Editorials: Irish neutrality, Northern divisions

Irish neutrality

The pretences go from thin to non-existent

The lies and deceit continue. The Irish government insisted that aid to Ukraine was only ‘non-lethal’ though any army needs ‘non-lethal’ equipment to function (just as any army needs transport to conduct its wars and staff its military bases – so the use of Shannon Airport for the US military can be considered military assistance to the USA). Training for the Ukrainians by the Irish army in mine clearance is also military assistance but it was passed off as ‘defensive’ which it might be except when an army is on the offensive.

But now it has been revealed that the training given to the Ukrainian army by the Irish army entails both weapons skills (e.g. rifle training including advanced marksmanship) and military tactics. Laughingly, a Department of Defence spokesperson (quoted in the Irish Times https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/2023/08/18/irish-troops-to-provide-weapons-training-to-ukraine-despite-governments-non-lethal-assistance-pledge/) said the training given presented no conflict with neutrality. Further excusing the inexcusable, there was a denial that there had been any attempt to mislead the public and that the list of training areas given earlier in the year was “intended to be indicative rather than exhaustive”.

Once more the government has sought to push back on neutrality and hoodwink the public. https://www.irishtimes.com/politics/2023/08/23/protesters-demand-ending-to-military-training-for-ukraine/

We are sad that a supposedly neutral country such as Ireland has had such a lack of imagination as to what is possible and has been unquestioning of the EU and NATO responses. Instead of joining up with NATO one way or another and the path it takes, Ireland should be forging a path as a peacemaker and mediator. That is what is needed, not another militarist response. Even the fact that the USA is supplying cluster weapons to Ukraine, and Ireland was instrumental in bringing about the banning of such weapons, has not made any difference to the refusal to monitor what is coming through Shannon Airport on US planes, despite protestations on the issue by the likes of Eamon Ryan. Questions have also arisen over the summer about the role the small number of Irish troops in Afghanistan played in the war there.

It has been a busy number of months on the issue of neutrality. The so-called Consultative ‘Forum’ on International Security took place in late June and Louise Richardson’s report will presumably appear in the not too distant future. Despite justifying nothing of the kind, the intention behind the report was to give a proven reason for moving away from the ‘triple lock’ on the deployment of Irish troops overseas; while we await Ms Richardson’s report it is clear she was chosen as a safe pair of hands for the government, and nothing in her conduct of the Forum indicated otherwise. There was also the revelation of drones used by Russia in attacking Ukraine turning up with a ‘Made in Ireland’ component (a carburettor) showing the complexity of such matters and the perils of dual use materials.

As analysis of the sessions of the ‘Forum’ show, it was a dog’s dinner with little in the way of detailed arguments and analysis, even from the often biassed selection of speakers. To justify a policy change on the basis of this would be a travesty but just watch Micheál Martin, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, as he tries to turn it into a fait accompli. The only fate that should accompany this rather poor excuse of a consultation is to consider it a lop-sided and failed political move which has been found wanting.

Northern Ireland:

Same old, same old sectarian division

To blame the people of Northern Ireland for the continuing political mess and lack of government at Stormont might be self-satisfying but ultimately futile. The legacy of colonialism has dealt a hand which is difficult to deal with and ongoing British incompetence and vested interests (British interests that do not serve the people of the North) has been deeply problematic as well – think Brexit and the outworkings of that, think legacy changes and impunity introduced to protect the British state and its interests.

Of course various people and groups in the current era in the North, on all sides, have a certain culpability for failing to move things on. We do not need to repeat what has been said on this here often times before. The hope that unionists might be able to move on this autumn has evaporated though not without trace.

Don’t mourn, organise” remains the advice to be heeded, that is, building the alternative and showing the way forward. This is of course very difficult on a society which relies on old shibboleths of one kind of another and with a power structure that, even with a proportional representation voting system, allows intransigents to retreat into their sectarian bunkers. We can only do what we can do but it needs to be focussed on what will effectively move things forward.

While the leader of the DUP might wish to at least return to powersharing in Stormont, polls show nearly two thirds of unionists wish to sit out until the NI Protocol and Windsor Agreement are sorted to their liking and ‘seamless’ trade is restored between Britain and Northern Ireland. There is next to zero chance of this happening. There may be further wriggle room for the EU making existing regulations lighter and less cumbersome but the British government, having been hoist on its own petard with Brexit, has hoisted Northern Ireland even further and there is no chance of renegotiation.

Is this all unfair on unionists? Quite probably. But then Brexit was unfair on nationalists and an arithmetic majority in the North who wished to stay in the EU. Unionist grievance is understandable. But where does a fair equilibrium lie in the North in a state which remains British but with a majority which is now Catholic if not ‘nationalist’ in a traditional sense? Answers on a postcard please or a 100,000 word treatise…. Northern Ireland is a small and unimportant backwater so far as the British government is concerned.

We have often said before that sensible unionists would be bending over backwards to give Catholics and nationalists what they want, within the boundaries of Northern Ireland. Given demographic change that is the only way they have any chance of maintaining the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the longer term (there are other pressures at work in the UK too, notably in Scotland even if nationalism there has suffered some blows in recent times). But most unionists dwell on the supposed inequities which they suffer while ignoring the inequities visited upon others. That is perhaps in the nature of the pre-post-colonial system in the North and resultant sectarianism. However if they could build on that advice to any extent – to treat others as they would like to be treated – whatever the future holds, it would augur well for cross-community cooperation.

Whether there is the prospect of a return to an Assembly at Stormont remains a moot question. When it is finally clear beyond clear that the British government will not alter, or seek to alter, the Windsor Agreement version of the Northern Ireland Protocol, unionists have a choice. They can sit still and see an indefinite return to direct rule or they can make the jump back in to devolution, this time with the added pain of holding the Deputy First Minister post rather than that of First Minister. But with the usual British financial package (or at least promises) accompanying such a return they can talk that up. The British government can also issue lots of words on the importance of the Union but actually doing anything further to give unionists reassurances on their position within the UK could be contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course nationalists need to be doing things too, and there have been some developments on this front but not yet from a somewhat wary and weary Irish government. Guarantees of fair treatment and respect for northern Protestants and unionists are difficult to make in the abstract but they need to be carefully and fully outlined for any eventual unity, as well as a process which would come if there was a ‘united Ireland’ majority vote in the North. And the possibilities of what a united Ireland might mean should be coming not just from nationalist and republican quarters but from official Irish government endeavours in this area. You can see why they have not done this to date, fearing to raise tensions and destabilise the North further but it has perhaps got to the stage where not doing so is destabilising. Everyone needs to see what is on the table and, for example, the continuation of the Stormont Assembly in a united Ireland, raised by some nationalists, should be further explored.

This is some of what needs to happen in the macro political arena. But change needs to come about in the voting system for Stormont, and in decision making within it which has been almost consistently poor. Moving to voting and decision making systems promoted by the de Borda Institute www.deborda.org would be a massive move forwards. Firstly in voting for their elected representatives, people would be incentivised to vote across the board in order of their preference but political parties would be incentivised to reach out to voters outside their traditional catchment group. And in decision making within the Assembly there would be a greater chance of arriving at an adequate consensus decision and a less divisive atmosphere.

Change in systems at Stormont would of course be more manageable if the Assembly was actually working. But if the impasse continues then British and Irish governments should grab that particular bull by the horns.

In wider spheres integrated education, integrated housing and cross-community work need big fillips. These all need resources and the unfortunate reality is that in the context of a declining British economy and (in the current situation of no Assembly) diffident British secretaries of state this is unlikely to happen. However there could be a role here for increased Irish government funding.

There have been big changes in Northern Ireland over the last half century but the level of understanding across communities – Catholic, Protestant, and newcomers – remains poor. Many different approaches are necessary in working on the existing chasms, not just in facilitated and informal direct discussion but also in working and campaigning on projects for the common and collective good.

The prospect of a return to the larger scale violence as in the last Troubles is not impossible but thankfully not likely in the foreseeable future. But in the unforeseeable future, if all sides continue to believe that their military struggle in the Troubles was just, then such violence is far from impossible. This is where knowledge of nonviolent struggle and change comes in, along with a non-violent analysis of the Troubles and how things developed and were eventually sort-of resolved.

Cultural issue are important but there are dangers that ‘culture’ can be exclusionary so this whole area is a difficult one. The 12th July Battle of the Boyne celebration is, after all, the celebration of the victory one side over the other in the North, and the other’s subjugation, and usually commemorated in a semi-military way. There is plenty that can be celebrated about being British or Irish in a way which does not exclude others but its needs imagination and creativity.

Arriving at a non-sectarian society in the North is a massive task. It is still the work of generations. But there are clear tasks which can be undertaken and the journey is already under way.

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