Henry McDonald: For all the gushing attitudes to the European Union in Dublin, Brussels cannot rely on the Republic of Ireland to help it with an EU army

Emmanuel Macron is at it again.

Saturday, 25th September 2021, 9:56 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 2:17 pm
Ireland never joined Nato but its defence forces have a long record in peacekeeping. But not long ago there was strong Eurosceptical sentiment south of the border

The ‘It’ in question being his Holy Grail-like obsession to create a pan-European army.

In the middle of last week the French President once more floated the idea of an EU-wide military force of around 5,000 personnel. This time around Macron’s recooked proposal was prompted by the sting of betrayal after the Australians reneged on a deal to buy French submarines opting instead to purchase American made subs.

This switch by the Aussies was in large part due to Down Under joining a new military alliance in the Pacific alongside the United States and the UK.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

If Macron’s dream of an alternative European army ever does become reality there is one nation within the EU family of nations he definitely cannot rely on: the Republic of Ireland.

The corner stone of Irish foreign policy (leaving aside its designs on Northern Ireland) is military neutrality.

Ireland never joined Nato although it has a long and commendable record in sending its military around the world on UN peacekeeping duties. None the less the odds of the Irish Defence Forces providing recruits to a new pan EU army in the foreseeable future are remote.

Amid all the gushing, uncritical public discourse in the Republic regarding all things EU these days it is worth remembering that not very long ago there was a powerful Eurosceptical sentiment south of the border. Twelve years ago, in the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty Irish voters rejected the treaty by 53.4% as opposed to 46.6% who backed the drive towards greater EU integration.

One of the principal reasons why Ireland initially voted No was over fears about threats to Irish neutrality and concern about conscription into a European army. Although it was debatable if Lisbon actually entailed any compulsion to join an EU military force the spectre of it was enough to chill a significant segment of the Irish electorate.

The Dublin government at the time sought to allay these fears but also make the Irish vote again in a second referendum, which was in itself a massive anti-democratic con trick. As someone who reported from the frontline of the later protests against EU imposed austerity measures on the Republic after the Celtic Tiger collapsed and the state headed towards national bankruptcy I often wonder what that second vote would have been if it had been held in the middle of the economic shock treatment being applied from Brussels, Frankfurt, Berlin and the IMF.

During those days of protests in 2013 and 2014 I followed tens of thousands marching through Dublin demonstrating against the EU and European Central Bank’s austerity-imposed cuts on Irish public services. I can still hear the speeches from public commentators denouncing the bureaucrats in Brussels, Angela Merkel in Berlin and the bankers at the ECB in Frankfurt on platforms such as one outside the GPO in O’Connell Street.

It’s funny to listen to some of these same voices now in the post-Brexit era lavishing their praise and support on the EU while engaging in some old-fashioned Brit-bashing.

In Northern Ireland too there are lots of these voices articulating a misty eyed, sentimental longing to be back in the EU.

Nationalists meanwhile are using the enticement of EU return as an argument someone for a United Ireland wrapped inside a reunited Europe. As someone who didn’t actually vote for Brexit I am still perplexed over the suspension of critical faculties when it comes to what the EU does in practice as opposed to its rhetoric.

Having reported 23 years ago during that Holy Week of negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement I cannot recall and none of my colleagues from the time can either the letters E and U being mentioned. Aside from peripheral peace building projects and welcome structural funding, the EU was not a major player in the torturous discussions that eventually created the Good Friday Agreement.

Their interference post Brexit in Northern Ireland’s politics and in particular the imposition of the Protocol (albeit one also with the fingerprints of Boris Johnson all over it) however has the potential to unravel that settlement.

For its own economic and strategic interests the EU has used Northern Ireland as a means to punish Britain for leaving the union. By doing so it has generated a widespread perception across the unionist community that the EU is now in league with one side in a divided society – Irish nationalism, north and south. Before Brexit the EU at least had a positive reputation for being neutral on the Northern Ireland question.

Irish foreign policy neutrality will undoubtedly prevail even if President Macron ever gets his way and establishes his EU army. With the imposition of an Irish Sea Border and the refusal, at least so far, of Brussels to compromise on frontier checks including even medicines EU neutrality in Northern Ireland no longer exists.

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