Neutral Ireland Eyes NATO Partnership, And an End to an Era

WITH Easter Week in Ireland, "the marching season" is here again. Over the next few months the Irish, north and south, unionist and republican, Protestant, Catholic, and otherwise, will commemorate bitterly partisan anniversaries of ancient battles that carry strong memories on this island.

The government in Dublin has spent years trying to defuse such divisive anniversaries. The official 1916 celebration, remembering both those who died in the uprising against the British and those Irish who at the same moment were fighting with the British Army in World War I, is now held in May.

Yet in the midst of this rancorous season, the Irish government has raised an outcry of another kind by daring to challenge one of the abiding precepts of Irish republicanism: a staunch neutrality that kept Ireland out of World War II and on the margins of the cold war.

In a government "white paper," Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring has suggested Ireland join NATO's Partnership for Peace, the forum devised by the alliance in 1994 primarily to offer some associate status to former countries of the Soviet bloc. Since then, nearly every country in East Europe, and a few in Central Asia, have joined. Besides Ireland, only Switzerland and Malta have turned down invitations.

Mr. Spring argues that Irish participation in the partnership would not be a prelude to full NATO membership. Rather, he says, it would be in keeping with Ireland's role in the European Union. "There is an emerging consensus that the EU should be better equipped to make a contribution internationally in such areas as peacekeeping and humanitarian operations," he says.

Since gaining full independence, Ireland has observed a strict neutrality in foreign affairs. In practical terms, Ireland aided the Allied war effort in World War II. Some 40,000 men from the Republic served in British forces. Churchill derided Ireland's stance as "at war, but skulking," but generations of Irish schoolchildren have been taught neutrality's virtues as surely as their American counterparts accept the Monroe Doctrine.

"When neutrality was really developed, at the start of World War II, it was seen as being very much the same attitude George Washington had recommended for America," says John Moore, a lecturer in Irish Studies at North London University. "Ireland felt that arguments between the great powers weren't its arguments, and there was also a very definite attempt to distance themselves from the British."

The roots of this commitment to neutrality run deep - indeed, right back to the 1916 Easter Rising against Britain. Across the border in Northern Ireland, the Catholic population of Londonderry marked the date with a rally and fiery republican rhetoric. Yet in the independent south, no parades, no official ceremonies were held.

This reflects the continued ambiguity with which the 1916 event is viewed. The rebellion was hugely unpopular when it first happened, not only because tens of thousands of Irishmen were fighting in the trenches of World War I, but because Germany had been involved in a failed plot to land arms for the rebels. Later, when the British began executing the Rising's leaders, public opinion turned in the rebels' favor. But the divided loyalties of the Rising left its mark on Irish foreign policy.

Throughout the cold war, too, Ireland maintained a cool public posture toward both NATO and the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact. As the only neutral European country behind NATO's frontline, this was something Dublin could afford to do, despite its tiny armed forces.

"For all intents and purposes, the country is undefended," says Professor Moore. "But everyone knew Ireland was safe from attack, thanks to NATO. And that's the hypocrisy Mr. Spring is trying to address."

But given Ireland's volatile history, the government's flirtation with NATO - even nonmembership "cooperation" - has brought forth a storm of criticism. Ray Burke, the shadow foreign secretary for the opposition Fianna Fail party, says this would amount to "second-class membership in NATO." Others point out that ties to NATO would conflict with Ireland's official policy of nuclear disarmament.

Generally, Dubliners seem to agree.

"I'm not interested in NATO; it's not our fight," says John O'Connell, a Dublin carpenter who served in an Irish Army unit attached to a United Nations peacekeeping forces. "We're a small land, and we do what we can in the UN. But if we join NATO, we could end up with British troops here again."

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