding a conventional invasion. However we may want to have a viable defence in place for our own peace of mind (p. i). Such a defence would include widespread publicity about its existence.

It is also clear that a policy of positive neutrality (p. ii) is part of the defence. This is not only true in relation to the remote possibility of a conventional invasion but also in relation to the possibility of 'terrorist' attacks. It is something like US military use of Shannon Airport that makes the Republic vulnerable. If we are not a part of attacking others then it is much less likely that we will be attacked. This should not be taken as a policy of cowardice. Rather, Ireland should be fearless is working for peace, taking risks for peace, on the international stage.

In an alternative nonviolent defence, the first point is to deny use of any facilities that would be available in the short term to an invader. So the scuttling of any such facilities – including airports – would be a key factor (p. iv). The second is to make 'them' know in advance that the country was prepared and resistance would be imaginative and ongoing, requiring considerable manpower (sic) to maintain an invasive presence. Both of these points are key deterrents. The population would use economic, social, political and cultural weapons (p. ii); and "choosing the most appropriate responses at a particular time", which would certainly include strikes, boycotts and hidden disobedience. Non-violent resistance to Nazi occupation in Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway (and to some extent France and Belgium) was effective in the Second World War (p. iii) – methods of resistance other than military confused German generals.

An alternative, nonviolent defence would take some time to be introduced, and for the population to be trained (p.iv). It would only work if the population was fully behind it, and that would require persuasion and mobilisation. It should be clear that the techniques and learning would be of use in struggles for justice at home as well as for a nonviolent defence

A communication system would be needed for when communication systems are down (p. iv); while social media could be important in communicating and galvanising people, it cannot be assumed that any particular means of communication would still be 'up', and therefore more old fashioned and/or inventive systems would have to be utilised.

The pamphlet also looks briefly at the issues of Northern Ireland being part of a NATO-member state and the Irish military nationalist tradition (p. vi).

I will end with the same quote as I did in the pamphlet, from the War Resisters' International in 1982: "It is clear that the subject of nonviolent defence is not the defence of a territory but a defence of those values which are necessary to reach a more egalitarian society on economic, social, political and cultural levels. Nonviolent Popular Defence is part of the struggle for a change in society now, and cannot be a result of a possible change of society in the future. It is also a transnational process."


The 1990 the War Resisters' International held a conference on 'social defence' and a book arising from this, "Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence", is available on their website at a reduced price, along with the c edition of the "Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns".

Copyright INNATE 2016