Editorials: Assault on neutrality, Northern Ireland 25 years after GFA

Irish neutrality

The assault on neutrality continues

The ‘Consultative Forum’ set up by the Irish Government on ‘International Security Policy’ to take place in June is quite clearly designed as a further assault on Irish neutrality through, inter alia, getting rid of the triple lock on the deployment of Irish troops abroad. The war in Ukraine is being used by the Government to argue about the changed security situation – without stating how Ireland is affected – and to justify a radically different policy. Step by step, slowly, slowly, while still paying lip service to what it calls ‘military’ neutrality, the Government and establishment are dismantling it while saying ‘Nothing to see here’. The Government is expected to move to eradicate the triple lock in the autumn.

The ‘triple lock’ is where any large scale deployment of Irish armed forces abroad needs the approval of the Government, the Dáil, and the United Nations Security Council or General Assembly. Without this policy the Irish government will be free to send Irish troops anywhere including NATO missions and (forthcoming) EU army deployments. For background see PANA’s website https://www.pana.ie/posts/neutrality-nato-and-the-attack-on-irelands-triple-lock

Had the Government intended a constructive engagement with issues to do with Irish neutrality policy it would have chosen the citizens’ assembly model which it has used in recent years to move forward on contentious and problematic areas. However it notably has not done so in this case because, knowing that neutrality is popular among citizens – as attested by various opinion polls – it judged, rightly, that this methodology would not give it the answer it wants.

Instead it has chosen a ‘Consultative Forum’ with a chair, Dame Louise Richardson, who is of Irish origin but also a US citizen and a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) who it expects to deliver the result it wants. Louise Richardson is an expert on anti-terrorism and has, for example, written uncritically about USA foreign policy. Amazingly she has written “the United States had very good reasons to object to the governments of Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Their ideological orientation was inimical to its own, so it supported local groups that used whatever means were available to them to try to bring them down.” (“What Terrorists Want”, Random House, 2006, p. 52). In fact in these cases the terrorism she purportedly opposes was actively instigated and supported by the USA for it own selfish interests at great cost to the people of the countries concerned. These comments here look very much like support for terrorism of the state variety. An impartial chair she is not.

While some in the peace and neutrality sector support a boycott of the Forum, it is likely that the more general response will be both participation in the Forum – so far as is possible – and protest at its bias while trying to ensure through other means that there is an alternative view put forward. It remains to be seen whether the Forum is biassed in who it allows to contribute in the sessions (anyone will be able to make written submissions which can simply be totally ignored if they don’t like them) or whether it will simply shade its conclusions enough to allow the government to take the action it wants in dismissing the triple lock and paving the way for the final eradication of neutrality.

What is of course missing from the whole picture is an analysis of the possibilities of a positive policy of Irish neutrality on the world stage. We wrote before (NN 305, December 2022) that “There are many ways that Ireland can play a positive role in peacemaking in the future, all of which are either dependent on, or would have a contribution made by, Irish neutrality. Building up a skilled team of mediators for different levels of conflict is one such role, engaging before there are even ‘rumours of war’ or armed conflict. Engaging with different parties or governments before conflicts have got ‘hot’ is another related area of work. Pushing and working for the further development of international law in relation to war is a further area – and working to get existing laws implemented and respected. Nonviolent peacekeeping can be explored as well as Ireland’s well-established – and respected – role in military peacekeeping. This is only scratching at the surface of what is possible……..”

We are not saying there are no threats to Irish security but believe that the biggest threat of all is from militarism and war in Europe which risks escalating to nuclear war. Who is going to invade Ireland? Russia cannot even subdue its smaller neighbour Ukraine. Of course we should show solidarity with peoples suffering violence but there are non-military means of doing this. Ireland can be part of an escalation by getting into bed all the time with NATO (see e.g. https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/2023/03/19/ireland-stepping-up-international-cooperation-to-counter-hybrid-threats/ or it can be a part of de-escalation and building peace.

Ireland is accused by many of ‘freeloading’ on British and NATO defence but the reality is that no military defence against large powers is possible for Ireland, not in any meaningful sense, and the country is far better to be a force for peace. The world is also preparing for and fighting the wrong wars; the struggle should be on providing human security through ending global warming and establishing global economic justice – that would be real achievements for peace.

There are certainly indications that Sinn Féin and the smaller left parties take Irish neutrality more seriously than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Of old, Fine Gael was weaker on neutrality than Fianna Fáil, and Frank Aiken of the latter was a Minister for External Affairs in the 1950s and 1960s totally dedicated to non-alignment and a positive role for Ireland in building peaceful solutions; it is thus ironic that this sham for democracy is taking place under the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. The extent to which a Sinn Féin led government would or will ‘build back’ on neutrality remains to be seen but that is perhaps the best hope in the political sphere on the issue at this stage. Though of course if the people of Ireland mobilise or become conscientised on the issue then Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might have to row back on their plans to retain support – but to date their ‘softly, softly’ demolition of neutrality has been going their way.

Northern Ireland

After the Good Friday Agreement jamboree

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the conference celebrating it at Queen’s University Belfast was an opportunity for a feel good reunion of some of the principal players in that event. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was an important staging post in calling an end to the Troubles period which began in 1998. Theoretically it set up a power-sharing home rule system for Northern Ireland which could take it forward economically and politically and build a future for all – but the Assembly and Executive have not been operating for upwards of 40% of the time since then and even when functioning its decision making has been poor.

What went wrong? There are a variety of factors. The main background factor is that staunch division persists in the North. This is not just on constitutional issues, the obvious dividing line, but also on social and economic issues, e.g. the DUP bizarrely continuing to support “11 Plus” division of children into grammar and secondary schools when those who fare worst in this system are Protestant working class boys. Protestant politics tends to be centre and centre-right, with some veering to the hard right, while Catholic politics tends to be centre and left of centre. It should also be stated that we use the term ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ as shorthand for cultural groupings and not as a religious denominator per se; it is eths quite possible to be a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist in Northern Ireland.

While the old divisions may matter less to many young people it is hard to say that most young people are not also prisoners of these divisions. Proclaiming that old shibboleths do not matter is fine but does that actually translate into significant movement towards building cross-community and non-sectarian alternatives, and voting in a non-sectarian manner? There is certainly an element of young people saying ‘a plague on both your houses’ but the relative success of the Alliance Party recently should not be taken to mean that sweetness and light has broken out even if the balance of power between ‘orange’ and ‘green’ is now held, in some instances, by the ‘centre’. And many young people simply want to get out of the North and build a life elsewhere.

The economic realities of the North are also a contributing factor to ongoing division even if there is now generally a level playing field for Catholics and Protestants in terms of employment. Compared to the Republic, the North is a low skill, low wage economy; the most important background factor enabling the Republic to get where it is today has been investment in education by the state, individuals and families. The North needs much more investment in education, indeed the equivalent of another university (to stop a brain drain of students to Britain from whence most do not return), but also perhaps most importantly to up-skill people and in particular those with the lowest educational achievement level.

But, as the DUP has been pointing out recently, the Barnett Formula by which money is divied out within the four jurisdictions in the UK is based on ‘per head’ payments, not on need. If spending in England goes up ‘a pound per head’ on some new initiative then Northern Ireland also gets a pound per head. But if Northern Ireland is poorer than the British norm, as it is, this does not give it any more money to address the needs and the inequality. And economies of scale in Britain or England do not exist in the North with 1.9 million people. But sectarianism also costs money, not just in policing and the like but also duplication of facilities where a resource is not actually accessible to people across a divide locally. And poor decision making and planning at the top has an economic and social cost.

The budget introduced recently by NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is woefully inadequate to address any of the problems in the North. With a general standstill or small cut in the absolute amount of money departments are receiving this actually represents a cut by the amount of inflation, a very significant decrease. Health may have received an increased allocation of 0.5% but with inflation this is not even a drop in the bucket of need to improve the appalling situation and waiting lists of the National Health Service in the North.

Whether economic development through the ‘facing both ways’ nature of the Northern Ireland Protocol and ‘Windsor’ Agreement comes about and makes a significant difference in the years to come remains to be seen. While there are some indications it may help it is too early to make a firm judgement, and political uncertainty acts as a deterrent to economic development. Northern Ireland may have a relatively high level of employment but it also has a high level of people outside the field of gainful employment – people who are ill or otherwise outside the labour market.

But, returning to the political system instituted by the Good Friday Agreement there are obvious reforms needed a generation on from that. While understandable, the particular consociational elements designed to provide fair play for ‘both’ sides have proved problematic in a variety of ways. While it may flatter the Alliance Party to refer to them as a ‘third force’ in politics, as things stand they can be involved in the Executive but not potentially be First Minister or Deputy First Minister; they may be a long way from this eventuality but allowing ‘neithers’ (those proclaiming themselves neither unionist nor nationalists) fair involvement is one challenge.

Other challenges include preventing one party from collapsing the system (as the DUP do currently and as Sinn Féin has done previously) and not allowing ‘petitions of concern’ to be abused. The good news here is that a majority of the population in the North back changes to allow the Assembly and Executive to function uninterrupted; in a LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph, 63% of people said the rules should be changed to remove the veto from a single nationalist or unionist party, and 30% opposed such a move. In a separate poll for the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs committee, over two thirds of people in Northern Ireland recognised significant changes are needed to power-sharing, and also felt that the 1998 agreement has failed to provide stable governance.

However aside from vetoes there is still the problem of decision making within the Assembly and Executive when it is functioning. Decisions that need made on education and the health service, for example, have not been made. This is where the inclusive voting methods advocated by the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org should come in, in particular the Modified Borda Count http://www.deborda.org/modified-borda-count/ This does not magically create a consensus where there is none but it can help to arrive at the best available compromise, and, through non-polarised voting, enable a process which will come to a fair decision and not become a sectarian or other tussle. Such a methodology is tailor-made for the likes of Stormont and the adoption of this would greatly facilitate competent decision making which in turn would assist progress on a wider plane in the North.

Whether the DUP decides to return to Stormont in the autumn, with the local elections and marching season out of the way, remains to be seen. Most unionists want to see the NI Protocol out the window before resuming power-sharing but replacing the Protocol and ‘Windsor’ Agreement has a very low chance of success. Whether DUP leaders can gather the courage to jump back in to Stormont remains to be seen. At the moment the prospects might be summed up that the North is damned if they don’t but still damned if they do, at least until a workable system of government comes into place – and even then it would only be a start to address the myriad of issues on the table.