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Martin’s Ukraine visit is something of a double-edged sword

Taoiseach risks a row over neutrality at home as he asserts an Irish post-Brexit identity that’s far closer to the EU

When God closes a door he opens a window. Or, to be more specific, when God thrusts you into a big PR crisis, he provides a direct phone line with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

At least that once seemed to be the belief of Boris Johnson and his Downing Street operation. When the prime minister faced the resignation of his ethics adviser (a job title almost as unenviable as Brexit opportunities minister), Johnson cancelled a visit to the North of England and instead found himself on a flight to Ukraine.

Analysis in the I newspaper attempted to prove that Johnson’s various pow-wows with Zelenskiy coincided suspiciously closely with his worst public scrapes in recent months. When informed he would face a no-confidence vote, Johnson dialled up Kyiv. After the poor local election results a month prior he did the same. Fines, resignations, the poorly received Rwanda policy all saw Johnson speak to his confidant in far-off eastern Europe.

But as PR crises overwhelmed the administration, even reports that Zelenskiy was delighted to hear Johnson had survived June’s no confidence vote yielded little benefit for the already beleaguered prime minister.

Unfortunately, there were simply not enough visits to Kyiv, or hours to spend on the phone, to save Johnson’s spiralling reputation. And no amount of endorsements from the wildly popular Zelenskiy could have ever overshadowed the spate of resignations, the lax relationship with the truth, the obfuscation and the general unseriousness that came to dominate his government in its twilight hours.

A cynic might see a pattern. Exploiting an ongoing and brutal war for domestic reasons certainly seems crass. Even yesterday in Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson attempted his well trodden line once again: I must stay for now, if only for the sake of the Ukrainian people.

But there is always a more generous reading. And perhaps instead of a hollow ploy for popularity, we might see a mutually beneficial alliance: just because Johnson is rotten himself it does not mean that infects all he touches. The United Kingdom’s vast defence capacity is of enormous importance to Ukraine, and the country has benefited in direct and tangible terms from the British government’s generosity.

And meanwhile, faced with problems at home, Johnson can position himself as the ultimate defender of liberty, even opting for the awkward analogy that the Ukrainians are like the British thanks to their freedom-loving nature. Just as the Ukrainians resist incursion on their sovereignty at the hands of a rapacious Putin, the British voted to leave the European Union, Johnson tenuously suggests.

Swashbuckling

Bad metaphors aside, this all comes naturally to Johnson, and fits with the character and raison d’etre of the type of government he always wanted to run. Swashbuckling, grand rhetoric and appeals to higher values all suit someone defending a nation at war.

Johnson, then, must have been ill with jealousy yesterday as he saw Taoiseach Micheál Martin – not burdened with immense political crisis and embarrassment on a national stage – in Ukraine meeting Zelenskiy.

But what was one man’s opportunity is just another man’s headache. Ireland cannot offer nearly as much to Ukraine in terms of support, and Martin might even find himself in a politically complicated position. Since Russia’s invasion, Ireland’s neutrality has been a live issue, and with strong feelings across the electorate and recent intervention from President Michael D Higgins, it is increasingly charged.

Martin joins the roster of foreign leaders that have visited Zelenskiy since the invasion began. But unlike many of his European colleagues, Martin is constrained by Ireland’s commitment to neutrality, encumbered by questions of what that commitment really should look like in practice, and watched by an electorate (according to recent polling) more pro joining Nato than ever before but still not even close to a requisite majority.

And it is apparent in the atmosphere. In late March, Zelenskiy addressed EU leaders by video at a summit in Brussels. He ran through the member states, thanking most for the positions they had taken on his country. “Lithuania stands for us,” he said. “Latvia stands for us. Estonia stands for us. Poland stands for us.” As for Ireland? The most Zelenskiy could muster was an “almost”.

It is not all bad: Martin was among the most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s bid for EU membership, and Ireland has been admirable in its policy towards Ukrainian refugees. But as Russia’s war reignites the European Union’s calls for a stronger common defence policy, Ireland is leaving itself somewhat out in the cold. The Irish Constitution is clear that Dublin will not adopt any decision of the European Council on common defence.

Ireland’s policy of neutrality is closely tied up with its national identity. But Ireland increasingly defines itself as European too – no longer cleaving to the United Kingdom on policy, separating its self-conception from its oldest and closest neighbour, and instead proving the strength of its relationship with the EU. For a country that stakes its identity on both of these core principles, this, at least to outside observers, seems a rather hard circle to square.