The waning sham ‘neutrality’ of the Irish ruling class




The right-wing coalition government of Varadkar and Martin has decided that now is the time to test the water on ditching so-called Irish ‘neutrality’. No doubt they would love to bounce Ireland into NATO, finally ending decades of sham neutrality in favour of open recognition of the 26-county state’s actual position: that of a pawn of western imperialism.

On the back of the imperialist proxy war between NATO and Russia, the imperialists of the West have opened the sluice gates of jingoism in order to drown all opposition to their imperialist ambitions. The Swedish ruling class has used the chance to drop its traditional policy of neutrality, applying for NATO membership alongside Finland last spring. The German and Japanese imperialists used the opportunity to drop their ‘pacifist’ masks, announcing massive military spending sprees.

And the Irish ruling class would like to do the same. But in Ireland, they must contend with a deep-seated anti-imperialist sentiment among the masses. 61 percent of the population want to see Ireland maintain its neutral stance. Only 26 percent want that to change, and only half of that figure want to see Ireland in NATO.

Varadkar and Martin do not merely speak for themselves on this question. Rather, they express views of western imperialism. The point of view of the latter is summed up well by the think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI, which claims to have been established by no less than the Duke of Wellington) in an article titled, “Ireland’s Defence Deficit”.

The article explains to the Irish that Ireland can no longer rest on its laurels as an island “safely tucked away behind Britain”. In the light of Anglo-Irish history, such a statement is like saying Ireland can no longer rest on the fact that it’s “safely tucked away behind a man-eating lion”! The man-eating lion is weak and senile these days, and the Royal Navy is a royal joke. And so the prey is now being asked to stump up the costs of defending the interests of the imperialist predators.

“Remember Nord Stream!”

The significance of this talk of Ireland being “safely tucked behind Britain” is this: since the end of the Second World War, western imperialism hasn’t really seen Ireland as a significant strategic location. The West could remain indifferent to its nominal neutrality – although even that ‘neutrality’ was a sham.

That has changed somewhat in the last 30 years with the laying of thousands of miles of transatlantic cables, and the emergence of Ireland as a hub for tech multinationals. Financial dealings amounting to $10 trillion per day are transacted using transatlantic cables that pass through or near to Irish waters.

Image: D. Myles Cullen, Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, it was the bombing of civilian infrastructure, as alleged by European investigators, by the  West’s own allies that has highlighted the potential vulnerability here. We are referring to the sabotage of Nord Stream, which has also been referred to by Varadkar in justifying opening up this ‘discussion’ on neutrality. It is really remarkable logic! “If you don’t want another ‘Nord Stream’ off your own coast, you must join NATO” – never mind the fact that leading NATO members certainly gave their assent to this attack, and may have been intimately involved in its planning!

At any rate, the imperialists have put Ireland on notice: we tolerated your faux neutrality up to this point, but we have to get serious now. As NATO and the EU put together new missions to monitor and protect this underwater infrastructure, they fully expect Ireland’s cooperation, given its substantial territorial seas. And they expect the Irish to pay for the pleasure.

To defend the economic assets of the imperialists, the Irish must buy better radar, better naval and air capabilities, as well as better cybersecurity to protect the tech industry. As the aforementioned article complains, “Ireland has long been among the EU’s lowest spenders on defence.” That too must change. And if the arms dealers stand to make mega-profits along the way, then all the better. As Lenin once said, yes, war is indeed terrible: terribly profitable.

Even though Ireland has committed to boost military spending by 50 percent in the last year, one senior Finnish defence official has demanded a doubling or a tripling of defence spending as a minimum.

And who will pay for this? Not the corporations that own or depend on this infrastructure. When have they ever paid taxes? No, it will be ordinary workers who will be made to pay, with cuts made elsewhere. And, after all, as Herman Goering once put it, guns make a nation strong, but butter only makes a nation fat!

A sham neutrality

The idea that the 26-county state in Ireland is ‘neutral’ has long been stretched to the point of absurdity.

‘Neutrality’ finds itself enshrined in the state constitution on account of the fact that it was written in 1937, a mere one and a half decades after the brutal revolutionary war to gain independence from Britain, at a time when Europe was gambolling towards a new, devastating imperialist war. De Valera had to include neutrality as a sop to the prevailing mood.

But in deeds, the weak and dependent capitalist class of Ireland always subordinated itself to imperialism. Indeed, the first time this official state policy of ‘neutrality’ was applied, was in joining Britain in forbidding men and guns from heading to Spain to aid the revolutionary struggle against General Franco in 1937! When it came to the Second World War, it was essentially a dead letter. Although Ireland never officially entered the war, its ports and airfields were always open to British and US forces.

More recently, the policy has been loosened further still. In 1999, Shannon Airport was used by the US military for its Kosovo operations. In 2000, Fine Gael even issued a policy document, ‘Beyond Neutrality’, mooting their ambition to drop the policy altogether. During the 2003 Iraq war, of course, Shannon Airport was again shamefully placed at the disposal of the US military.

And what sophistry has been deployed in the name of ‘neutrality’! During the same criminal war, the Irish Labour Party cited its neutrality policy as an excuse… not to participate in anti-war protests! You see, remaining truly neutral means taking sides neither with imperialist warmongers, nor with those who oppose imperialism!

All this is not to mention the series of military deals with the EU (through PESCO) and NATO (‘Partnership for Peace’), and the tranches of (thus-far non-lethal) military aid sent to Ukraine in the past year.

Sinn Féin

These are the facts of ‘neutrality’ as it has been applied by the Irish ruling class for decades. Millions of Irish men and women want to see ‘neutrality’ maintained, but this pro-neutrality mood expresses something quite different: a deep-seated distrust of imperialism.

As Trotsky wonderfully put it, “it is necessary to differentiate strictly between the pacifism of the diplomat, professor, journalist, and the pacifism of the carpenter, agricultural worker, and the charwoman. In one case, pacifism is a screen for imperialism; in the other, it is the confused expression of distrust in imperialism.”

It is quite clear that Varadkar and Martin’s moves fly in the face of the real mood of the majority of Irish people. But notwithstanding a few remarks by President Higgins, where is the opposition that this mood can get behind? Sinn Féin would be the obvious party to voice that opposition. It has a history of supporting neutrality, and would be well positioned to make political capital from the situation. Yet the party has found itself falling uncomfortably between two stools.

Its rise to popularity has been based on pointing to the atrocious conditions of housing and healthcare and promising change. Yet with a programme confined to tinkering around the edges of capitalism, the closer the party gets to power, the ever-keener it is to paint itself as ‘respectable’ in the eyes of the Irish ruling class.

In questions of foreign policy too, Sinn Féin is struggling to square a circle. The party, on paper, defends ‘neutrality’. Yet it is strongly pro-EU, an imperialist bloc that is far from neutral on Ukraine or anything else. In the past, Sinn Féin called for the dismantling of NATO. Now, keen to get on the good side of bourgeois public opinion, it has deleted all statements on NATO from its website; it has said it would not immediately withdraw from PESCO or PfP projects; and it supports non-lethal military aid for Ukraine.

The party’s ‘drift’ to a position that is barely distinct from FF-FG is no accident and flows from its contradictory position. The party has tried to court angry, working-class voters who are sick of imperialist adventures. But it has also tried to court the Irish capitalist class, which follows slavishly in the train of western imperialism. The party wants to break the political link with British imperialism, but overlooks the millions of economic threads that bind Irish capitalism to western imperialism.

As the Bible explains, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.

Pacifism or revolution?

Our approach to ‘neutrality’ is that of James Connolly, which was the diametrical opposite of the policy of the ruling class of Ireland.

Faced with descent into the barbarism of an all-European imperialist war in 1914, James Connolly briefly headed up a coalition of various tendencies in the Irish Neutrality League – a fact deployed to suggest that Connolly himself was the originator of the amorphous concept of Irish neutrality.

Whilst it held together, it staged the first protests against the war in Ireland and vehemently opposed those ‘nationalists’ like John Redmond who had disgracefully become recruiting sergeants for the British Army.

But precisely because it was a broad front for tendencies of all stripes, the coalition could not last. Like Lenin in Switzerland, Connolly’s opposition to the imperialist war was based on an understanding that to bring it swiftly to an end, one must overthrow imperialism through revolutionary means. This had nothing in common with the approach of those pacifists who opposed the war on ethical grounds but weren’t prepared to lift a finger to stop it, and so Connolly parted ways with the pacifist opponents of war.

When imperialist war struck Europe, Connolly, and true revolutionary internationalists everywhere, planned to strike back at imperialism.

Whilst we sympathise warmly with the millions of Irish men and women whose support for ‘neutrality’ expresses an instinctive anti-imperialism, we say that it is not enough to adopt a pacifist approach. Yes, imperialist war is terrible. But it will not be ended by sentiments alone, by pacifist sermons on ‘ethical’ foreign policies, or by appealing to the rules of international ‘legality’ and imperialist institutions like the UN.

The only way to end imperialist war for good is by fighting a revolutionary struggle to overthrow imperialism itself and create world socialism. In Ireland, that means fighting for the Workers’ Republic, through the overthrow of the Irish ruling class, whose every move reconfirms that they are mere lackeys of western imperialism.