The Irish-American party bosses of Tammany Hall are no longer kingmakers on the Potomac, but, still, there remain enough voters from Boston to Baltimore who count themselves Sons of Erin to justify inviting the Taoiseach (our prime minister) to the White House every St. Patrick’s Day. When the U.S. president is a Democrat, it’s a chummy affair. When the big guy’s Republican, it’s a tad frosty. Beyond that, the script is as formulaic as the season finale of Project Runway:
- Taoiseach presents POTUS with shamrocks.
- POTUS responds with ritual expression of fondness for Irish stout and/or whiskey and quotes Yeats and/or Joyce.
- Taoiseach solicits continued U.S. investment in the Auld Sod and begs for green cards for the estimated 50,000 undocumented Paddies serving Guinness in New Jersey and shucking oysters on Long Island.
- POTUS makes nonbinding agreeable noises and reads a Seamus Heaney sonnet and/or one of Bono’s limericks.
Foreigners would be forgiven for assuming that Irish citizens find this public annual orgy of paddywackery excruciating. In fact, our leader’s humiliation on the world stage is a source of collective glee. Our humorless ruling classes have a more pragmatic perspective: Dancing this jig is a small price to pay for an audience with the Stupor Mundi of the West Wing. And, frankly, it’s a relief from the alarums and cries of the 24-hour news treadmill. If political life in Washington, D.C., has endless surprises, St. Patrick’s Day is one day when there are none. It was surprising, then, that Leo Varadkar, the current Taoiseach, began ad-libbing after handing over the shamrocks.
I’m not referring to Varadkar’s off-color joke about interns in the Clinton-era White House — that was pretty good, actually. No, the swerve came at the point in the ceremony when a Kennedy would usually be singing the second verse of “Danny Boy,” but the Taoiseach instead mentioned Ukraine. Thanking President Joe Biden, Varadkar opined, “America is at its best when it stands with its European partners to defend freedom and democracy.”
“Like the US,” Varadkar went on, “Ireland is standing with the people of Ukraine as they bravely defend their country.” Readers will chide me for pedantry — as Cold War II fires up, sub-Churchillian platitudes like this are now expected of every Western European politician. That’s true, of course, but the question is rather more complicated for Ireland.
We’re supposed to be neutral.
We’ve been neutral since our War of Independence, a conflict that erupted as World War II ended, after the threat of mass conscription by the British made Irish nationalism an electoral force. For the newly free Irish nation, neutrality was more than just an acknowledgment of military impotence; it was a commitment to never again let Irishmen be fodder in any imperial war. To this day, we are not part of NATO. Our position was complicated when we entered the European Economic Community in 1973, but key treaties (Nice in 2002 and Lisbon in 2009) saw the Irish opt-out of European common defense policy.
In practice, Irish neutrality is a curious beast. Whereas the Swiss maintain neutrality with a strong standing army with deep reserves, our army would struggle to win a bar fight: the Irish navy consists of a leaky dingy and a rubber duck, while our air force is a guy who goes hang gliding on weekends. The pragmatic understanding is that we are a small island who must shelter, like it or not, under the aegis of our powerful neighbors — the Brits before World War II and, thereafter, the Yanks.
Collaboration — or, if you prefer, cooperation — is the rule. During World War II, Ireland repatriated downed pilots from the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, while Luftwaffe aces were interned. In the 1960s, the Irish army began taking part in United Nations peacekeeping. Champions of neutrality, worried that this might lead Irish people to associate soldiers with peace, insisted on a “triple lock.” This safeguard means that before we deploy soldiers, a UN Security Council resolution and a formal approval from both cabinet and parliament are required. These precautions helped us walk the line, but a clear principle had been compromised. More trimming followed.
After 9/11, the U.S. Air Force was allowed to refuel at Shannon Airport. Some of these planes were involved in rendition, spiriting prisoners away to black sites in places like Syria, where they could have their toenails extracted in the interests of freedom and democracy. This realpolitik may not be glorious, but Irish citizens understand that fudges are the price we pay to cleave to neutrality in a world riven by superpower rivalry.
That’s not good enough for our ruling classes, by which I mean the civil service — a body who make the Chinese Politburo look like a model of transparency. For the mandarins of Iveagh House, to be a good European is the highest virtue. That makes Irish neutrality not merely embarrassing but downright sinful. Closeted though this class is, they are aware that the great unwashed do not share their enlightened views. So there’s no point in holding a referendum. Even the old wheeze of jerrymandering together Citizens Assembly wouldn’t work. Neutrality is too damn popular.
The officials’ unofficial war on neutrality has therefore been fought on two fronts. A slow drip of editorials in the Irish Times paints the policy as a craven anachronism. This is important groundwork, but intellectual arguments don’t go far in Ireland. The second front, and the one that most likely to eventually strangle neutrality, is red tape. They plan to enmesh Ireland ever deeper into the European project, hoping that by the time the plebs realize the implications, it will be too late. The crisis of Brexit, otherwise a disaster for Ireland, was an opportunity to further this.
And if Brexit was useful, the invasion of Ukraine is a gift from heaven.
Not since Darth Vader blew up the planet Alderaan has a conflict had such clear victims and villains. The Irish response to what they’ve been told is a straightforward contest between right and wrong is unusually zealous. Some 70,000 Ukrainians now make up 1.5 percent of our population. In the midst of Dublin’s housing crises, these refugees have been welcomed remarkably warmly. It’s an open question whether this charitable reception is spontaneous, stemming from collective memories of colonial invasion, or something more contrived.
Certainly there’s an establishment push to silence dissenting voices. Sabina Higgins, the wife of the Irish president, was lucky to escape tar and feathers after she suggested last summer that there might be a diplomatic solution. Last winter, the Irish MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly voted against a European Parliament resolution calling for more arms for Ukraine and sanctions for Russia. Fellow MEP Barry Andrews accused them of “making excuses for Russia.”
That dissent has so far only come from fringes of the Left has made it easy to dismiss. Front-page photos of Ukrainian orphans also made it far easier to attack neutrality without sounding like a warmonger. Even God’s on Kyiv’s side — Jesuit philosopher Seamus Murphy decreed in the Irish Times that neutrality is “morally degenerate.” Minster Neale Richmond, who regularly calls for a “long-overdue, serious and realistic conversation” about neutrality, is a member of Fine Gael, the party the current Taoiseach leads. Fine Gael has long led the charge against neutrality, and Leo Varadkar has told his party he wants to scrap the triple-lock safeguard. Now is an opportune time to press that case.
It’s in this context that Varadkar’s West Wing solo run should be understood.
That this escalation is happening a century after the Great War is tragic. Christopher Clark’s much-lauded history, The Sleepwalkers, describes how blithely Europe went to war in 1914. He describes a world that had forgotten that war between great powers was possible, a world ignorant of the vast destructive capabilities of their novel technologies, a world where leaders quickly found themselves trapped by their own propaganda, a world that forgot diplomacy long enough to let a small conflict in Eastern Europe explode into a general one.
We are sleepwalking once more. Ireland is not strong enough to stop the somnambulists, but let’s not join their doomed procession just so our politicians and their flunkies can look good at next year’s summit in Brussels.
Aidan Harte is an Irish sculptor who writes on British art for the Critic. Follow him on Twitter @HarteAidan. His article was first published here