Photo credit: Óglaigh na hÉireann (CC BY 2.0

Irish neutrality has never meant ignoring injustice

Amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the push to end Irish neutrality is now in full swing, with the government dragging the public kicking and screaming towards yet another woefully unpopular policy change.

They did it with raising our corporate tax rate (which the public opposed). They did it with carbon tax (which the public opposed). And now they’re doing it with ditching Ireland’s neutrality (which the public opposes).

And the angle they seem to have settled on for achieving this is, as usual, shame.

Numerous government politicians this week have hinted at or called for an end to Irish neutrality, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin (FF), Simon Coveney (FG), Neale Richmond TD (FG), Senator John McGahon (FG), Senator Gerard Craughwell (Ind), Senator Mary Seery Kearney (FG), James Lawless TD (FF), Charlie Flanagan TD (FG), and more.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that “Ireland is militarily neutral, but in this conflict, Ireland is not neutral at all,” adding that “our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional.”

He went on to say that “Ireland will not be putting any selfish or economic interests ahead of responses required.”

So in other words, it’s “selfish” for this country to remain neutral in a conflict with a nuclear-armed superpower.

Of course it’s easy for someone like Leo Varadkar to dub fear of economic devastation as “selfish.” It won’t affect him, his pension or his six figure TD’s salary no matter what the Russians do. But if you can barely afford to put food on the table and pay your bills as-is because of bad government policies, and you fear further economic effects of this – well, you’re just a selfish jerk, aren’t you?

Regardless, if you listen to the speeches linked above, the overall tone from our leaders is generally one of shame and tut-tutting at our society. As in, “How could we stay neutral to protect ourselves and watch innocent people be hurt? What kind of a self-absorbed nation are we?”

But that has never, ever been how Irish people interpreted neutrality. And if you want proof of this, ask the dozens of Irish soldiers who have died on peacekeeping missions around the world, giving their lives to defend poor people in need.

Since 1960, the Irish armed forces have been deployed to regions such as the Congo, Cyprus, the Sinai, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, Chad and Syria.

These men went for one reason and one reason only: to keep the peace. To ensure the safety of civilians in countries that needed help. And in the process, 87 Irish soldiers have died fighting to protect the innocents of the world.

18-year-old Private Gerard Moon of the 4th Infantry Battalion was killed in August 1978 in Lebanon.

In 1982, just a few years later, we lost 19-year-old Private Thomas Murphy to the same mission, and 19-year-old Private Brendan Fitzpatrick was also killed there in 2000. Almost nobody walking around in society knows these young men’s names. They had rich, full lives ahead of them. But they died risking their lives to help others.

For over 60 years, thousands of Irish men and boys as young as 18 have volunteered of their own free will to travel overseas and put themselves between bullets and innocent civilians in other countries. They didn’t have to go – these battles weren’t our fault or our problem. But thousands went anyway, and many of them paid the ultimate price for that choice.

To act like we’re some heartless, selfish kip of a country that just allows innocent people to die is to totally ignore or forget the contribution that this country has made to world peace.

In fact, the reason we can do so much peacekeeping is precisely because we are neutral. We’re trustworthy – everyone knows that the Irish don’t have an axe to grind, and we only want what’s best for everyone involved. And that’s why countries all over the world consent to have us come in and regulate volatile situations.

Even before peacekeeping, around 70,000 Irish men from the Republic volunteered to fight alongside the Allies in World War 2 to defeat the Axis powers, and thousands of them died in the process. Despite our neutrality, we did not stand idly by eating popcorn and allow Hitler to stomp all over the weak. Our people stepped up when they were needed – while remaining neutral at the national level.

Not only that, but we are the most generous country in the world per capita for charity fundraisers, and we have been for years.

We consistently rank in the Top 10 most charitable countries on earth according to the Charities Aid Foundation, with the exception of last year (which hardly counts as we were hammered by a brutal pandemic and lockdown – we didn’t exactly have a lot of money to throw around ourselves).

We are a country that goes above and beyond to help the world and those less well off than ourselves.

And yet, we’re having an issue like Ukraine shoved in our faces and told “You’re selfish because you don’t want to join some international military alliance and line the pockets of the arms industry.” It’s nothing short of outrageous.

Ireland is a hero factory. Brave and generous people is one of our main exports. We do our part in a crisis, and we always have. And we should not allow that to be glossed over.

This proud island, of all countries, should not accept being emotionally blackmailed out of our neutrality – not by politicians, or anyone else.

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