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Sabina Higgins and Irish neutrality

Necessary, but not Sufficient

19 August 2022

Sabina and Michael D Higgins.

It is in the nature of every war situation for the warmongers to initially sweep all before them. The state, the media, supporters in civic society, all come together to assert the unquestioned justice and legitimacy of war.

This is clearly the case in Ireland in relation to the Ukrainian conflict. Lapdogs in RTE bark shrilly at the Russian ambassador despite lacking any voice in relation to their own rulers. The NUJ leader Séamus Dooley appears at the gates of the Russian embassy alongside Polish representatives despite his refusal to raise the issue of Julian Assange and the suppression of journalism by Poland, Britain and the US.  The state redoubles its efforts for inclusion in NATO. The vast majority oppose the Russian invasion, but this is not enough. Nothing less than an advance to the gates of Moscow is to be accepted.  The reformist left mobilises against war, then retreats to mobilising against "Putin's war", and then falls silent.

However, as with every war, dissent does not remain silent. Even in Ukraine itself, Amnesty International has criticized the standard practice of the military forces in using civilian populations and structures as human shields.

In Ireland Sabina Higgins, partner of President Michael D. Higgins, came under sustained criticism when she called for a ceasefire and negotiations. As in many other areas, those around the president have proved to be more in touch with public opinion than the government parties. In fact, public unease was heightened when a Ukrainian senator replied, indicating that they were not interested in negotiating and would fight until the 2014 borders were re-established.

The division that has opened up in the Irish state is a familiar one. A majority sentiment, summed up as neutrality, opposes military adventure. For its part, the Irish capitalist class is utterly subordinate to British, European and US capital and anxious to play its part in NATO and other military alliances.

The sentiment for neutrality acts as a constraint but not as a barrier. The Irish government has made major strides in integrating into European military structures. It has just published a new defence budget that increases spending by almost 50% and lists further elements of integration with Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in Europe they intend to implement.

The problem in fighting militarism is a case study for a more general issue. People dislike the domination of transnational companies but feel that Ireland is dependent on them. They hate the European Central Bank but the government was able to enforce mass austerity to pay half the bill for the European credit crunch of 2008. A majority support a low tax rate regime to attract capital inflow while decrying the lack of public services flowing from this approach.

In the case of neutrality, the torrent of US arms and military personnel (and the extraordinary rendition of prisoners) through Shannon Airport is simply invisible to the media, the political parties and the trade union leaders. That's how Irish neutrality works.

The liberal movement, represented by Sabina Higgins, is giving expression to a general anti-war sentiment that has been suppressed by the capitalist parties. Many dislike her for it, but their real ire is reserved for MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, who go far beyond a call for peace to expose the criminal roles of NATO and the US.

Daly and Wallace aren't pacifists. They are anti-imperialists. It's good that the drive to war is being opposed, but to defeat it we will have to build an anti-imperialist and socialist alternative to the capitalist domination of Ireland.

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