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Varadkar’s extraordinary statement: “Ireland is not neutral at all”

“In this conflict, Ireland is not neutral at all. Our support for Ukraine is unwavering and unconditional”. Those were the objectively remarkable words of the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, to the Dáil yesterday. They should probably be receiving more attention than they have gotten.

First, to declare a personal view: For my money, Varadkar’s sentiments are the correct ones. This is an invasion of an independent democratic country by a larger one, for the explicit purpose of conquest. It is a war of aggression. Pretending that we should remain neutral between both sides of such a conflict strikes this writer as morally abhorrent.

But that is not the point, here. Irish neutrality has long been a core principle of our foreign policy. To the extent that even when faced with a choice between Hitler, and, well, almost everybody else, this country remained studiously neutral, at least in public.

Neutrality is not simply a matter of military involvement. It is a diplomatic setting, as well. There were calls, yesterday, to expel the Russian Ambassador. Whether we like it or not, to do so would be a violation of neutrality, because it would constitute explicitly taking a side in a foreign war.

What we are seeing here, whether people care to admit it or not, is the inherent contradiction between Ireland’s membership of the EU on the one hand, and our declared neutrality on the other. You simply cannot be an active participant in one of the world’s great geopolitical power players, and also a studiously neutral country. Sanctions that are to be imposed on Russia will be imposed with Irish votes in the EU council. Any decision to beef up European Military capabilities will be taken with Irish ministers at the table. Sure, Irish soldiers might not be involved, but Irish voices will be at the table taking those decisions.

Nor, in truth, have we been truly neutral for a long time. Annoying as they are, the “US troops out of Shannon” people have a point. The Swiss, Europe’s other famously neutral country, do not allow foreign forces on their soil. Nor are they likely to join major sanctions against Russia.

Neutrality, in its own way, should be uncompromising. Even those of us who oppose neutrality must recognise the imperatives of it: The purpose of neutrality, especially when you are a tiny, militarily weak, vulnerable country like Ireland is to make yourself geopolitically irrelevant to larger powers. Neutrality, at its core, is not a moral strategy, but a defensive one: We made ourselves neutral in the second world war because it removed us as a target for German bombing, or a German invasion, against which we could not have defended ourselves without allied assistance. And even the RAF could not have prevented significant loss of life, had the Luftwaffe decided to bomb Cork and Limerick and Dublin.

In modern Ireland, though, neutrality has always been less a defensive position than a moral one. Irish neutrality is no longer, really, about deterring the need for attacks or invasions on our soil, but about retaining the ability to be morally superior to any belligerent. The Swiss, by contrast, feel no such need: Their banks will happily accept roubles, just as they happily accepted stolen Nazi gold. In Ireland, our neutrality is much more about being able to tut tut about the gun-toting Americans, and the imperialist Britons, and the barbaric Russians, than it is about anything truly strategic.

And that, then, is why our leaders, like Mr. Varadkar, feel quite comfortable in rejecting it openly, as he did above. Because ultimately, neutrality is only useful until a better opportunity for a bit of moral preening comes along. In this case, the chance to align little Ireland against the Russian bear is just too good for our leaders to pass up.

The more honest approach here would just be to abandon neutrality altogether. We have no need to join NATO, but we are effectively part, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, of a common EU defence.

In the event of a conflict involving the EU, Ireland will not be neutral, and nor will we be seen as neutral by any aggressor. We will be the target of cyber warfare to disrupt the EU economy, if not more traditional attacks. That is a path we have chosen for ourselves, and it’s not an unreasonable one. But this preening pretence that we remain neutral is, at this stage, something of a joke. A joke Varadkar openly made fun of, yesterday, whether that was his intention or not.

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