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Irish remain a puzzle in times of conflict

(Ray O'Hanlon, Irish News)

Is the Republic of Ireland part of Donald Rumsfeld's old Europe or new Europe? It's an interesting question when studied from this side of the Atlantic.

Ireland – forgetting the border for a minute – has always been a bit of a puzzle to Americans in times of conflict. Britain, by contrast, is a simpler study – an old enemy now a staunch ally.

The Irish and the Americans have never fought a war. Indeed, the cause of both was virtually identical when the colonies struck for freedom in 1776. The colonial power was the same too of course. And it was that same colonial power that would complicate the Irish view of the world and its military affairs for generations after Lexington and Concord set the United States on course for its independence.

De Valera's Second World War neutrality brought southern Irish neutrality into stark relief. The American-born De Valera objected to American troops using the Six Counties as a jumping off point for the invasion of Europe. That sort of blunt assertiveness could be understood at another level. There was a war going on and the Free State risked being attacked if it openly sided with either the allies or axis.

The Republic won't be invaded on land or bombed from the air if it takes sides in the matter of Saddam Hussein. But the absence of any adverse military consequence is not making 'traditional' Irish neutrality any wider a tightrope to walk.

Given its geographic location, the Republic would appear to be a natural for membership of Nato or any European defence pact. Yet, it wobbles back and forth between habitual antipathy and reluctant participation in secondary structures such as the Nato-inspired Partnership for Peace.

The fact that the Republic is not formally tied at the hip in military terms to Britain is still quite easily understood by most Americans, certainly Irish-Americans. Ireland's difficulties in dealing with Uncle Sam as a separate military entity, one that stands – indeed towers – above Britain and all the rest, is a little more difficult for Americans and again Irish-Americans in particular, to properly digest.

The public questioning in Ireland of American motives in the current build up to likely war against Iraq is not surprising in itself. After all, many Americans are voicing similar concerns. Many are opposed outright to the idea of war, if not against al-Qaida and the Taliban, then at least against Baghdad. What puzzles those Americans who take an interest in Ireland is the evident degree of anti-Americanism that is manifesting itself in protests and debate over the present US build-up, an operation that has embraced Shannon airport and the less tangible arena that is 'neutral' Irish airspace.

Nobody really minds an anti-war protest. They are as American as apple pie and the M-16 rifle. But there are moments when it would appear that a significant number of Irish people seem to regard America as the cause of all ills, a latter day imperial power whose soldiers might just as well be wearing redcoats.

Irish hostility towards American intent in Iraq and elsewhere has been evident enough to get unionists excited. David Trimble for one has lost little opportunity in having a go at Sinn Féin over that party's seemingly faithful adherence to a De Valera-level Irish neutrality. He did so in a recent Washington Post opinion article and again in a recent letter to the Irish Times in response to an op-ed by Trina Vargo, president of the US-Ireland Alliance, the group that presents the annual Mitchell Scholarships.

Trimble's line of attack was relatively narrow. He accused Sinn Féin of being hostile to the western alliance. But it's not too much of a leap to the idea that the Republic of Ireland, in its totality, is not as friendly as it should be to the alliance, even though it is about as west as you can get before hitting Boston.

The reality is of course that the official Irish position vis-a-vis neutrality is going through a shift of potentially historical proportions.

The De Valera version of neutrality had the 26-county state in the role of an Atlantic Yugoslavia or Albania – ideologically at one with its neighbours but militarily distanced from them. But with Shannon looking at times like a Vietnam-era Da Nang, the Albania comparison has gone the way of the Berlin Wall. Still, the Republic's evident discomfort with its role as jumping-off point for the invasion of Iraq gives unionists like Trimble something to talk up when they visit Capitol Hill in search of tea and sympathy.

The same might not be said for Bertie Ahern. The presentation of the bowl of Shamrock to George W Bush might be a bit of a bust this St Patrick's Day if the war goes ahead without United Nations sanction, thus forcing the Dublin government into a showdown with the Americans over Shannon.

It's a fair bet that both Ahern and foreign minister Brian Cowen would be quite happy if the entire neutrality/Shannon issue was engulfed by bigger headlines elsewhere. But with peace camps, street marches and opposition TDs up in arms in the Dail over the warmongering Yanks, that isn't going to happen.

Either way, there's a sense that 'traditional' Irish neutrality economy is heading for a demarche in the face of new realities, not least the ever-growing economic ties between the Republic and the US. But regardless of what Ireland's official policy ends up as, it is certain that an intrinsic Irish mistrust of great military power and ambition – and its accompanying inclination towards backing the underdog – will survive any official policy change.

Back in 1838 Daniel O'Connell took aim with his impressive moral and intellectual arsenal against America's annexation of Texas. It wasn't that O'Connell was anti-American.

He was, however, being true to his belief in the evils of forced political union stemming from military supremacy. Irish-Americans were mightily upset with 'the Liberator' over the Texas issue.

Should Shannon be closed to US military flights, Irish-Americans will vent their frustrations with their transatlantic kindred once again. Few will take much heed of the fact that the descendants of O'Connell are simply marching in step with a rambunctious Irish neutrality that was taking shape long before anyone ever heard of a western alliance.

February 5, 2003

This article appeared first in the February 4, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News