JUSTINE McCarthy Breaks The Media Silence on Covert Government Surrender of Irish Neutrality

JUSTINE McCarthy Breaks The Media Silence on Covert Government Surrender of Irish Neutrality

Put our foot down and stay in neutral: Justine McCarthy, “The Sunday Times”, 28 January 2018

In unstable times, Ireland must not let its status as honest broker slip away.

The images at Shannon- the trusting youthfulness of the soldiers, the lethal geopolitical minefield awaiting them, and the beaming US Vice-President Pence -were especially alarming if you were Irish and happened to believe in the state’s declared neutrality

Mike Pence has one of those catchy, buddy-buddy names. He also has an unthreatening demeanour, unlike his thunderously sulky boss, Donald Trump. Last weekend, togged out in an airforce-style bomber jacket emblazoned with his own name, good ol’ Mike alighted from Air Force Two at Shannon airport and exhorted US troops en route to the Middle East war cauldron to focus on the mission ahead of them.

That’s Shannon airport in Ireland. And, yes, that’s Ireland — an independent, sovereign, self-proclaimed neutral state. And Pence is second-in-command to the world’s most powerful person. Should Trump be impeached, Pence would assume control of the nuclear codes.

According to news reports by Bloomberg, The Times of Israel, the Los Angeles Times, the Taipei Times, the Jamaica Observer and the Hindustan Times, the American vice-president hugged and snapped selfies with “scores” of American soldiers on their way to Kuwait, a launch-pad for America’s offensive against Isis in Iraq.

Pence, who described Kuwait as “a critical theatre”, made a speech to the camouflage-clad troops in Shannon’s terminal building while his own super-deluxe aircraft was being refuelled. Everything about the scene was chilling- the trusting youthfulness of the soldiers, the lethal geopolitical minefield awaiting them, and the beaming Pence.

The images were especially alarming if you were Irish and happened to believe in the state’s declared neutrality. As Sinn Fein TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh put it: “When you see the images . . . you automatically think he is in Seattle or San Diego, not Shannon.”

Pence was on his way to Israel, as the most senior Washington figure to visit that country since Trump announced the relocation of America’s embassy there from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the world’s most contested capital city. This announcement was followed by another from Washington that the US was withholding $65m (€52.2m) of a planned $125m in funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides healthcare, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Pence is a veteran advocate of America’s embassy move. He has also disputed America’s ostensible role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East. “The United States certainly wants to be honest, but we don’t want to be a broker,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2010. “A broker doesn’t take sides.”

While Palestinian leaders refused to meet Pence, in protest at Washington’s embassy decision, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, tweeted less than 48 hours after the Shannon stopover: “My friend @VPMikePence, welcome to Jerusalem — the capital of Israel”. In his subsequent address to the Knesset, Pence announced that the relocation of the embassy, which had been scheduled to take place over three years, would now be completed by next year.

Trump and Pence make no bones about with whom they side in the Middle East. Ireland, on the other hand, purports to be the quintessential honest broker. The taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s robust espousal of Irish neutrality last month was welcomed by many who had grown to doubt the state’s sincerity about its neutral stance. It felt increasingly as if it were being chipped away in the past year.

Last autumn, the Irish naval vessel LE Samuel Beckett participated in an international arms fair in London. With the consent of the Department of Defence, Babcock International, a British military shipbuilder, gave its warship customers priority slots to tour the ship at the Defence and Security Equipment International biannual exhibition.

In correspondence with the department before the fair, Babcock said it would keep a log of visitors on board “for security, safety and our own intelligence purposes”. The department has refused a request from The Sunday Times for a copy of this log book. Babcock, which signed a contract during the fair to supply South Korea’s submarines with weapons handling and launch equipment, did not respond when asked whether it had hosted ministers from Seoul on the LE Samuel Beckett.

Around the time this was going on, the cabinet unsuccessfully nominated Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, the chief of staff of the Defence Forces, for appointment as chairman of the EU military committee. Mellett rose up through the ranks of the Naval Service and his nomination followed a decision to have Ireland’s rescue mission for refugees in the Mediterranean formally join the EU effort, whereas it had been operating with Italy.

Towards the end of last year, the government denied that, by joining the EU’s new defence mechanism Pesco (Permanent Structured Cooperation), Ireland was diluting its neutrality. It said this country would opt-in to non-war operations, and particularly cited the risk of terrorism. That statement did provide a modicum of reassurance, considering that 22 of Nato’s 28 member states are also members of the EU.

At Christmas, Varadkar said he did not envisage Ireland ever joining Nato. On the contrary, he said, the country’s military non-alignment had strengthened Ireland’s foreign policy. But the government had decided “not to be neutral” on such matters as cyber-security and cyber-terrorism.

These are utterly reasonable positions, in theory. The problem they create, however, is the danger of a perceived ambiguity in Ireland’s neutrality. Coupled with the use of Shannon airport for ferrying US troops to and from wars, it creates confusion about Ireland’s honest-broker credentials. Readers of the Jamaica Observer and the Hindustan Times, having seen pictures of Pence geeing up war-going troops at Shannon, might be surprised to hear Ireland is officially neutral.

It simply is not possible to be more neutral on one side of an argument than on the other

An opinion poll conducted by Red C in February 2016 found 57% of respondents favoured enshrining Ireland’s neutrality in the constitution. As world politics become ever more complex, unpredictable and belligerent, not only would a constitutional enshrinement oblige Ireland’s legislators to honour its commitment to non-partisanship, it would tell the rest of the world Ireland’s neutrality is nobody’s flexible friend.

In Davos last Thursday, Varadkar spoke with admirable forthrightness about the risk posed to the world when America disengages from it. How much more authority his words would have carried had his country’s constitution copperfastened the pledge to remain neutral.

It simply is not possible to be more neutral on one side of an argument than on the other. In muddying the issue by allowing a US political leader to address his war-going troops on Irish soil, Ireland risks neutering its valuable neutrality. Unlike Pence, who is happy for America to be honest but not a broker, Ireland must be scrupulously honest, with itself and everyone else, if it really wants to be a broker.