Ireland & NATO

By Horgan, John | Commonweal, February 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Ireland & NATO


Horgan, John, Commonweal


Dublin to enlist?

Plainly emboldened by the ongoing, if intermittent progress of the peace process in Northern Ireland, a number of senior Irish political figures have recently inaugurated a public debate on two issues which have traditionally aroused deep suspicions in the Irish body politic: membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and membership in the Commonwealth.

The issue of Commonwealth membership has been raised several times - most recently on January 14 - by the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic, Bertie Ahern, who said that the Irish decision to leave, taken in 1949 (just after India had joined as a republic), was too hasty and destroyed a bridge Eamon de Valera, Ireland's first prime minister, had hoped would help to unite North and South. De Valera tried to reopen the question of Commonwealth membership in secret discussions with London in 1957, but only on the basis that the British would take an initiative by issuing an invitation to Ireland to rejoin. The British declined to take the bait. Ahem, in launching the debate now, has taken an initiative that De Valera felt politically unable to take forty years ago.

Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews has, for his part, formally re-opened a discussion on possible Irish membership of the U.S.-sponsored Partnership for Peace, which had been initiated cautiously by his predecessor, Dick Spring, and on which a decision will be taken by the cabinet before the end of 1999. Although not formally linked to NATO, the Partnership includes NATO states and is generally considered as a kind of anteroom which can be safely entered by states that have political or ideological difficulties in adhering to the larger organization.

The links between the Northern Ireland issue and the often-vexed question of Ireland's military neutrality have a long history. They surfaced in an acute form during secret negotiations between the Irish and British governments at the onset of World War II, when Churchill failed to persuade De Valera that an undertaking by him to try to sway Unionists into a united Ireland after the war was sufficient exchange for an abandonment of Irish neutrality.

During the war, Fianna Fail, De Valera's party, made the neutrality policy peculiarly its own, but also popularized it to the extent that it achieved an independent existence outside the ranks of the party faithful, and indeed became virtually a touchstone of Irishness in the minds of some. It had the advantage of being a distinguishing mark or characteristic of the Irish polity, one that made it particularly attractive to many of those whose attempts to achieve the two primary nationalist objectives-Irish unity and the revival of the Irish language-had met with a conspicuous lack of success. …

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