Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
The story of the Choctaw nation of Native Americans donating $170 towards Irish famine relief in 1847 is not a new one. As a country, we’re well aware of this act of generosity by a community which had its own hardships and painful history. The donation always for me holds a special place as an extraordinary act of nobility and honour, a generous gesture towards a people of whom they knew little. Indeed any Irish that they encountered were more than likely members of the United States Army who are forcing Native Americans to leave their tribal lands as the United States expanded westwards.
I’m bringing up the Choctaw nation within the context of our ongoing national debate about neutrality. We’re not the first neutral country in these times to reexamine existing policies: Finland and Sweden have both opened formal communication lines with NATO, whereas Austria’s Freedom Party foreign policy leadership seems to be setting itself up as some form of Kremlin dance partner.
In looking at our own position, the example of the Choctaw should play a role. What would we do if a small nation like Estonia, on the Russian border, like us a nation with a shared history of brutal imperial oppression were to find its democratic sovereignty threatened once again by Russian force?
Is it our business?
If the Russians were a direct military threat from the air to us it means that NATO forces have probably collapsed right across Europe and we will be very much at the mercy of far more serious military outcomes than the odd Russian plane flying over Mayo or Donegal.
The army will be be far busier burning uniforms and burying arms to fight the occupation.
Therefore if we are to have a debate about neutrality it has to be one about morality and indeed about a sense of national honour. We have to decide what sort of nation we are, an exercise every thing from industrial schools to abortion proves we’re not great at.
Supposing the Kremlin provoked civil unrest in the Baltic states among the minority Russian communities and then used those public disturbances as a pretext to send Russian forces across the border to supposedly to protect their minority.
What would be the response of Ireland as a nation?
If Estonian or Lithuanian or Latvian governments pleaded with other free democracies to please send military aid to assist in the defence of their countries what would we as a nation say?
A cold-hearted analysis of national interest will probably come to the conclusion that in the short term this is not our problem. It’s true that we wouldn’t be found wanting in terms of grandstanding and demanding that the United Nations take some sort of action to prevent this. But we know full well that the United Nations is merely the sum of its parts and in a conflict between the Atlantic and the Kremlin the United Nations would be completely powerless.
Other than providing us with a platform from which to do some absolutely top class hand wringing, the people of Estonia watching their sons and daughters in combat gear on their streets, fighting Russian tanks door to door with machine guns and shoulder launched anti-armour missiles would take little comfort in our declarations of woe.
Nor would the rest of Europe, I suspect, as their soldiers fought and died in the Baltics to try and liberate those three countries.
Let’s be clear: the contribution of our permanent defence forces to fighting in the Baltics would be very very limited indeed. As a result of PESCO and other cooperation within the EU and also recent expenditure by both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments our military are far more compatible now with the militaries of the rest of Europe in terms of capability, compatibility and equipment. But our contribution would still be fairly limited, probably to no more than a few hundred troops and aside from special forces probably more in terms of support, explosive ordnance and battlefield medical aid.
But that doesn’t mean that an Irish contribution does not matter.
1000 professional and well equipped troops from Europe’s 10 smallest countries is suddenly 10,000 troops which is not an insignificant number in the highly mobile fighting that will almost certainly occur in such a conflict. That’s why our troops need to train with other EU troops to maintain tactical compatibility so that at least we as every other country in Europe has will have the capability to contribute towards of the defence of our continent if we so choose.
That still leaves us with the fundamental question: would we contribute troops, knowing full well that it is almost guaranteed that many will not come back alive.
Should our soldiers be allowed be allowed refuse to go?
I’ve no doubt that the debate would be furious, widespread, emotional and above all incredibly divisive with the default position being not to send troops and that it is none of our business.
The problem with that position is that it will not be in isolation. Not only will Ireland be watched by the rest of Europe as to where it stands, but also let us not forget the thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians who live in our country, work beside us, who we are married to and have children with.
We suddenly turn to to them and tell them to their faces that your family dying from Russian invasion is not our problem? We just don’t care?
Nor will we be able to turn our backs on the refugees from the Baltic states, many of whom presumably will flee to Ireland as possibly one of the safest places in Europe.
Refugees who are EU citizens and have as much a right to come here as anywhere else and many of whom will have family here ready to provide shelter and refuge from the war.
Maybe we will try to say that providing refuge is our contribution to the war effort, that we can be like the Choctaw and perhaps those countries will be grateful not for the prowess of our fighting men and women but for the fact that whilst their fighting men and women fight the Russians we will make sure that their families will be safe and sheltered and cared for.
Perhaps that will be the Irish contribution and it would not be an insignificant one.
Finally there is always the option that the Irish have always exercised, from the days of the Wild Geese through to World War II, Vietnam and even today in the modern French Foreign Legion. That Ireland as a nation does not fight, but that many of its young men and women go off and fight under a different flag, perhaps the flags of the Baltic states or Finland or Britain or France or Poland?
Perhaps the minister for defence should quietly ask the chief of staff to put in place a procedure where Irish soldiers who wished to fight alongside their continental colleagues could be quietly put on indefinite sabbatical and discreetly transported, with their equipment but without Irish flags on their uniforms to fight alongside whichever armed forces they would join.
I have no doubt in my mind that there will be no shortage of Irish volunteers to play the part of the defence of our continent.
In short, perhaps Ireland will not go to war but the Irish will?