How many Irish politicians can dance on the head of a pin? The answer is an unlimited number if the head of the pin is neutral ground. The Republic of Ireland is neutral ground, but the entire Irish cabinet has decided that the green sward of Lansdowne Road will be anything but come June 5 when the soccer players of Yugoslavia — Serbia would be a more accurate term — come to play the Republic in a European Championship qualifying game. The Irish, by virtue of a devilish twist of fate, share their qualifying group with Yugoslavia, Croatia and Macedonia. Some combination.
The chances of a stray NATO bomb landing in the center circle is remote, to say the least, but the visiting Yugoslavs will have a whiff of cordite about their jerseys, not to mention questionable political judgment, given that a number of them have engaged in displays of partisan sentiment on various fields of play, most notably the scrawling of anti-NATO slogans on chests revealed — in keeping with the current habit of goal-scoring soccer stars — by the celebratory pulling of jerseys up over the face. So much for the neutrality of sports.
Ireland, in the meantime, might be militarily neutral, but it is no longer a remote place. It is a full-fledged member of the European Union and member of and signatory to any number of international organizations and treaties. The Republic’s proximity to world events is merely underlined by the problem over what to do about Yugoslav soccer players. The cabinet and President Mary McAleese will boycott the game if it goes ahead. It might not. UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe, might yet kick the Yugoslavs out of the tournament, a move that would preclude the need for an Irish government gesture that some would see — and undoubtedly condemn — as an act of taking sides, a breach of neutrality.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s more involved global role as a reasonably engaged and compassionate nation was on display again this week with the arrival of the first of an expected 1,000 Kosovar refugees.
Still, in one key respect, Ireland still acts, or pretends to act, within the boundary of military and political neutrality. It is a tradition long cherished by some but increasingly questioned by many who have watched succeeding generations of Irish politicians dance around the issue while failing to provide much in the way of leadership. Ireland is now considering membership of the NATO-related Partnership for Peace in Europe. Debate over joining this group of nations — some see it as a mere steppingstone to full NATO membership — will be vigorous. But the arrival of the Kosovars will remind all that even a cherished neutrality can never be used as an excuse to avoid humanitarian responsibilities in this troubled world. Look into that child’s eyes who has witnessed murder and you will quickly discover that there is no neutral ground between what is right and what is so patently evil.