In any game of brinkmanship, he who blinks first, oft loses. And so, it came to pass in the tale of the Russian Navy and the fishmen of Cork, Kerry and further afield.
News that the Russians were to relent and move their live fire war games outside of the Irish Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) was welcomed far and wide. The area in which they were due to take place, some 190 miles south-west of Loop Head, is both an area important to many species of marine life, but also houses many trans-Atlantic telecommunication cables on the seabed, just before the continental shelf plunges them to much greater depths.
Yet, despite the Russians moving further away from Irish territory, the legacy of this episode is far from over. Questions about of defence forces, our geopolitical outlook and our ‘neutrality’ have bubbled to the surface again from the depths of public discourse. But with it have come many of the old misconceptions and myths that prevail to this day.
Firstly, Ireland is not now, nor was it ever a neutral country. Neither have we a constitutional obligation to be a neutral country. The only mention of our military non-alignment came about as a result of the Nice Treaty where a specific article of the Treaty was inserted as a result of the first referendum on Nice whereby it is clear stated now in Article 29.4, subsection 9 that “The state shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that common defence would include the State.” This insertion was in direct response to baseless Euro-sceptic claims that the Nice Treaty would see Irish citizens conscripted into an EU Army. Two decades after the ratification of the Nice Treaty and no such thing exists.
Ireland never has been neutral, not since our foundation as a State. Even in World War Two, while officially non-combatant, Ireland effectively helped the Allies with intelligence, weather reports, communications, refuelling of US military planes at Shannon and allowing Allie servicemen transit through Irish territory back to the UK, whereas Luftwaffe pilots who crashed on Irish soil were interred until ‘The Emergency’ had concluded. Even post WW2, Ireland aided the Western powers throughout the Cold War from 1955 on via a link established by Liam Cosgrave with an official in the Irish embassy in London. This saw the State pass on information and even check planes stopping over at Shannon from Warsaw Pact countries and Cuba for ‘warlike materials. Even Ireland’s accession to the EEC (EU) proves that we are not now or ever have been neutral. What we have been is militarily unaligned, a position which has stood to us in conflicts around the world where our defence forces have distinguished themselves time and again as peacekeepers.
The furore about Shannon Airport and US military rears its head time and again by the same people who refuse to accept several realities. Firstly, being that as members of the United Nations, we are obliged under the charter to allow for passage of aircraft and personnel transitioning on UN mandated missions. As much as people may complain the Gulf War initially saw no involvement of Shannon until the activities in the Middle East came under UN mandate. If the Irish Government were to bar any country’s personnel taking part, we would be breaking international law and our UN obligations. Furthermore, over 70 countries’ military aircraft have used Shannon for refuelling over the past decade. To decide that one country alone is not welcome is and of itself not a neutral act.
But what does neutrality currently serve? When Ireland’s health service came under cyber attack last year at the height of the pandemic, it was widely reported the chief suspects were Spider Wizard, a cyber gang based in St. Petersburg were responsible. This is a familiar pattern where cyber criminals are not only left unhindered, but sometimes actively encouraged in certain countries if their targets remain European and North American based. This is where a lot of conflict will arise from into the future. Not by, as is happening in Europe right now, amassing troops along a border, but by actively undermining a country and its infrastructure over a server. In these situations, no one who would seek to do us hard cares if we’re “neutral”, non-aligned, or relocated to the Moon even. Whereas I would oppose us going as far as joining NATO, it is most definitely high time we dropped the false neutrality narrative. It doesn’t serve us, or anyone else, any good. We should face into 21st century problems in unison with those who share our values in the world.