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Inside File: Nice Two – neutrality’s still a sticking point

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Things are getting serious when the members of the D_il are being dragged back from their summer holidays in September. For those of you not familiar with the D_il’s seasonal rhythm, suffice it to say that the summer is long, if not necessarily hot, for Irish parliamentarians.

But this year is going to be different. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is determined to impose a back-to-school regimen in an effort to finally push through the Nice Treaty referendum.

Irish voters last year rejected Nice and its formula for greater European expansion and integration. Now they will be asked to vote again in October.

The widespread view after the victory for the anti-Nice forces the first time around was that the political parties, most especially Fianna F_il and its famous get-the-vote-out machine, had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Most Irish voters didn’t bother voting in the referendum last June. Those who did delivered a result of 54 percent to 46 in favor of rejecting Nice.

With the World Cup out of the way, the soccer-mad Ahern felt able to state last week that getting Nice approved by the voters this time was now his, and the nation’s, “number one priority.” At least he didn’t say goal.

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With that he took himself off to the Euro summit in Seville, a city in Ahern’s least favorite country at the minute: Spain.

Much of the two-week D_il session in September will be devoted to the issue of Irish neutrality, a sacred cow of Irish foreign policy since the foundation of the state, but a beast that has come under increasing pressure to get in line with the rest of the European herd in the years since Ireland joined the then EEC in 1973.

The taoiseach — the Bertie of Seville, if you will — was able to return to Ireland from Spain with a fig leaf to wave before a populace split between the anxious and concerned, on one hand, and, on the other, the utterly indifferent.

The other 14 EU leaders had proclaimed to the world that the Republic of Ireland had no formal role in the defense of the union of which it was intrinsically a part.

Bertie was thus able to wave a piece of paper and declare “neutrality in our time.” And that’s just fine, if you can ignore an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

Ireland’s military neutrality could not last long if the EU was actually attacked by somebody. The neutral Irish would be roaring for the Redcoats, the Foreign Legion, the Bundeswehr and the U.S. Cavalry if Martians, or the descendants of Genghis Khan, invaded West Cork.

Equally, it would be hard to see Ireland simply stand and stare if someone attacked the United Kingdom, the wee North included.

These scenarios, of course, are extremely unlikely. What’s more to the point is that Ireland has been holding up the membership expansion of the EU by virtue of its rejection of Nice. And that expansion, primarily eastward, is seen as vital in shoring up stability in a part of Europe where history has been especially turbulent.

So any number of fig leaves will be made available to the Irish in order to reverse last year’s referendum result. In a special exemption as transparent as a belly dancer’s veil, the EU powers will allow the Irish to put on a pretense of being all things to all men. Quite a trick, but a role that not a few Irish actually take rather seriously.

The task of convincing the more idealistic residents of the Republic that the EU’s word on Irish military neutrality is its bond will be largely left to Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, the man who so strongly rejected the idea of pure-form Irish neutrality in the face of the Sept. 11 attack on the United States.

What would now once again face Irish voters, according to Cowen, would be “a decision of the utmost importance with serious implications for our international relations and our long-term prosperity.”

Cowen argued that “the issues” revolving around Nice had not been adequately explained to Irish voters the first time around.

“A second campaign,” he said, “will provide an opportunity to explain the issues with greater clarity.”

In other words, a second chance for the government to get off its rear end and cajole voters to wrap the — presumably green — fig leaf around themselves.

It would be a simple enough task if the neutrality issue could be actually defined purely in terms of membership, or non-membership, of military alliances or pacts.

But there are other aspects to an increasing Irish Euro-skepticism that spin off the core issue of neutrality.

There is widespread and valid concern that the European Union will evolve into two levels — the bigger nations deciding a military policy for everybody that is simply rubber stamped by the “faceless bureaucrats” in Brussels.

Ireland’s pro-neutrality camp argues that there is no guarantee that military actions will not be taken by some EU countries in, or apparently in, the name of all. And appearances clearly do count to those Irish who see Nice as the first link in some latter day Pact of Steel.

This concern points up a weakness in the EU’s present structure as compared to the United States. The U.S. is a nation formed out of quasi-independent states. The EU is attempting to be a functioning state formed by independent nations, a far more difficult model to perfect.

Ireland, a relative Rhode Island when compared to the Texas-sized Germanys and Frances, is rightly worried that it will be simply pulled along by a centralized political entity that talks a good game but in reality falls well short of being a true union of equals.

This is why we have so often seen Ireland fly another flag, that of the United Nations, when it attempts to exercise its options in various world trouble spots, or in the context of a sudden crisis such as 9/11.

Following 9/11, refueling facilities at Shannon Airport and overflights by U.S. military aircraft were allowed by the government even as it contended that this did not breach Irish neutrality.

Such moves, Cowen argued, were in line with a resolution of the UN Security Council, of which Ireland is currently a rotating member.

The argument in the lead up to an October “Nice Two” referendum will revolve heavily around this narrower government interpretation of neutrality and the somewhat broader interpretation quite clearly felt by a significant number of Irish voters.

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