Irish neutrality was indeed chancy, but we should keep it

There were four pages in the Irish Times on Saturday about interviews given by Seán Lemass, Taoiseach from 1959-66, in retirement to a friend, which have since been lodged in UCD. And some parts of these give me food to write a little more knowledgeably about something I might have written based on an intuitive assessment about anyway: the continuance of Irish neutrality.
People who are against it talk about what a lot of humbug there is around neutrality. After all, they say, the only reason it came to be government policy was partition, and a stance that Ireland could not be allied, during World War Two or the Cold War, with a country that was “occupying” the northeastern part of the island. The government had sought a bilateral military alliance with the U.S. Above all, military neutrality was not moral neutrality: Ireland had been on the side of the Christian civilisation against Godless Communism, and, more quietly during de Valera’s ascendency and a hot war with the risk of IRA subversion, against Nazism. Not to put men and resources where our mouths had been was a contradiction where it was not hypocrisy, and almost unpardonably blind in the context of broader European history.
The Lemass snippets pictured above are the beginnings of a more detailed and, whichever way you slice it, ironical view of matters. Lemass says that Sean MacBride, minister for external affairs in the first inter-party government, replied to a communication asking whether Ireland wanted an invitation to NATO by saying partition made this impossible. Lemass’ comment: “That letter, which was typical of him, was based on a very shallow view of our situation, but as a result of it, no invitation was issued…”
If partition was the only reason stopping Ireland joining, the political facts bear Lemass out regarding MacBride having a “shallow view of our situation”: privately, the government as a whole in 1949 did not unbudgeably oppose NATO membership on these grounds and had pronounced itself in sympathy with the aims of the alliance, questions were asked of MacBride in the Dáil, and obviously Lemass himself, in opposition at the time and a future Taoiseach, did not agree. The Fine Gael-led government’s hands had effectively been tied by a left-leaning republican minister.
There is a little dispute about what the motive for MacBride’s reply was. Garret FitzGerald has written that MacBride was attempting to blackmail the UK into giving up Northern Ireland in return for NATO membership and access to what he wrongly believed to be crucial Irish bases. MacBride, after all, had been IRA chief of staff as recently as 1937. And his journey to the U.S. the following year, seeking a bilateral alliance (such as Spain got in 1953), was the result of his disappointment at the failure of this plot.
But Ben Tonra, a UCD academic, has said that in an interview before his death, MacBride “insisted his opposition to NATO was principled but he used partition as excuse with cabinet, knowing that would tie their hands.” It is fair to say MacBride’s insistence should be taken on board, but not taken necessarily as Gospel truth. By the time Sean MacBride died in 1988, the world had turned, MacBride had been working for many years as a slightly trendy internationalist, and there was a more vigorous left in Ireland which was trying to make a normative value of neutrality. From the points of view of reputation, morale, and retroactive continuity, there was good reason to say he had initiated post-war neutrality as a principled stance on global affairs. On the other hand, it is possible he knew the exchange of the six counties for NATO membership was an unlikely calculation, and it is plausible that joining a fearsome pact in the newly minted atomic age could give anyone pause.
Either historical irony here – either that one man initiated a policy on a false pretext in the face of broad and continued political disagreement, a policy which still exists with broad popularity; or that he believed only in its chauvinist and territorial underpinnings, and came to justify it on “principles” – is pretty captivating. For those who support neutrality, after the changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, it is also fairly chancy.
How much does all that matter? Well, it is very nice to have the policy’s originator supporting it as a principle, even if possibly only after the fact. But neutrality’s detractors cite its chancy origins, which finally are impossible to deny, to undermine it. And on a rhetorical level, it could undermine it, especially in a changed world – even if the changes they are thinking of is not the end of the Cold War, but the changes to Articles 2 and 3, and the alleged Russian threat; even if, surely, the potential for Ireland effecting any kind international change, having any kind of impact is surely bigger as a neutral country.
(The last word about Irish NATO enthusiasts – that word chosen carefully, because there is something a bit boyish and fresh-faced about them all, though even when they’re presenting their allegedly hard-headed analyses – is that they know we don’t matter, and what really motivates them is schoolyard morality, hackneyed historiography, and a wish to be part of the club. Garrett FitzGerald even acknowledged our non-importance in ridiculing Sean MacBride’s bases-for-the-North proposal. What is important is showing willing and good will when it comes to defending the Baltic states, not precisely adding our military muscle on the front line… Apart from that, what is surprising is how many of them there are, and that is why I am writing about this slightly esoteric subject. It is fair to assume that even those only banging the drum on European defence integration have no problem with NATO. They congregate around the Irish Times, the European Parliament, and international relations professorships.)
So, as a baseline prescription, what people who believe in neutrality ought to be doing – and maybe they do – is stressing neutrality as a component of anti-militarism, rather than, as the government at the time of the Nice Treaty had it, a “traditional policy”. They ought to say that neutrality at least allows us no certainty, but a greater potential, to say the right thing, if the right thing does not redound to the credit of the west, on the world stage, at any difficult future stage. It is worth valuing the section of the Constitution saying Ireland will resile from any EU-based common defence. And it is worth keeping a watching eye on the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-operation, perhaps understanding why it is hard, probably wrongly, to get too excited about something that by most appearances is a technocratic move. Without the whiny tone justifiably associated with the left, they ought to point out that it is a racing certainty that any future conflict in Europe will not be solely, or even most likely mainly, the fault of Russia. In sum, we ought to make of a historical contingency, a moral necessity.
I must admit I have occasionally allowed myself to think that an unpowerful neutral country should be a tribune of truth. Ireland, in my low-grade fancy, would have set up a small intelligence agency, whose employees read official reports, newspapers and books, and then make public comments about suspicious covert and military activity throughout the world. To the extent this annoyed the west, the country would be, on the analogy of Gladio, a kind of “stay-behind” operation. (Gladio being another historical reason to keep out of NATO.)
But in reality it is the job of individuals, not States to tell truths. For example, I am pleased that Denis Halliday resigned over the Iraqi sanctions regime in the late 1990s, and delighted that he gave a blurb to a book making the case for a domestic conspiracy in the 2001 American anthrax attacks. It is for individuals to say that neutrality allows Ireland to keep its nose clean and its powder dry.
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