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Welcome to Ireland, where trivial things are magnified and important things are ignored

Justine McCarthy: There are too many examples of this cause-and-effect pattern of political diversion

Spain has its mañana. And Ireland has its amárach. No wonder both countries have floundered with forward planning, albeit for different reasons. The Spanish trope is inspired by the country’s fondness for siestas and fiestas. The Irish one stems from an innate partiality to any diversion that can postpone debating our collective fundamental ideals.

Ireland seems congenitally predisposed to putting off today any calmly-reached decisions about seminal matters until tomorrow, when it will be plunged into rash reactions in the haste of a crisis. Unlike sunny Spain, maybe our desire for time-wasting distractions springs from the gloominess of our climate.

Albert Reynolds was correct when he said that it is the little things that trip you up, because, too often, the little things are magnified way beyond their import, at the expense of the big things. A case in point was the palaver in January over €1,057 worth of an election-postering benefit that Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Public Expenditure, failed to include in his financial returns to the Standards in Public Office Commission in 2017. While it was imperative that he correct the record and explain the inaccuracy, it was not so important as to warrant dominating the news agenda for almost two parliamentary weeks and, worse, to consume the working hours of government, opposition politicians and State officials during Ireland’s biggest homelessness crisis.

The version of neutrality we have at present is as mealy-mouthed as the fox that invited the gingerbread man to climb on to his nose for safe river passage, before eating him

Instead of demanding Dáil time to lambaste Donohoe for not declaring the €140-benefit of the use of a van, Sinn Féin could have better spent that time demanding to know what measures the government planned to implement if it decided to terminate the eviction ban, as it has done this week with a confection of fudge, blather and vague mutterings about mitigation.


There are too many examples of this cause-and-effect pattern of political diversion to cite them all but the arrival in 2010 of the bailout troika to sequester the country’s economic sovereignty, while government ministers were still denying in televised bluster that it was going to happen, ranks at the top of the bonfire. Another was the protracted omerta about discussing this island’s future constitutional status after the 2016 Brexit referendum shifted its tectonic plates.

The world’s most worrying existential crisis is the damage we humans are doing to our planet. Yet 32 months after leading the Green Party into government, Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Transport, announced only this week he intends appointing a group to develop a strategy to reduce Ireland’s transport emissions. One measure the group might moot could be that somebody shut the door after the horse has bolted.

Of all the casualties of our collective disinclination to confront the thorniest topics, Irish neutrality looms large. Or military neutrality, as some call it. Or non-alignment, as others prefer. Whichever name you choose, none has been technically correct since 1999, when Ireland joined Nato’s Partnership for Peace. The concept of neutrality that was promoted by Fianna Fáil governments in the mid-20th century has been relentlessly chipped away by war-going US military plane landings at Shannon Airport, by Ireland joining the EU’s Pesco (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and by the growing military equipment sector of Irish industry.

In 2013, Young Fine Gael passed a resolution urging the government to begin accession talks with Nato. Last year, Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews said the triple lock, which requires Cabinet and Dáil approval for UN-sanctioned peacekeeping missions, was “no longer fit for purpose” and his party leader, Micheál Martin, said a referendum would not be necessary to change the country’s neutrality position.

Whether or not you agree with Irish neutrality or with its current interpretation, these incremental tweaks have been significant and need to be discussed, calmly. Opinion polls, conducted even since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, consistently show majority support for neutrality in Ireland – only 24 per cent in an Irish Times/Ipsos poll last April wanted to change it – but overtures for a debate keep getting shut down. When Sabina Coyne Higgins, the President’s wife, wrote to this newspaper urging peace talks to end Russia’s war on Ukraine and making the valid point that all wars end but the sooner the better and the fewer people will be killed, she was vilified for her supposed naivety and for having the temerity to post her statement on the Uachtarán na hÉireann website. Once again, the real issue got kicked off the main stage in preference for the sideshow.

With hostilities raging in Europe, prompting Sweden and Finland to abandon their long-held neutrality, the climate has become less clement for respectful and thoughtful debate. Some pro-neutrality advocates wrongly insinuate that anybody who opposes it is a warmongering hawk while some of those who oppose it wrongly imply that the other side comprises virtue-signalling cowards. Which is all very entertaining for some, no doubt, but it gets us nowhere.

The British peace activist Bertrand Russell said, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 199,000 human beings, that “either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense”.

Common sense dictates that, as a State, Ireland must stop running away from the complex issue of neutrality, and come to a decision about whether we want it or not and, if we do, what do we want it to mean. For the version of neutrality we have at present is as mealy-mouthed as the fox that invited the gingerbread man to climb on to his nose for safe river passage, before eating him.

The world is a more precarious place than ever, what with cyber attacks being launched from afar, individuals being injected with deadly poison in distant city streets, energy insecurity and the destruction of the planet by warfare. With China admitting its peace talks proposals for Russia and Ukraine foundered because of its own political closeness to Moscow, honest-broker countries are desperately needed.

Ireland can be that honest broker.

Frank Aiken, an Irish champion of world peace when he was the minister for external affairs in the 1950s and 1960s, advised those who scoffed at the neutrality ideal as “visionary” to “keep another vision before their eyes – a vision of what the third world war would mean for mankind”. It’s a vision we need to talk about, at least. Because tomorrow may be too late.