Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, recently said that “We need to reflect on military non-alignment in Ireland and our military neutrality. We are not politically neutral… We don’t need a referendum to join NATO. That’s a policy decision of government.” Martin’s claim that the government can make the decision to join the military body without a referendum cannot be overlooked. This renewed interest in NATO is driven, of course, by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
After securing independence from British rule, Ireland embraced a policy of military neutrality to avoid fighting in imperialist wars. However, because the Irish elite embraced the British model, Ireland found a place in the pan-European sphere of accumulation. The Irish state has already disgraced those who fought against British imperialism by striving for full integration into this sphere, which was once led by Britain and has been led by the United States since the end of the Second World War. Joining NATO would be a full abandonment of its anticolonial history.
In Sidecar, Lili Lynch recently broke down the problematic nature of Finland and Sweden’s desire to join NATO. She wrote that, for Sweden, “joining the West” means “binding oneself to a US-led power bloc and simultaneously doing away with any nominally socialist institutions – a process that has already been underway for decades.” For Ireland, it means binding oneself and doing away with any nominal claim to anticolonial legitimacy. With this motion, the Irish state is not only abandoning the rest of the colonial world but actively seeking to solidify its position of colonial superiority.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States suddenly found itself in control of Europe’s extraction empire. It held 60% of the world’s wealth and had quadrupled industrial production while former imperial powers were battered by war. Its policy and practice explicitly focused on maintaining this newfound position of dominance. As a result, its drive to ‘rebuild’ Europe in the aftermath of war, facilitated by NATO and the Marshall Plan, required European countries to take structural measures which enforced dependence on America’s capitalist interests.
To be part of ‘the West’ – to resist the totalitarianism that lurked like a shrouded beast in the East – meant embracing an environment conducive to the solidification and expansion of America’s position of dominance in the post-war world, facilitating the transfer of imperial power from Europe. The Irish state fell in line in many ways but has, so far, managed to avoid joining the imperialist military alliance. Yet, for those in power, joining NATO is the next necessary step in the desperate attempt to prove that Ireland is a productive part of ‘the West.’ When Martin says that Ireland is not politically neutral, he really means to signal allegiance to those same political structures that ravaged the Irish people for centuries.
Ireland is able to do so because the Irish have weaseled their way into the ranks of white supremacy. It has become a part of Europe and, as a result, feels far more sympathy for, and commonality with, any European than the colonized peoples of the so-called Global South. This has become evident in the treatment of war in Ukraine. As Olena Lyubchenko wrote in a recent article:
“we are told time and again by Western and Ukrainian elites that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’. In this context, the emerging idea of ‘Ukrainianness’ and its equation with ‘Europeanness’ is mediated through a conceptualization of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination are increasingly understood by local elites to be bound up with incorporation into ‘fortress Europe’ and the making of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ as ‘white’ and ‘European.’”
Ireland has already secured its place on the security council and participates in European ‘defence’ missions to a limited extent. It is now steadily beating away those pesky principles which have so-far prevented the country from sitting alongside states such as France and Canada at the table of power. At this rate, Martin and Varadkar might as well take down the plaques at the GPO and lop the head off the statue of Connolly they keep tucked away behind the bus station in Dublin. Better yet, they can put up new ones at Kilmainham that read: ‘where the bastards died.’
The outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine and the unwavering support for its national defence efforts is not likewise matched by expressions of support for others facing similar situations around the globe. This is a key factor that needs to be examined. As Lyubchenko also wrote, “Surely, the circumstances confronting the citizens of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, Ethiopia are also exceptional.” Where, then, are the cries to align with some power bloc determined to oppose the violence inflicted on the people of Afghanistan and Gaza?
There is a history of anticolonial solidarity in Ireland. In fact, as James Beirne writes, a dialectical tension exists in Ireland between the colonial and anticolonial spheres. There is likely more support for Palestine among Irish people than in almost any other Western state. Yet, the colonial bend in Ireland is showing force. Joining ‘the West’ is convenient to those, such as the Irish, who are able to benefit from its sphere of power. Support for the Ukrainian people can come in many forms but joining NATO is not, really, about support for Ukraine – it is instead about support for the European sphere and Ireland’s position in it.
Ireland walked a fine line during the so-called Cold War by making expressions of solidarity with colonized peoples without rocking the boat too heavily. In many ways it recognized then that struggles globally could not be reduced to elements of a power struggle between so-called totalitarianism and the free world. In distant corners of the world, it saw imperialism and revolution and knew its history well enough to know where it stood. It recognized that wars of the Cold War were, in many ways, a continuation of European colonialism.
This reality was hard to ignore when there were British soldiers on Irish streets and techniques of torture and control were being practiced in the North before being exported to the South. It was, of course, a NATO member which led one of the largest and dirtiest wars in modern European history in the still British controlled North of Ireland. Though a peace process was agreed to decades ago, it cannot be ignored that the overall structures which led to and enabled British imperialism and colonialism in Ireland have never changed.
It must not be forgotten that NATO actions are not benevolent and are not designed to uphold independence or to prevent violence. NATO is a structure of military dominance and its actions regarding Ukraine cannot be divorced from its overall structures and practices. It is not a body which strives to uphold liberty and freedom. It is part of a system by which the United States and the pan-European sphere enriches itself via domination over and extraction from the colonized people of the world. Joining NATO means embracing this entirely.