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Fine Gael debates: Should we send arms to Ukraine?

Most of the online reaction to the news reported below by Gavan Reilly was universally negative – in the “don’t they know we’re a neutral country?” mould.

But of course, neutrality is a political choice, and it is not enshrined in the constitution, despite what some people seem to think. All that the constitution says on the matter is that war shall not be declared, and no war shall be participated in, save with the consent of the Dáil. Everything else is habit and convention, not constitutional.

Still, this is a political non-runner:

There’s probably an interesting legal debate to be had about whether “arming one side in a conflict” counts as “participating in a war”. No doubt readers will have strong political views on that question, but that’s separate to the question of legality.

Consider this question: Suppose that Irish meat and dairy products were being used as the key ingredients in the ready meals that Ukraine provides to its soldiers on the front line. One of the oldest phrases in warfare is that “an army marches on its stomach” – that is to say, hungry soldiers won’t fight well. If Ireland were involved in feeding Ukrainian troops, that would obviously be a contribution to the war effort. Would it be a breach of neutrality?

And then there’s the thornier question of all the other aid the state is already providing, both in terms of sheltering Ukrainians fleeing the war, and contributing Irish money to EU aid packages. Ireland’s line on that is that none of our money goes towards weapons – but if you give somebody money to spend on, say, welfare, then that action also frees up the beneficiary’s own money to spend on arms. You’re paying their welfare bill, and they’re spending their welfare money to buy tanks. So you are still effectively subsidising their army. Is that a breach of neutrality?

Some of you will answer “yes” to all of those questions, and that is, at least, admirably consistent. But it poses problems: For example, we continue to trade with, and feed, Saudi Arabia despite that country’s conflict with Yemen. Should that all stop, too? You could probably name several countries Ireland aids through the foreign aid programme which spend more on arms than we do – aren’t we effectively subsidising warfare, there?

In addition, if neutrality is simply defined as providing any materiel support that might be used to support military efforts, then Ireland really should have had a full embargo in place on the United States and the United Kingdom for most of the past two decades, should we not?

In reality, it seems to me that we accept the fiction of absolute neutrality so long as we can be flexible about what it really means, depending on the circumstance.

So, what about arming Ukraine?

Well, it won’t happen, that’s the first thing. The Government has enough rows on its hand without adding this one, and while there’ll be a spirited debate at the Ard Fheis, I’m relatively certain that Fine Gael will vote this one down and replace it with some good old fashioned backslapping pablum about how our neutrality makes us “honest arbiters” when our troops are sent on peacekeeping missions, and so on. Even if FG were to adopt the policy, they wouldn’t get it past their coalition partners.

Second, it wouldn’t make much difference, as Ben, who takes a much clearer (and probably more reader-friendly) stance on neutrality than I do, points out here:

But leaving that aside, it does strike me as an odd position, intellectually: The Irish state very clearly has a preference for which side it thinks should prevail in the war in Ukraine. That position is shared, per polling, by a majority of the electorate. We do, indeed, have some armaments that would be of use to the Ukrainians – most of them bought from the Americans, and mainly in the form of anti-tank missiles, which suit the Ukrainians well given Russia’s inordinate number of tanks.

It must seem very Jesuitical to the Ukrainians – and indeed anyone else – that we’ll help them with money, help them with food, and help their refugees, but draw the line at helping them with ammunition. It’s like we’re broadly in favour of their war, except for the bit of it where they might have to kill some Russians.

As we learned yesterday when the Kremlin sanctioned 52 Irish politicians, the Russians don’t seem to see much of a difference. It’s a very Irish distinction.

Here’s a question, purely theoretically: Would it be different if the Ukrainians bought the weapons from us? I ask that because I know that some of you will already, fairly, be saying that the difference between the food supplies I mentioned above and arms shipments is that the Ukrainians would pay for the food. It wouldn’t be a donation, just a transaction. Would the same be true of arms?

These are all interesting questions because the biggest problem with Irish neutrality, it seems to me, is that there is no agreed definition of what it means. You cannot say that it does not include commercial services and trade, because – remember – the USA paid landing fees every time a plane full of troops landed in Shannon, and some people still thought that an outrageous breach of neutrality, and were prepared to go to jail over it.

You cannot, equally, say that is only limited to military involvement, or the supply of arms, because Ireland has clearly and unambiguously aided Ukraine in its war effort, with the support of most of the public.

We certainly are not diplomatically neutral, like the Swiss, as our voting record at the UN on both Russia, and Israel, has made clear. In fact, one of our favourite national pastimes is lecturing other countries.

Anyway, as with most things in Ireland, it’s a fudge because it suits everyone for it to be a fudge. Which is why Fine Gael will vote this motion down, and keep the fudge firmly in place.

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