- 10 Jul 19
A new Irish posse of MEPs is taking their seats in Brussels. With Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe, the right kind of sparks could fly...
And so, our recently elected MEPs pack their bags and hunt for apartments in Brussels or Strasbourg. Some are returning, some are new. Those from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party will be hooking up with established blocs. Others will plough a more independent furrow. We expect no less from, in particular, Mick Wallace and Claire Daly. It’s not just the coffee and croissants. They’ll stir things up. Their angles, analysis and anger will illuminate and annoy, which is part and parcel of the democratic process and a welcome addition to the European debate.
Both have been sterling critics of iniquitous processes in Ireland, for example within the Garda Siochana, and they have campaigned for equality and justice – for women and reproductive rights, for minorities and for migrants. Their contributions on these topics on the European stage will, we hope, join battle against the septic tide of hard right ideology and the fascism, racism, isolationism and misogyny that drive it.
Plus, Wallace was a successful and enlightened businessman before he fell foul of the banks. That experience triggered the anger that prompted and sustained his first representative political career in Ireland. It’s an interesting perspective to bring to Strasbourg and Brussels.
Of course, they’ll get frustrated too. Things move slowly in the EU. Decision-making is very often a matter of gradually building consensus, rather than making decisive leaps. Large blocs hold entrenched views, and that’s before you factor in differing national perspectives. So, there’ll be rows, harangues and decibels too.
One hopes that Wallace and Daly won’t forget who elected them. Their role is to continue to be themselves, for sure, but it’s also to represent and there are many interests, needs and demands.
It’s unlikely that they’ll dilute their campaigning against military and fiscal adventuring. On these issues, their contributions will be informed, passionate and, almost certainly, entertaining.
Their views are pretty clear but general Irish views on military issues are less so. We have, of course, a policy of neutrality since World War II. Finland and Sweden are the only other neutral EU member States. But neutrality has various definitions and is likely to mutate over time. In our case, the emphasis is primarily on military neutrality, but for many decades Ireland also presented itself as “non-aligned”.
It’s more complex than might be assumed. Neutrality is enshrined in international law, but not some of its subtler shades. For example, in Ireland we supplied weather information to the Allies before D-Day and denied this information to the Germans. Was this a breach of our neutrality?
Within the European Union, under the Lisbon Treaty, Member States are obliged to assist a fellow member that is the victim of armed aggression. It specifies “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in [other member states’] power” but this does not “prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States” (neutral policies). That allows us to respond with non-military aid.
That could be put to the test in the near future. Turkey has been drilling illegally for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus, an EU Member State. The EU has said that it will monitor developments and be ready to respond in full solidarity with Cyprus. The Turks are also threatening to drill off the Greek coast and the Greeks are prepared to take the military route. It could all go horribly wrong, especially now that the demagogue Erdogan has lost an election in Istanbul and may well feel he needs a war to bolster his popularity.
Other wars are a-brewing, the most obvious being between the US and Iran. Few in Ireland would believe this war necessary, so our neutrality is an important safeguard, especially as our nearest neighbours are likely to join Trump’s crusade and our fellow Europeans are not. Wallace, Daly, Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe should have things to say on this.
More complexity arises with peace-keeping. Neutral countries like Ireland, Finland and Sweden are non-belligerent and don’t wage war but their armed forces participate in UN peace-keeping missions. If attacked, they fight back, as they have done in a number of theatres including the Golan Heights. One such battle, fought at Jadotville in the Congo, is now commemorated on film. To say the Irish military gave a good account of themselves would be a huge understatement.
Curiously, for all our protestations of military neutrality, the Irish have never shied away from a fight. The old annals and epics are full of blood and guts. The Irish invaded what is now Scotland long before the Anglo-Normans set foot here. At home, local chiefs hired mercenaries from Scotland (the galloglaigh) or home (kerns). After the fall of the Gaelic system, Irish warriors were celebrated for their contributions to Spain, France, in the United States Civil War and elsewhere, in South and Central America and, of course, during World Wars I and II. We don’t fight our own wars, but we fight them for others. Heroically. Remember Fontenoy!!
Things change fast. Five years ago we would have thought military neutrality almost obsolete: who could you fight? Now, danger lurks everywhere. And there are new challenges too: climate change, world hunger, inequality, migration, the rise of the far right and the emergence of “asymmetric warfare” and cyber warfare. Throw in the growth of massive corporations whose economies dwarf those of most countries, whose reach and power rival those of all but a few major countries and some of whom deploy what can only be described as security forces. Can we be neutral in all that? Would it be moral?
There’s a possible version of the European Parliament in which these things are thrashed out to build a common set of values and to hold national Governments to account. It may not happen, but one hopes that this won’t be for want of effort on the part of our current set of MEPs. We wish them luck.