There are justifiable wars - even in our case

Mon, Sep 7, 2009, 01:00

ON OCTOBER 2nd we will vote on a set of operational reforms for the complex, if often boring, 27-member state European Union. When it comes to the consideration of Irish neutrality and EU membership, familiar actors re-emerge to deliver their familiar lines, writes TONY KINSELLA

As this will be our eighth EU-related referendum in 36 years, the basic argument that EU membership is incompatible with military neutrality has worn a little thin.

Danish marines do not patrol the streets of Cork, nor do French gendarmes direct traffic in Longford. Irish troops have not participated in the “imperialist” wars described by Roger Cole of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (Pana) in his Irish Timesarticle of August 13th.

As the arguments become threadbare, the language becomes more dramatic and the facts ever more selective. Pana cites Wolfe Tone as being not just the father of Irish republicanism but also of the country’s absolute security disengagement by quoting from a pamphlet he published in 1790.

Citing how a revolutionary leader viewed the world at the end of the 18th century as a basis for decision-making at the beginning of the 21st is, at best, a fraught exercise.

Omitting to mention that Tone spent the last two years of his life successfully lobbying revolutionary France to invade Ireland, or that he held the rank of adjutant-general in the French army at the time of his capture, suggests a degree of factual selectivity bordering on intellectual myopia.

Neutrality arguments now carry significant pacifist and isolationist overtones with their central tenet being that Irish military neutrality is something so unique and wonderful that it shines as “a good deed in a naughty world”. Something too pure to be questioned, much less analysed.

The main expression of Irish neutrality was, to quote Garret FitzGerald, our “non-belligerence” during the second World War. Seventy years ago, the de Valera government proclaimed our neutrality as France and the UK went to war with Nazi Germany following its invasion of Poland. This echoed decisions taken in other neutral European capitals. Dublin’s decision had an extra piquancy in that it affirmed our independence from the British Empire.

Nazi Germany went on to violate the neutrality of many European nations including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. The latter three had remained neutral during the first World War, but German strategic requirements in 1940 overrode concerns for international law.

This was the missing element of reality in Dr Karen Devine’s academic review of neutrality, alliances and international law published in The Irish Timeslast November. Traditionally, respect for a nation’s neutrality depends on the goodwill of the belligerents. Constructing the alternative of an enforceable system of international law pre-supposes the existence of entities such as the European Union.

What was a rational political decision in September 1939 had become morally questionable by the spring of 1942. Following attacks from the Axis powers, the Soviet Union and the US had entered a war which now ranged democratic and progressive nations against fascist barbarity and militarist expansionism.

There is probably no such thing as a “good war”, and the concept of a “just war” has been so recuperated, bowdlerised and spun as to have lost all meaning. There are, however, justifiable wars, and the second World War by 1942 certainly qualified as one of these. Yet Ireland chose to stand aside from this global struggle between barbarity and progress.

Fast forward two years to spring 1944, and the Allies, now known as the United Nations, were clearly winning and would therefore set the agenda of the post-war world.

Latin American dictatorships understood this and hastily joined the UN effort. It was one of many realities that failed to penetrate Dublin’s isolationist fog.

Irish participation would almost certainly have shortened the war. Most obviously in terms of the Battle of the Atlantic, but also through the presence of one or two (US-equipped) Irish divisions in Europe and by the staging and training of US, Canadian, French and other non-British personnel here.

Would Irish participation have helped end the war in Europe a week, a month, or three months earlier?

While the question is unanswerable, the human costs are all too easy to calculate. Almost 45,000 people a month were murdered in Auschwitz from March 1942 until the Soviets liberated it in January 1945. About 2,400 was the average monthly slaughter in Bergen-Belsen until British troops liberated it in April 1945. Upwards of 100,000 were incinerated at Dresden in February 1945. The Battle of the Atlantic cost 60,000 lives, and some 4,500 vessels.

The construction of camps and airfields for allied personnel, investment in ports, railways and roads would have provided the Ireland of the early 1940s with a major economic boost.

The presence of personnel from North America and a range of European nations would have severely dented Ireland’s then stultifying social and cultural isolation. As an Allied nation, Ireland would also have benefited from the post-war Marshall Plan for reconstruction in Europe.

How many additional Jews, gypsies, or homosexuals were asphyxiated in Nazi gas chambers because of Ireland’s non-belligerence? Were the incinerated of Dresden also a price worth paying? Did the tens of thousands of impoverished and under-educated people condemned to emigrate from 1950s Ireland see their banishment as a necessary sacrifice to the god of non-belligerence?

Those who would defend Irish neutrality as unique and wonderful need to address such questions.

They also need to explain what makes Irish neutrality so fundamentally different from the Austrian, Cypriot, Finnish, Maltese and Swedish versions. These are nations with a proud tradition of active neutrality who have no problems with either their EU membership or with the Lisbon Treaty.

Endless repetitions of melodramatic assertions never add up to an argument.