And by resisting those forces within Irish politics that continue to espouse a traditional approach to Irish neutrality, Ahern and Cowen will have earned the gratitude of the Bush administration at a time when lessened economic prospects make American goodwill especially important.
Assuming a Security Council fig leaf for action against Iraq, and success against Saddam Hussein, one way or another by St. Patrick’s Day, this year’s gabble over the bowl of shamrock in the White House is likely to be especially cordial.
A war without a UN mandate could, however, turn the shamrock into diplomatic cactus.
Regardless of what happens, Irish neutrality is now barely recognizable from the form it took in the chilly 1950s, a time when one top Irish government official seriously proposed detaining U.S. military personnel who landed in Shannon in search of so much as an Irish coffee to warm the heart.
Simply put, Ireland, though not a member of NATO, has been more helpful to the United States in recent weeks than some of the founding and leading members of the alliance, most notably France and Germany.
Indeed, recent days have produced a most extraordinary and unprecedented circling of Irish and American wagons in and around Shannon airport.
U.S. military personnel have been heading for a likely war while Irish soldiers have been covering them and their aircraft with the points of their Swiss-made Steyr automatic rifles.
Sure, it can be argued that the presence of Irish troops at Shannon is a matter of Irish national security as much as anything else. But the image will not be lost on those on the alert for even minor changes in Ireland’s neutrality policy.
The question some are asking now is how long will it be before Ireland becomes a fully fledged member of NATO. After all, Ireland’s decision to remain outside the alliance was based primarily on the view that membership in an alliance that included Britain would be a de jure recognition of the partition of the island.
The various agreements between the Irish and British governments in recent years with regard to consent have effectively consigned that reasoning to the proverbial scrap heap of history.
At the same time, it may have come to a point where Ireland doesn’t have to join NATO at all in order to sideline its neutrality. Even by staying out, the Republic can contribute as much to the alliance, indeed more, than, say, Iceland, a NATO member but a country that doesn’t even have an army.
Formal membership of the NATO in this context becomes a virtual non-issue.
Ireland would have little military muscle to offer the organization anyway. Shannon, and indeed Dublin airport, as effective Atlantic seaboard airbases are probably the most important contribution Dublin can make in or out of the alliance, in peacetime, or in time of war.
Apart from this, the Irish government can still wave its impartiality, if not neutrality banner, given the fact that Shannon and Dublin, as well as Irish airspace overhead, are open to military aircraft from numerous nations, NATO and non-NATO alike.
This openness is less of a potential problem with the Western allies now than it was during the Cold War years when Shannon was a major refueling stop for the Soviet airline Aeroflot and more besides.
As the D_il was recently reminded by Fianna F_il’s Willie O’Dea — a man who could rival George W. Bush for Uncle Sam booster of the year — Soviet aircraft ferrying troops to Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962 were also allowed sample the delights of the County Clare airport.
Absent the particular tension and pressures of the Cold War, the Irish government’s recent, evolving interpretation of neutrality has moved the debate onto new ground.
An assumption that military aircraft landing at Shannon were not carrying arms has evolved into an acceptance that they can carry personal weapons so long as permission is sought and granted, and so long as they are stored in the holds of aircraft.
Allowing weapons of war to so openly proceed to war through Ireland would be something new. But, of course, there is no war yet. And this is important.
The Irish government’s guide book in such matters remains a 1996 white paper on defense, which states: “In the strict sense of international law and practice, neutrality and its attendant rights and duties do not exist in peacetime; they arise only during a state of war.”
Interestingly, the paper is flexible enough in its use of language to continue thus: “An intention to remain neutral in the event of conflict is not sufficient on its own to maintain conditions of peace, stability and justice in Europe and beyond. Ireland has therefore sought to promote a range of policies, directed at preventing, containing and resolving conflict and at promoting greater equity and justice in international affairs.”
The key phrase here is “range of policies.” Ahern and Cowen have been taking an especially liberal view of the word “range.”
And as for NATO, the tone of the white paper is anything but hostile. “Although Ireland is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” it states, “NATO’s strategies and policies as the principal defensive alliance in Europe have an important bearing on Ireland’s security environment.”
Not to mention economic.
A key indicator of the present mood in Dublin was Ahern’s irate reaction last week when he was not asked to sign a letter from European leaders supporting the U.S. position on Iraq. It was explained later that the eight signatories to the letter were all NATO members and Ireland had not been asked to sign because it was not a member. Ahern indicated that he would have had no problem signing up with the NATO group.
Such flexibility with regard with the once sacred cow of Irish neutrality will indeed be tested if the UN Security Council stymies the latest U.S. “offer it can’t refuse” to come up with a trigger-pulling resolution on Iraq.
But there is a growing sense that the line with regard to Irish neutrality, if not entirely breached, has become so elastic as to render it meaningless. The next few days will speak much to this view.