Neutrality no longer a realistic option

Sat, Jul 18, 2009, 01:00

OPINION:As the Green Party meets to consider its stance on Lisbon II, a long-standing peace activist argues for a Yes vote, writes JOHN GOODWILLIE

THE HISTORY of Irish neutrality is made up of two intermingled strands.There is a strand of defining Ireland as separate from Great Britain and therefore not bound by the great power politics that Britain is involved in. This strand can be traced from Wolfe Tone’s pamphlet on the Spanish war in 1790 to Seán MacBride’s decision in 1949 not to join Nato because it would involve recognising the Border. This strand surely is now exhausted: no one can doubt Ireland’s freedom from a specifically British domination.

The second strand is one of Ireland using a non-aligned position to work for peace in the world. This strand can be traced from de Valera’s support of the League of Nations in the 1930s, through Frank Aiken’s initiative on nuclear non-proliferation in 1958, to the more recent initiative on cluster weapons.

Once Ireland decided on membership of the European community, there was always a potential for a clash between this membership and its non-aligned foreign policy. The development of the European Union from European Political Co-operation in 1970 to a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as proposed by the Treaty of Lisbon presents the question of what sort of neutrality is possible in such an alignment. Since most of the political aspects of neutrality have already gone, leaving not much more than a tightly defined military neutrality, is there any potential to continue a policy of non-alignment?

In the 1980s it seemed possible that an alternative route of political development was possible. As Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union, it seemed possible that a gap would open up between Russia and the Nato countries. Dissident groups raised ideas of buffer states with neutral or non-nuclear status. A network called European Nuclear Disarmament explored such issues.

Perhaps the Soviet Union would permit the unification of Germany on the basis that it would not be in Nato. Perhaps the Soviet Union would withdraw from its “satellites” in eastern Europe on the basis that they would be neutralised. A link might therefore be opened up between the Scandinavian neutrals (Sweden and Finland) and the central European neutrals (Switzerland and Austria). France’s status, half in and half out of Nato, might change.

In this context a neutral Ireland might be in a position to contribute to a zone or series of zones which would break up the Nato monolith. However, that is not the way history happened. Gorbachev was unable to reform the Soviet Union, which instead was dissolved. Nato, which logically should have wound itself up, managed to survive and expand. The ex-satellites joined it in the period 1999 to 2004. Finally, this year France returned to full involvement in Nato, thus ending both the possibility of it leaving Nato completely and the possibility of it becoming the leader of a European pole in rivalry to the United States.

In the historical circumstances that have actually emerged, what future is then possible for Irish neutrality? It could try to disengage from the CSDP and be satisfied that it was maintaining a shining light on a hill. But, assuming this could be done, what perspective would this present for future development?

Given that the rest of Europe is now engaged on a different course, how could such isolation contribute towards the development of a more peaceful world? The reality is the European Common Security and Defence Policy. And the question, therefore, is: can we participate wholeheartedly in CSDP, even with its further development through the Treaty of Lisbon? By doing so can we add our strength to those forces which are seeking a CSDP which is not simply a military structure, but which, rather, questions cold war military assumptions, concentrates on conflict resolution and uses civilian resources where appropriate. The European Defence Agency is one of the forums in which such discussions could take place.

Such a development of the CSDP could gradually show an alternative way forward to that of Nato. In this way the Irish tradition of non-alignment could continue to make a contribution to peace.

John Goodwillie was a Green Party candidate in the 1999 Dublin South Central byelection.

He is a former secretary of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

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