That bitter Cabinet row last week between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and wandering minister, Shane Ross, was important – if only for the light it threw on Fine Gael’s policy on neutrality about which we, the plebs, know very little.
Sinn Féin wanted a lock on neutrality. Precisely, the Republicans sought the following amendment to the Constitution: ‘War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war or other armed conflict, nor aid foreign powers in any way in preparation for war or other armed conflict, save with the assent of Dáil Eireann.’
Uncontroversial, one would think, and in conformity with the views of most citizens, particularly given the street cred Ireland enjoys around the world because of its non-intervention stance when disputes break out among the Big Powers.
Consequently the plain people of Ireland found it somewhat bizarre that Kenny should blow a gasket after Transport Minister Shane Ross called for a free vote on the Sinn Féin neutrality amendment. The Dear Leader is said to have furiously bellowed that the independents would get their free vote on another occasion, but not this time.
The matter, he roared (allegedly, we hasten to add), was of ‘fundamental public policy.’ He feared that, if the Sinn Féin motion were enshrined in the constitution, ‘it would mean unforeseen difficulties in so many areas for the country.’
Not one member of his ragbag cabinet asked him what he was on about!
We can only speculate, assisted in no small way by an observer’s account of Kenny excitedly waving in Ross’s face a copy of Bunreacht na hEireann, and at the same time spluttering that article 29.9 of the Constitution made it perfectly clear, as did the treaties of the EU, that there were very tight ‘safeguards’ on neutrality.
Article 29, commits Ireland to ‘the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations’ and to ‘the principle of pacific settlement of international disputes’ – which is hardly a ‘tight safeguard’ against involvement in blood-soaked US adventures!
Ross, to his credit, was having none of Kenny’s sophistry and demanded the right to support a referendum on neutrality. In other debates, he had objected to the use of Shannon Airport by the US military.
He described Minister Charlie Flanagan as the ‘greatest advertisement for the abolition of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ and said ‘Ireland was no longer an independent neutral nation whose word was listened to around the world.’
The unctuous Health Minister, Simon Harris, pleaded with Ross and Kenny to find a formula of words that might defuse the row, while the contribution from motor-mouth, Minister John Halligan, went down in history for its Churchill-style profundity: ‘I’m not too pushed,’ he commented nonchalantly before going on to add with all the discernment of someone possessing remarkable political wisdom ‘because it’s almost impossible for Ireland to go to war.’
Eventually, after the Dear Leader declared that there was no question of our neutrality being infringed in any way, nor would there be a European army, Ross caved in. There was no free vote, and the Sinn Fein motion was strangled at birth.
But the plain people of Ireland were not fooled! They knew Kenny was spouting bunkum thanks to people such as Richard Cole, chairman of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, who for years pointed out that Ireland could not be considered a neutral state if you have over 2.5m US troops landing in Shannon Airport since 2001.
Former army officer Tom Clonan, describes Shannon as a ‘virtual forward operating base for ongoing American operations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.’ The airport, he says, has had daily landings of military transport aircraft, mid-air refuelling tankers and other US Air Force, Navy and Army aircraft ever since Ireland became a member of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in the US global ‘war on terror.’
But, despite the evidence, Flanagan and Kenny (supported by Fianna Fáil) continue to push the myth that the flights are ‘civilian’ and that Shannon is used only for crew rest, refuelling and passenger transfer. It is an argument rejected by the Peace and Neutrality people, who claim successive governments have granted the Yanks permission to carry weapons and, in some cases, ammunition.
Recently, the magazine Counterpunch reminded us that a 2003 High Court judgement stated that Ireland had been in breach of the Hague Convention on neutrality by allowing US troops to use Shannon Airport on their way to and from the war in Iraq.
As for the likelihood of Ireland participating in a EU army, well, Roger Cole points to the fact that Irish troops already are part of a British-led EU battle group that has been conducting exercises on British soil. Kenny, however, sees no threat to our policy of military neutrality.
His viewpoint is difficult to reconcile with the fact that France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are in favour of a joint European army and that NATO has declared the EU a strategic military partner
Britain, which has always opposed the formation of a EU army, has seen its influence wane in Europe since Brexit. This, in turn, has encouraged sabre-rattling from God-help-us countries, such as Poland and Hungary, to press for an acceleration of EU military integration – and that includes Ireland!
Nonetheless, Flanagan continues to reject the possibility that a EU-wide army is in the process of gestation. His argument is based on the premise that since there is no provision in the EU treaties for the creation of a EU army, ergo, there will be no EU army.
Fine Gael strategy
To add to a Fine Gael witches’ brew deliberately concocted to confuse the public, Simon Coveney’s recent white paper on defence strongly supported the harmonisation or ‘interoperability’ of Irish military forces and equipment with NATO and EU military forces.
And, in another Fine Gael-inspired policy document, entitled the ‘Department of Defence and Defence Forces Strategy Statement 2015-17,’ we are informed of Ireland’s commitment to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, to EU Battlegroups and to the NATO-PfP. Ireland (to our surprise) has long been an enthusiastic supporter ‘of positive engagement’ with other like-minded EU member States and with NATO-PfP. Current strategy is to enhance Defence Forces’ ‘interoperability’ in multi-national operations and ‘to contribute to the development of military capabilities in accordance with international standards.’
Against a background of almost clandestine military developments that strike at the heart of Irish neutrality, is it any wonder Kenny went ballistic (a term apt in the circumstances) when Shane Ross demanded a free vote on the Sinn Fein amendment?
If it had gone through, then the definition of neutrality would have been strengthened in an inalterable fashion. Kenny and his gung-ho pals certainly didn’t want that!