I recall back in the mid naughties Bertie Ahern arguing in an OpEd in the Irish Times there ought to be a conversation about Ireland and the UK joining Schengen. It was one of those famous declarations of intent to do something that never happened.
The Consultative Forum set up by Micheál Martin at the Department of Foreign Affairs is trying to get some kind of conversation going on Ireland’s position, primarily in Europe, now two of the largest European neutrals are off the fence.
It’s set to chunk through a broad agenda that includes, Ukraine, the lack of new UN mandates since 2014, and cyber security in seminars starting this Thursday at UCC, moving on to NUI Galway on Friday with two sessions at Dublin Castle next week.
Then President Michael D Higgins took aim at the Chair, Waterford born Vice Chair of Oxford University Louise Richardson in an interview with the SBP, referencing the Damehood she received last year as her “very large letter DBE”.
[Too West Brit for you, Mr President? – Ed] Well, indeed, so much for being a figurehead for a new welcoming plural Ireland?
His expression of disapproval of the DFA’s whole agenda, which includes a discussion of Ireland’s relationship with NATO (currently in the Partnership for Peace programme), was perhaps done with the intention of doing a little taboo setting?
Turns out his personalised remarks overshadowed any intention to bump possible moves further down the road that might change Ireland’s status as a small neutral actor on the edge of the world stage (unlikely as that might be) off the media order.
Truthfully Ireland’s neutrality is unlikely to change because it would need the development of a full foreign policy beyond trade and UN peace keeping, and that’s not happening anytime soon. Sweden and Finland dropped theirs only because they had to.
Ireland doesn’t. But as Professor Roger McGinty at the University of Durham points out, that doesn’t mean there’s not a serious set of questions that need answering…
There is no doubting that – internationally – we are in a 1930s moment. The rules-based international order is crumbling, capital is more mobile and volatile than ever, populist leaders are on the rise, a climate crisis is on-going, Russia has a clear European destabilisation strategy, and a China-US confrontation looks increasingly likely. There is the possibility that we are one accident away from a tipping point.
In McGinty’s view there’s no need to abandon neutrality not least that when the shortfall in the domestic military spending is means it’s already well below par in numbers, he advised that “when everyone else is a horse, be a unicorn“.
Given the Irish Defence Forces are less than one division of any other conventional army (see Denmark), the notion that the country is planning to abandon neutrality and adopt a, what he called, “hold my coat” approach to war, is imagined nonsense.
His critics have not spared his blushes. Gerard Howlin (a frequent critic of the government) notes in the Irish Times that whatever the false assumptions in the President’s remarks, he has no business making such public interventions…
Think what you like about housing policy, but it is the elected Government that has a democratic mandate to govern. We have an elected Opposition, a vibrant civil society and a critical media to call out the mess.
Fergus Finlay, an old Labour Party comrade of the President’s was a little more direct in The Examiner:
By having an open, fully reported, debate we are “playing with fire”.
Indeed. I hadn’t known there’s been no new peacekeeping mandates at the UN since 2014 (when Putin annexed Crimea). If there’s irritation in the President at the presence of foreigners, well Dublin doesn’t have a foreign policy set like London or DC.
Perhaps the forum (live streamed in public over all four days), would have been better titled, ‘what is neutrality in an era of global insecurity’? But who thought the president would see the title then kick off without reading the contents? [Ahem. – Ed]
Like some princeling of the formerly dominant Catholic Church it’s as though he’s setting out for the great unwashed what can and cannot be talked about (ie, the aforementioned taboo setting). Oh, and speaking of which, here’s Howlin again…
An Irish president is not a sovereign above the law. Deference to the office does not translate into imaginary powers. This is a presumption of power based on popular support and political reticence unseen since John Charles McQuaid. The President foolishly allowed himself to indulge the reflex of someone who believes they know better and has the right to insist he does. [Emphasis added]
Hmmm… This is comfort zone politics, in which relying cynically (and safely) upon a purely inshore account of what it is to be Irish, while offshore, the wider world (venturing out only for St Paddy’s day or raising battle cash) can go to hell in a handcart.
The President should push the envelope of what’s possible. People once worried about this in regard to Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese (who learned from her slips). But that arises by the use of actual powers of the Presidency or symbolism.
Symbolic language emerges by letting down the civic armour and affording the populis a glimpse of something alive, that ripples through the mind in ways that reach across apparent divides, rather than the dogmatic reflexes of an unregarded poet.
The two women provided such moments with a consistency that evaded most previous incumbents. Their joint successor, President Higgins’, penchant for self sabotage only occurs when he risks the Presidency’s reputation on his own cranky ideas.
Perhaps some of those expressing knee jerk support for those cranky ideas ought to reflect on this moment public embarrassment too?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty