Is Irish neutrality immoral? Let me count the ways.
As the Russians began to close in on Kyiv last month, the Americans offered to help President Volodymyr Zelensky escape from Ukraine. He replied: "I need ammunition, not a ride." More Nato countries, rising to the moral challenge of the hour, started to send arms. Ireland's response? In effect: "Not one bullet."
We claim that neutrality necessitates rebuff of the cry of a desperate nation. But if neutral Sweden and Finland, themselves in the danger zone, can send military equipment, what strange notion of neutrality have we?
Here in Chicago, I am relieved that most people have no idea that Ireland is neutral. One of my colleagues is a Finn. She knows, of course, and I am ashamed to look her in the face.
Those who object to Nato say it is an imperialistic nuclear club. But of the 30 countries in Nato, excluding the big powers and middle-size countries such as Poland, 21 are small countries, many smaller than Ireland. Belgium is more representative of Nato members than Britain.
Small western countries such as Netherlands and Norway joined Nato after the second World War showed them brutally that neutrality was no protection and that only collective security might keep the peace in Europe.
After 1991 and the USSR’s collapse, small eastern European countries fled to Nato desperate for shelter before the bear reawoke. Yet Ireland, deaf or indifferent to their experience, has the gall to think itself morally above Nato.
We are not a nation of cowards; but we let the ageing anti-imperialist radicals dominate us intellectually. They claim to oppose American imperialism (oblivious of American isolationism) and British imperialism (long gone). Letting such people do our thinking for us, we lose touch with common sense and cannot think straight.
In the Inferno, Canto III, Dante, referring to neutral souls, identified their doom as the loss of the good of intellect: neutrals are unworthy of heaven, and even hell despises them.
For the first time the EU is providing military aid, in this instance to Ukraine. Refusing to join in, we refuse solidarity with partners from whom we expect solidarity, not least in the matter of Brexit’s implications.
We are loud on our innate empathy with countries seeking to escape an imperial yoke – strange that it went missing in action in Ukraine’s hour of need. Perhaps weakness of intellect leads to moral atrophy.
When in the 1960s we applied to join the EEC (the EU’s ancestor), our neutrality was a problem. DJ Maher’s The Tortuous Path: The Course of Ireland’s Entry into the EEC (IPA 1986), pp 139-141, 159-160, makes it startingly clear that Irish governments promised that if admitted, Ireland would embrace collective defence. Maher was a civil servant involved in the negotiations, and his account leaves no doubt on the matter.
Yet, once admitted, Ireland repeatedly refused to honour its “gentleman’s” promise. Pacta sunt servanda: promises must be kept, says natural law (or plain common sense). To the EU, we are promise breakers; to Ukraine, heartless. A bloodied Ukraine is worthier to be in an EU that rose in dreams from the blood and ashes of post-1945 Europe than an Ireland that can’t accept the EU’s political ideal.
Today, Ireland stands under the judgment of the middle-aged men who have never fired a gun now queuing for one in Kyiv
Perhaps a time of war is too emotional to be objective on these issues? Wrong. It is precisely a situation such as this that arouses the honest emotions and sharpens clarity. The dictator’s war glaringly reveals why Nato is necessary. If no such situations were possible, Nato would be unnecessary.
We quiet our uneasy conscience with the claim that we are militarily but not politically neutral. That is a distinction without a difference. Ireland’s stance says to our friends: “If you are attacked, we will not help you.”
That military stance entails that our political solidarity with our threatened EU comrades, Finland and the Baltics, is far less than that offered them by Belgium or France. As for "speaking out" against Putin's war, that is but a quaint echo of the 19th-century Irish newspaper comment that "The Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on Russia". That was funny once – not today.
Today, Ireland stands under the judgment of the middle-aged men who have never fired a gun now queuing for one in Kyiv; of the women in Kharkiv’s cellars frantically making Molotov cocktails, the desperate civilian’s last resort; and of the president low on ammunition who prefers to fight and die with his people.
They are showing the world who they are. Alas, we too are showing the world who we are.
Not one bullet? Will we ever live down the shame?