Here’s a question that arises sort of tangentially out of the Lisbon referendum. What actually does the state’s neutrality policy amount to these days?
On the face of it, not very much. The longstanding Irish commitment to the UN mission in Lebanon is one thing. Irish troops in the Kosovo occupation force are something else again. And that’s even before we get onto the Irish involvement in Sarko’s little Beau Geste adventure in Chad. At this rate, there soon won’t be a theatre of conflict in the world where the Emerald Isle doesn’t have a military contingent. It’s all a bit of a turnaround from the de Valera days.
Of course, what we have going for us is the massive public support for the maintenance of neutrality. Hence the government’s gyrations over USAF use of Shannon. Hence Bertie managing to simultaneously support and oppose the invasion of Iraq, although that also has something to do with Bertie’s native cuteness. Hence we get the “Partnership for Peace” or an observer’s seat at the WEU rather than an outright push to get into NATO. Even the Desocrats are chary of publicly mooting that one.
Actually, the line-up of the parties is rather interesting. The Fianna Fáil position, as far as I can make it out, is that if the UN Security Council rules an intervention to be humanitarian, that’s good enough for them. Fine Gael, on the other hand, are cleaving closer to a Euro-militarist position, sometimes being cheeky enough to suggest (but not too loudly) that an EU army could be a counterweight to US hegemony. Greens, republicans and leftists are almost unanimous in supporting strict neutrality. The Labour Party seems to veer between these three positions according to whether or not the moon is in Jupiter. But yeah, this is one of those rare issues where progressives can make the running and be confident of public support.
What’s perhaps even more depressing than the crabwise slide into military entanglements is the failure to capitalise on neutrality, compared to how other smallish countries like Sweden or Finland have managed to build up a distinct profile in the world. At least in Frank Aiken’s day there was some lip service paid towards the notion of positive neutrality, even if it never added up to a hill of beans. Nowadays there isn’t even that, only the fond hope that latching onto the EU will see us right.
And this is actually despite Ireland having had huge potential advantages in the post-Emergency period. There was the great wave of decolonisation in Africa and Asia, and the subsequent growth of non-alignment, where even an old fraud like Marshal Tito could cut an anti-imperialist dash, but successive Dublin governments showed little interest. Add onto that the enormous wave of Irish missionaries and aid workers migrating into the Third World, whence the well-known phenomenon to Irish people travelling abroad, that even in some benighted backwater in Cambodia or Peru you’re liable to bump into an Irish nun at any moment. It’s a potentially vast human resource, but, again, our bien pensants have preferred to ignore it. Diaspora politics these days is reduced to chumming up to Irish-American plutocrats.
So you have there the basic building blocks for what could be an imaginative, progressive foreign policy enabling a small state to punch about its weight. Unfortunately, and this shouldn’t really be a surprise, the Dublin political class is about as interested in an imaginative, progressive foreign policy as Kim Jong Il is in international treaties forbidding the counterfeiting of other states’ currencies. It’s really much easier to just suck up to Brussels, kid yourself that you’ve a special relationship with the Yanks, and indulge in faintly embarrassing paddywhackery about the alleged massive global appeal of Irish cultural production.
This could actually be a little bit of a gap in the market for the Irish left (very broadly considered), if only they’re willing to show a little bit of imagination and step outside their comfort zone. We’ve just seen in the Lisbon referendum how figures like Patricia McKenna and Joe Higgins, neither of whom is even an elected representative any more, could make an impact on the public agenda out of all proportion to what their results in the last election would suggest, just by effectively articulating a popular position that found no real echo in the political mainstream. Shouldn’t it be possible to think about what a progressive foreign policy might look like, and begin to try building some public sentiment around that? Not quite as easy as building a No in the referendum, but surely it’s worth a go.