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So Dame Louise Richardson wasn’t plotting to push us into Nato after all

If Government gave her a gig to achieve the abandonment of neutrality, they should get their money back

So it turns out that Professor Louise Richardson – Tramore woman, Trinity scholar, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Dame of the British Empire, etc, etc – isn’t going to hoodwink the country into joining Nato after all.

Prof Richardson, you may recall, was asked by the Government earlier this year to chair a series of public forums on the future of Ireland’s defence and security policy. She was immediately assailed by assorted peace lovers as being a stooge of the British establishment, a shill for western imperialism, and a jingoistic militarist whose agenda was to shuffle Ireland into Nato by the back door and send the flower of Gaelic manhood off to die in foreign wars.

Richard Boyd-Barrett said, at the customary volume, that she was “not an impartial voice” having sided with US foreign and military policy. He decried the whole forum as being “totally biased” and “stacked to the rafters with pro-Nato speakers and people associated with the military-industrial complex”. Boyd-Barrett had a point about the forum’s panels (not picked by Richardson, by the way). As usual he completely oversold it.

Not to be outdone, Paul Murphy told the Dáil that Richardson “supports the assassination of people”. This is, needless to say, a highly tendentious reading of Richardson’s academic work on terrorism, on which she is a world-renowned scholar.


As is almost inevitable nowadays, President Michael D Higgins weighed in, with personal comments about Richardson for which he subsequently had to apologise. Higgins mocked her “Dame of the British Empire” title and suggested that he could have come up with some names as chair himself. No doubt he could.

Incidentally, Richardson was awarded the title Dame of the British Empire, or DBE, for her efforts in making the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine available at cost to poorer countries, and for broadening entry to Oxford for disadvantaged pupils, both notoriously reactionary projects.

We really should try to conduct our public debate in a way that recognises people may legitimately differ on important subjects. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t make them a bad person, deserving of your scorn and abuse. It’s good that our public debate is intense, passionate and occasionally raucous; this is the mark of a free society. Too many people think that they can say anything at all about their political opponents, simply because they disagree with them. Leaders of our public debate should acknowledge the responsibility to remain tethered to facts and reality, free from personal abuse. Perhaps Michael D might consider a Presidential dialogue on that?

Anyway, when the forums started, “peace activists” sought to disrupt the proceedings and prevent the discussions taking place. The 89 year-old Margaretta D’Arcy went on stage and decried the forum as a “stitch-up”. Various other protesters disrupted the proceedings, but they went ahead anyway.

This week, Richardson produced her report of the forum’s deliberations. All I can say is that if the Government gave her the gig to shove Ireland into Nato, they should ask for their money back.

Richardson’s report found that the discussions at the forum suggested that there is “no popular mandate to drop the current policy of neutrality”.

“While Ireland’s practice of neutrality does not conform to international norms,” she said, “it remains popular in Ireland.” She went on to say: “A considerable majority of those who spoke or wrote on this topic expressed the view that there is presently no public appetite for a change to the current position on neutrality, whether or not it corresponds to any accepted international definition of neutrality.”

The question of Ireland’s relationship with Nato merited a whole five paragraphs, mostly noting the difference between the view of the “anti-war” lobby of Nato as an aggressive imperialist force, and the view of the actual members of Nato – especially the nervous eastern European countries – who regard it as a defensive alliance. Of a justification for Ireland abandoning neutrality and joining Nato, there was not a sign.

So we must conclude that one of two things has happened. Either a dastardly attempt to subvert the clear will of the Irish people and somehow catapult the country into Nato was averted by some roaring by Richard BB and sniping from Michael D – or such a plot did not exist in the first place, in which case some people owe Louise Richardson DBE an apology. Well, you can make up your own mind.

But what is definitely true is that the world is changing, and Ireland’s understanding of its place and role in the world will have to change too. We are in a dangerous, bellicose age and a responsible Government – any government – will take account of the need to protect its citizens, and stand by its values, and its alliances.

It is often said that Ireland just cannot continue its policy of freeloading on the defence capabilities of the UK, the US and other Nato allies, who effectively mind our skies and our waters. Actually, I am not sure that is true; it will still be in the interests of the UK and Nato countries that the western approaches to Britain and Europe are watched and, if necessary, guarded. So maybe we can continue to freeload – it’s just that it will be very obvious to everyone that’s what we are doing. That is unlikely to increase Ireland’s clout at the EU in pursuit of our other interests.

So Ireland’s foreign policy, and its defence and security policy will have to continue to evolve and respond to a changed world. That requires adult conversations grounded in the reality of political trade-offs that recognise the world as it is, rather than as we might like it to be. The forums chaired by Prof Richardson did not quite get us there. But they were a good start.