SOONER OR later ministers were going to trip themselves up with contradictory and meaningless rhetoric about Irish neutrality being compatible with offering political, financial and military support alongside Nato and the EU in Ukraine. Even the Irish Times, momentarily, had to concede last week that the Government’s latest initiative – training Ukrainian soldiers in military skills, including rifle training – was a departure from the Government’s position on “non-offensive military support and material in line with Ireland’s military neutrality and the programme for government”.
An amusing sidebar to this debate about ‘non-lethal’ support was a report that the Cabinet decided to give rifle training to Ukrainian soldiers but to withhold the training of “advance marksmanship skills”. Presumably a degree of fatalities generated by lethal rifle training is still, somehow, non-lethal, but higher fatalities generated by high-level sniper techniques are deadly.
Similarly, the explanation from Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s defence department for not listing weapons training in its statement earlier this year was not an attempt to mislead the public over Irish neutrality. No, that not so complete statement was “intended to be indicative rather than exhaustive”, ie deceptive rather than truthful.
Presumably, Martin’s direct answers last February and March to parliamentary questions about aid to Ukrainian forces were also ‘indicative’ (Orwell’s characters were mere children compared to modern ministers and their spin doctors). Martin’s description of the new aid package to the war referred to ‘non-lethal’ aid several times and the IT listed these as “training in demining, combat medical activities, engineering and explosive ordnance disposal”.
In March, Martin rattled off precisely the same areas in which Irish officers would provide training, again with the same emphasis on ‘non-lethal’ support.
Last November People Before Profit–Solidarity TD Paul Murphy asked Martin no less than seven times in the Dáil if he could guarantee that demining was the full extent of the commitment given to the war effort in Ukraine. The response of the foreign minister was either to ignore the question or to call Murphy and other PBP TDs “puppets for the Putin regime”.
A hint of the truth actually came a week earlier when Murphy put the same question to then foreign and defence minister, Simon Coveney, a mere five times. Covetous avoided the question the first four times but eventually said that “there is no finalisation as to what the role [of Irish training officers] will be”, in a remark that was nowhere reported in the media. But this slip indicated that the government – led firstly by Fine Gael and then by Fianna Fáil – had committed to provide lethal support as far back as nine months ago.
The dangerous contagion of a sense of news infected the editor’s office of the IT last week and led to alarming stories about contradictions in the Government’s position on Irish neutrality. And this week an editorial told IT readers that it was true that the Irish Army’s training of Ukrainian soldiers in demining had assisted the Ukrainian counter-offensive and was “vital to clearing the way for mass attacks across heavily mined ground”. This comes after a story in The Phoenix (see edition 11/8/23) that outlined – from a western, military perspective – how valuable such demining training is to the Ukrainian war effort, a story that was confirmed by the Guardian the following weekend.
The IT editorial also described – in a rather non-supportive manner – the Government’s rationalisation of its departure from its own understanding of Irish neutrality – via the rifle training – as still adhering to the principle of neutrality because it was assisting Ukraine to defend itself.
As Groucho said: “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them, well I have others.”