Ireland, Neutrality and Global Militarization

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1In the past six weeks two proposals have been presented to Dail Eireann seeking to enshrine neutrality in the Irish Constitution. On both occasions the political parties that have between them formed all governments since the formation of the State voted against the proposals, thereby supporting the ongoing erosion of our neutrality as well as our continued participation in imperialist wars. This is despite the fact that a Red C poll carried out in September 2013 found that 78% of Irish people believed Ireland should have a policy of neutrality.

The first Bill was proposed by Sean Crowe of Sinn Fein on 6th March. In introducing it he said:

This Bill seeks the insertion of a reference to neutrality in Bunreacht na hÉireann. Essentially, it seeks to amend the Constitution to ensure Ireland could not, and would not, aid foreign powers in any way in preparation for a war, save with the assent of the Dáil. The Bill also affirms that Ireland is a neutral state and that the State would have a policy of non-membership of military alliances. Ultimately, it would give power to the people in that it would trigger a referendum on whether Irish citizens wanted Ireland to be a neutral country. The overwhelming evidence is that they do.”

Fine Gael opposition wasn’t surprising, as they have been trying to move the country closer to NATO membership for decades while hiding behind the notion of “military neutrality”.  And since Fianna Fail were the party that gave the use of Shannon Airport to the US military for the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently went on to argue that Ireland’s neutrality arrangements would continue under the Lisbon Treaty (while knowing that was impossible), their unwillingness to reinstate Irish neutrality wasn’t surprising either. But considering that the Labour Party voted in favour of the same Bill in 2003, their U-turn was particularly disappointing.

These three parties claim Ireland is already neutral on the basis that we are not part of any military alliance or a permanent military formation. This so-called military neutrality predates World War II and reflects the country’s long struggle for independence. In 1949 Ireland was invited to join NATO but it didn’t accept the invitation because it didn’t wish to join an alliance that also included Great Britain. Indeed a “triple lock” mechanism was devised to give effect to Ireland’s military neutrality policy; this means Ireland cannot send more than 12 military personnel overseas without government and parliamentary approval as well as UN Security Council approval for the mission.

The second Neutrality Bill was proposed by Mick Wallace TD on 27th March. In his speech he emphasised that in reality Ireland does not have a policy of neutrality anymore. He spoke of the need for an active neutrality which, as he said,

embodies a commitment to the legal definition of neutrality as described by Hague Convention V and to the following values and foreign policy goals – peace promotion, non-aggression, the primacy of the UN and the confinement of state military activity to UN peacekeeping, not being involved in wars, impartiality and maintaining Ireland’s independence, identity and independent foreign policy decision making. These differ from the concept of military neutrality that has allowed us to facilitate the movement of munitions and millions of armed troops who are engaged in invasion and occupation through Shannon Airport.”

Wallace pointed out that the Government says it promotes disarmament and international peace while at the same time allowing the US military to refuel at Shannon, bring arms through Irish territory, go on to a war situation, drop bombs on people and kill a million civilians in a 13-year period. He also pointed out the increasing significance of the very lucrative arms industry, and in particular, its role in the election of Barack Obama as US President.

The Wallace Bill sought to affirm Ireland’s neutrality through adherence to the provisions of the 1907 Hague Convention (V) Respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land. In defeating it, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour showed their support for global militarization despite the devastating destruction and loss of life caused by it. They have given effect to this support by facilitating US military expansion and intervention, and by dragging Ireland into an increasingly aggressive NATO-EU alliance.

The US doesn’t need any help implementing its militarized foreign policy but our political elite still feel the need to provide some. With better resourced naval and air forces than any other country, the Americans possess the capacity to act militarily anywhere in the world as they pursue their interests and affirm what their military planners call Full Spectrum Dominance. Of course US politicians on all sides are wary of being sucked into another large occupation, in part because it would kill a lot of Americans, but also because they saw from Iraq that it didn’t work. But that doesn’t stop them from conducting airstrikes, as they are currently doing in Iraq and Syria,  or providing aid and weapons to others including rebel forces (like they’ve also done in Syria) to help them engage in ongoing warfare on the ground.

US foreign policy is becoming increasingly militarised, although as a New York Times opinion piece by Aaron J O’Connell pointed out in 2012, few Americans are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names. The US accounts for the largest amount of military spending by any country, with a staggering 37% of total military spending worldwide. In 2013 it spent $618 billion on its military, and it had almost 8,000 nuclear warheads in reserve. However policies of fiscal austerity, linked to the reduction in its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, have meant a reduction in total US military expenditure since 2012. Their share of overall global military spending is likely to drop further in the coming years while China and Russia’s spending grows (although the total military spending in Russia continues to be a fraction of what it was in the late 1980s). Behind these three, the country with the fourth largest spend on its military in 2013 was Saudi Arabia. At the moment Saudi is leading a military offensive in Yemen, where its air strikes have hit numerous targets, resulting in many civilian deaths.

In the midst of all this global investment in militarization and war, moral reasoning was comprehensively abandoned by Ireland’s political elite in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the US. When President George W. Bush announced in March 2003 that the US was assembling a coalition that had already begun military operations “to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and enforce 17 UNSC resolutions”, Ireland was not in the list of 48 countries that said they were “publicly committed to the Coalition”. But it probably contributed more to the war effort than the vast majority of the countries that were on the list by allowing Shannon to be used for refuelling the US military aircraft on their way to and from Iraq. Ireland has also participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, with seven troops deployed to the occupation ISAF force headquarters in Kabul (the number deployed allowed the government to conveniently sidestep the triple lock requirement that applies to units of 12 or more Irish soldiers participating in military alliances). Add to that the country’s co-operation with the CIA’s renditions programme flights after 9/11; it is now widely accepted that Ireland was one of 54 states that facilitated the CIA in its illegal kidnapping and torture of terror suspects (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2013), yet no investigation has been undertaken of how or why this occurred.

Two and a half million US troops, plus their weapons, have passed through Shannon Airport since 2003. So have hundreds of CIA rendition planes. The US Air Force can be seen there on almost any day of any week, being guarded by the Irish police and army. That’s neutrality, Irish style.

Then there’s Ireland’s increasingly close alignment with NATO. Ireland joined their Partnership for Peace in 1999 and has contributed to NATO-led missions in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as Afghanistan. Indeed the Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described Ireland as “a very important partner” of NATO during his visit here in February 2013.

In writing about the end of Scandinavian neutrality in 2009, Rick Rozoff noted that the end of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, which were NATO’s raison d’etre, in fact unleashed the Alliance to become an expansionist and now international military power. NATO still claims to be defensive but its wars have been exclusively offensive, largely on the back of fabricated interventions. The Ukraine in particular has highlighted the truth about NATO according to Pepe Escobar: “For the Full Spectrum Dominance Pentagon, what really matters above all is something that’s been actually happening since the fall of the Soviet Union; unlimited NATO expansion to the westernmost borders of Russia”.

The EU is now becoming a strategic military partner of NATO through its battle groups. As Roger Cole of PANA wrote in June 2014, the Irish army, which was born in a national struggle against imperialism, is being increasingly integrated into these. He reminded us of the words of the words of Éamon de Valera who in July 1955 told Dáil Éireann that

“A small nation has to be extremely cautious when entering into alliances which bring it, willy nilly, into those wars… we would not be consulted in how a war should be started – the great powers would do that – and when it ended, no matter who won… we would not be consulted as to the terms on which it should end.”

These days Ireland certainly doesn’t get consulted, but our government doesn’t seem to care. In fact it seems to be quite willing to enter military alliances. In one of the recent neutrality debates, the Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said that military neutrality has always been a matter of policy and principle, rather than law, in Ireland. This “pragmatic approach” has enabled successive Governments to “respond to international crises through both civilian and military means in both peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions” he said. What he didn’t mention was that it has also enabled them to participate in EU battle groups, forge closer ties with NATO and provide 13 years of direct support for US military actions abroad.

That’s how Fine Gael, Fianna Fail – and now Labour – like their neutrality.

The significance of the erosion of military neutrality on the Scandinavian peninsula was not lost on Rozoff when he wrote about it six years ago:  

“The NATO integration of Finland and Sweden is a final detail in a grand landscape whose composite view is of every European nation – large and small, west and east, continental and insular – incorporated into and subordinated to a globally expanding military bloc controlled by a power in another hemisphere.

Ireland political elite have taken the state down the same road of subordination. The government’s response to Mick Wallace’s Bill was quite telling; Labour’s Sean Sherlock repeated the mantra about the government being committed to the long-standing policy of military neutrality and even went as far as saying that Ireland “has not entered into a military alliance with the US or with any other country or organisation”. Permitting the use of Shannon by the US does not challenge this position in any way according to Sherlock and the rest of the government.

The great powers have decided that militarization is here to stay. And the Irish people are being denied their right to oppose it.

John Lannon is a member of Shannonwatch who have monitored and highlighted US military and CIA use of Shannon Airport for many years.


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