Holy cow that is Irish neutrality


What is the difference between a bin Laden terrorist and an Irish "volunteer"? The bin Laden terrorist believes 70 virgins await his entry to heaven, the volunteer thinks his deeds will win them on earth.

Extremist mullahs are debating as we speak whether homicide disqualifies a suicide pilot from his prizes, but such fractured rhetoric won't assist Bertie Ahern, who meets EU leaders today to discuss the international emergency.

Despite the long war and the worse conflict, Ireland never got around to defining terrorism. We know it when we see it, but we never said why.

"This is a crime against the foundations of our common humanity," President McAleese said after the New York and Washington massacres. "Our response must be to stand shoulder to shoulder."

Bertie Ahern made sure that officially neutral Ireland was seen to match American tears drop for drop. The tears were real; like images of Jesus in Glenstal Abbey's icon chapel, they glistened with grief and compassion, signalling a love of justice and the need to see it done.

When the tears dry, what comes next? We may prefer to forget the astonishing explanations for why only the main Christian faiths led the national commemoration service. Better to argue the linguistic implications of "ecumenical" than imagine that Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is and various orthodox communities are forgotten about because at bottom they are not really one of "us".

Who is?

Within weeks of Ireland taking the presidency of the UN Security Council, neither Government nor state seems sure. Standing shoulder to shoulder suggests more than closing down the country for a day, even if Ireland was the only EU state to do so. In protesting so much, Ahern may be protesting too much as though to reassure the world yet again that Ireland is not morally neutral.

The phrase is becoming uncomfortably familiar, almost and regrettably trite.

Direct cause-and-effect explanations for why terrorists did what they did to the US are too simple, as are kneejerk responses to what comes next. Osama bin Laden is legally innocent so far of masterminding the massacres, but he is guilty of using 22 million Afghan people as a human shield.

His power is a foundational myth for the Taliban regime, which frees them to abuse others such as, among many, the Afghani Hindus who were ordered on May 23rd to wear a strip of yellow cloth sewn on to their shirt pockets. The measure was said to be for their protection.

Bin Laden follows in a long tradition of upper- and middle-class terrorists who use social and political injustice as a pretext, not a context, in which to operate. That cynical strategy of muddling the two conspires to diffuse opposition east and west and exploits genuinely oppressed people's lives and beliefs.

Conflate that muddle with the holy cow of Irish neutrality and the possibilities for confusion are rife. Neutrality prevents Irish people standing shoulder to shoulder in a meaningful way, while enabling us to condemn in the US the kind of isolationism our neutrality entails. It doesn't always stop our critical thinking, but it spares us taking actions that ensue.

No Sweden this, welcoming refugees and biting the heels of the international community. Neutrality's amnesiac powers enabled Ahern to admire the asylum systems in Australia, which went on to send a shipload of Afghan, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees to the tiny island of Nauru, whose colonial history would make you tear your hair out.

Neutrality lets Ireland do business with anyone, so long as they have the money. In this it echoes the worst actions of Bush's administration before the massacres. In the weeks leading up to them, many serious US commentators argued why his unilateral and pro-conglomerate policies were threatening US democracy by handing too much power over to transnational companies.

Some said that as big corporations had raised a record $100,000,000 for him, he was in fact addressing his real constituency.

American broadcasting was being carved up between four players; judicial findings against Microsoft's monopoly were starting to be effectively reversed. Insiders made a lot of money from the deals, including reportedly Osama bin Laden. Yet Bush repeatedly insisted that the real dangers came from rogue states and required a Cold War- type response, even though global power, like global terrorism, was being redistributed far outside national borders.

The effects of that redistribution are already starting to rock the Irish economy. Official neutrality however means that, like Bush used to, we can pretend the dangers lie elsewhere. In practical terms, Irish security policies are enmeshed with Britain's and sovereignty reliant on NATO and Europe for support. Human rights as asserted legally are less than those available to citizens of George Bush's America.

We have used the idea of neutrality to define what we are not, rather than who we are; to become a pretext for how we operate, not a context that lets our actions make sense.

The question is whether we can square our real compassion with the fact of remaining, in Louis MacNeice's words,

"The Neutral Island facing the Atlantic,

The neutral island in the heart of man."