Surveys reveal that a high percentage of the nation’s citizens don’t understand the issues at stake in the Lisbon Treaty – there is a fundamental information deficit in this regard. Those advocating a No vote have been doing most of the running so far, although our new Taoiseach Brian Cowen has promised to bestir his Government into action this very week following recent efforts by Fine Gael and Labour to raise the profile of the treaty debate (no, not that treaty!) on the Yes side also. Sinn Fein has been vocal on the No side, along with Libertas. We await the advising document of the Referendum Commission which was set up following the McKenna judgement whereby an impartial body would study the issues being proposed on a pro and contra basis and offer the key arguments on both sides in plain language to assist the citizenry in understanding the issues and come to a reasonably informed decision. But as of yet, much puzzlement abounds as to what it really is all about. But one thing is for sure; it’s not about our membership of the EU being at stake – most of the No Side are keen to stress this and I agree. But the Yes side will need to do some straight talking in getting their message across rather than relying on somewhat dubious scare-tactics which hint strongly that a No vote will un-yoke us from Europe. It will do no such thing.

This debate/treaty is all about an improved efficacy in the governance of the newly enlarged European Union of 27 nations. There are concerns here as to the extent and nature of these measures and their likely impact on us be it taxation policy, employment legislation, neutrality or democratic weighting/representation issues. So let’s have information, in plain English agus Gaeilge, so as that we can have an open and frank debate on the Lisbon Treaty and not hi-jacked by other lobby groups pushing other agenda.

In Neutral Gear

Some groups on the No side express concerns for our neutrality insofar as that it will be virtually eroded by the reformed terms of the Lisbon Treaty, which they argue is a mere re-packaging of the European Constitution which failed a few years back in referenda in France and the Netherlands. Incidentally, that Constitutional document was brokered by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern during our recent Presidency of the Union. So I thought as part of the public service remit of this column (ahem!) that I would bring you a short history on Irish neutrality so as to give an informed context to the debate.

Neuter is a Latin word meaning ‘neither’. The essence of neutrality is not being involved in wars between other states. A state whose neutrality is legally recognised has a right to have its integrity respected by the warring states. It in turn must perform certain primary neutrality duties: it must deny the use of its national territory (including airspace and territorial waters), by force if necessary, to all belligerents; it must give no support to belligerents although normal trade may continue; it must apply impartially the rules of neutrality under international law.

Neutrality is pursued by a small number of states in Europe. Apart from Ireland, the other European neutrals are Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Finland. However, about a hundred states throughout the world, including India and Egypt, sought to hold themselves aloof from the erstwhile struggle of the former superpowers (a struggle that has seen something of a re-emergence in recent times due in no small part to the control of vast energy resources). Generally these countries had followed a policy of non-alignment and many belong to the Non-Aligned Movement started in 1961.

Irish Neutrality

Irish neutrality has its roots in the desire of Irish nationalists to assert Ireland’s separateness from Britain. This goes back to as far as the Boer War, during which most Irish nationalists advocated a de jure neutrality (although some, like Major John McBride, fought on the Boer side). However, during World War I many nationalists fought alongside the British in defence of the ‘rights of small nations’. Others subscribed to neutrality under the slogan ‘Neither King nor Kaiser’. The British proposal in 1918 to impose conscription on Ireland was massively rejected here and consolidated the neutralist position of Irish Nationalists. Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921 (the treaty), a number of key naval facilities were retained by the British which made any credible policy of neutrality impossible. Irish politicians of all parties subsequently aspired to disentangle Irish forces from those of Britain. In the 1938 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the British withdrew from the ports- Bereheaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly, and Eamonn De Valera thus achieved the sovereignty that allowed him to maintain successfully a policy of neutrality throughout World War II or ‘The Emergency’ as we quaintly called it. Many claim that we were in fact ‘neutral in favour’ of the Allies – de facto as opposed to de jure, ach sin sceal eile!

Ireland has maintained its neutrality ever since. It is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Its neutral status has allowed it to play an active peacekeeping role in the United Nations which Ireland joined in 1955. A document I read on the subject recently, but written 12 years ago or so, stated that membership of the European Community (sic) does not involve Ireland in any military commitments but is this statement still valid? Some argue that our neutrality status has being compromised over the years, now being part of the European Defence Agency. Others again we are in a much re-aligned world and that we have responsibilities to the Union to which we belong. Then there are those who say this was to be an economic union and not a political one, and argue that latter proposition is the real agenda behind the Lisbon Treaty. Recently I heard a discussion which spoke of the US being opposed/feeling threatened by the rise of the new superpower of the European Union. In that new world, can we remain neutral or semi-detached?

Sabotage – the Words We Use

Remember the fun we had waxing lyrical with sincerity? Well what about the word ‘sabotage’ which is most interesting. Sabotage is a term of French origin coined during the railway strike of 1910, when workers destroyed the wooden shoes, or sabots (hence sabotage), that held rails in place, thus impeding the morning commute. An alternate definition pretends the word to be older by almost a century, the times of the Industrial Revolution. It is said that powered looms could be damaged by angry or disgruntled workers throwing their wooden shoes or clogs into the machinery, effectively clogging the machinery (touch of the Luddite movement there). Another one is that revolting peasants would trample the landlord’s wheat field wearing their sabots to exact revenge for one thing or another. Others contend that the word comes from the slang name for people living in rural areas who wore wooden shoes after city dwellers had begun wearing leather shoes; when employers wanted strike breakers they would import ‘sabots’/rural workers to replace the strikers. Not used to machine-driven labour, the ‘sabots’ worked poorly and slowly. The strikers would be called back to work (with demands won) and, could win demands on the job by working like their country cousins – the sabots. Thus ‘sabotage’. Will a negative vote in Lisbon sabotage our standing in Europe?

Go Seachtain Eile, Slan