I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Isolation Anxiety


Maurice Earls writes: In response to the invasion of Ukraine and more particularly in response to the European reaction to that invasion, people in Ireland are, after a long silence, again talking about the state’s policy of neutrality and asking if it should be changed. Some believe it should be changed. From this quarter, there have been charges of “freeloading” and, from the other side, expressions of satisfaction with an “honourable” and “positive” neutrality. There may be a Citizens Assembly on the subject. Michael D Higgins has called for a respectful debate. The polls, however, are clear. There is a substantial majority in favour of retaining neutrality.

By crossing his neighbours’ borders, Mr Putin hit a raw nerve in European memory. People and politicians can recall the last time that sort of thing happened. Europe had extended a limited benefit of the doubt to Russia but, following the invasion, EU leaders are no longer prepared to do so. Angela Merkel, closely associated with the policy of having relations with Russia marked the sea change. She said that the invasion was “a barbaric war of aggression”, that it constituted “a far-reaching turning point” and was the most “glaring breach of international law in Europe since the Second World War”. She has not, however, resiled from the idea that some kind of relations with Russia are necessary.

There may even be a longer European memory involved. One lesson from the Wars of Religion was that tolerance and respect only work if embraced by both sides, that mutual toleration is the only kind worth having. Mr Putin clearly does not respect European democracy. No one likes to be disrespected and Europe, it turns out, is proving less wishy-washy than he expected.

Alarmed at Russia’s aggression and the threat it is seen to pose, Europe is determined to put into position the means to defend itself.  Enhanced EU-NATO co-operation is the most visible form this process is currently taking.

In the future Europe will, of course, re-engage with its massive neighbour, as it must, but it will be on new terms. Indeed, there are signs a-plenty that Europe recognises the physical and political reality of Russia, and, indeed, the existence of legitimate Russian interests. Emmanuel Macron looking forward to new terms of engagement with Russia has said that Putin committed a “historic and fundamental error” in invading Ukraine, but that Russia should not be humiliated, in order to allow for the diplomacy which will be necessary to achieve a post-war modus vivendi.

One narrative coming from the left is that a foolish EU has been manoeuvred into supporting an American drive for world hegemony by a bullying and manipulative United States, that the aggressive expansion of NATO justifies Russia’s invasion and that Vladimir Putin has no malign intent towards Europe, including those countries formerly under effective Soviet control. This is surely naïve. The amalgam of states, which is the EU, is attempting to do what states have done throughout history, that is attend to its own interests. No state will ever regard a military crossing a border and moving in its direction as anything other than threatening, and will certainly never regard it as “justified”.

 Already, a distinct European perspective has been articulated. The  EU wants a “reasonable” peace agreement, whatever that might be, as soon as possible. It has no attachment to America’s revived end-of-history ambition, which indeed, if only because of its sheer impracticality, may not last. In any case, it is likely that the distinctive EU perspective will become even more pronounced over the coming months. It is also likely that differences between the “old” EU states and some of the former Soviet satellite states will grow. Some among the latter have become attached to the idea that Russia can, as a result of military activity, be unmade, cancelled as it were, and simply removed from history as a significant power. This is to pursue a will-o-the-wisp, if somewhat understandable. Homo Sovieticus may have been a fragile construct. Russia is not.

Europe is currently in a difficult position. It must navigate both the contemptuous aggression of Russia and the hubris of an uncertain America. The immediate challenge is to enable Ukraine to halt the Russian advance and for this US assistance is essential.

Notwithstanding, there are ways in which America presents the greater challenge for the EU. The evidence of ideological disintegration within the US polity is persistent and overwhelming. The growing dysfunctionality of the US as a coherent state means it is no longer reliable as the last stop defender of the democratic world. The Trump years were traumatic for the EU. It knows the old and easy habit of dependence on America will no longer suffice. For Europe the stakes could not be higher. If the war escalates, as it might, Europe will be the theatre of destruction. The EU has no option but to step up and address its defence and security interests.

The ground is shifting on multiple fronts. Sweden has applied for NATO membership after 200 years of neutrality. Ditto Finland. Denmark has decided by referendum to drop its security opt out from common EU defence. This opt out was conceded when the country voted against the Maastricht treaty, a time when Danes were concerned with such matters as brash Germans buying up their precious coastal properties. That has been parked, at least for now, in favour of addressing the long-neglected issue of EU security.

The slow bicycle race of EU development has been replaced by something much swifter, at least as regards defence, and is encapsulated in Germany’s rapid post-invasion decision to invest 100bn Euro in military development. The new speed means there will be reduced patience for the old slow method of waiting until everyone is on board. Dissenting elements, whether in Hungary or Ireland, may find the going less than easy.

The most telling change from those cited earlier is the vote in Denmark, which is already a member of NATO. It is essentially a vote in favour of an independent EU defence. Our fellow Europeans are thinking strategically. Indeed, a situation is evolving in which Ireland may find itself dangerously out of step. Europe may yet come to accuse Ireland of the very “Cakism” for which Boris Johnson was excoriated during the Brexit negotiations. It is not a good look. Political capital painstakingly assembled can be rapidly dissipated.

But the fact of the matter is the mood in Ireland is different from that found over much of the EU, and it seems unlikely to change. There is no public clamour to join NATO, and neither is there a clamour for an independent EU military. There are deep seated instincts involved and it is foolish not to acknowledge their cultural force. They were evident through the twentieth century. In 1918, during the Conscription Crisis the nationalist population was united in opposition to the drafting of young men into the British army. Support for neutrality during WWII was massive. A change now would be a big change.

Our politicians are aware of the difficulty and the dangers. Micheál Martin has, reportedly, come out as a strong advocate for fast-tracking Ukrainian EU membership, which on the face of it seems incautious. The objective, presumably, is to protect the Irish state from charges of not caring about Ukraine and perhaps from further criticism from President Zelenskyy. It may not be enough. Similarly, Fintan O’Toole suggests that instead of military involvement Ireland should become an exporter of wind-based energy and thus “make a real contribution to the protection of European democracy.” Again, this may not be regarded as an acceptable alternative to military involvement in the defence of the Union to which we belong and on which our unprecedented prosperity depends.


The last time the European sands shifted to a comparable degree was during WWII. We were thinking about isolation then too, or at least Sean O’Faolain was. One of his themes was Ireland’s lack of interest in political and strategic thinking.

Today it could be said that in Ireland we publicly honour creative writing but not, very much, other forms of thinking. For O’Faolain, the two kinds of creative thinking were inseparable. Writing in 1944 in The Bell, which he edited, he said:

This is theoretically a literary magazine; but for a long time- ever since Flaubert, and Balzac, and even as far back as Dryden- men of letters everywhere have realised that literature and politics are not two separated things. The man of letters who tries to avoid politics is trying to avoid life. We know that Ireland must be aware of world trends, or…the world may suddenly come down on her like a whirlwind.

 O’Faolain’s concern in March 1944 was how Ireland might fit into the post-war international order and what sort of a future the country could have if it did not ally itself with some bloc. The first months of 1944 were dramatic. In January alone the siege of Leningrad was broken, the Red Army pushed west into the Baltic countries. The first Ukrainian front of the Red Army entered Poland and Soviet forces surrounded two German army corps south of Kiev.

People were pretty sure they knew how the war was going to end. It was not just Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill who were interested in the shape of the post-world war. It was a subject of concern across Europe.

O’Faolain saw the geo-political mood in 1944 as fundamentally different from that which obtained 1918 when “the principle of self-determination for small nations” was a celebrated ideal. He believed the mood in the 1940s was “not at all so sympathetic about national sovereignty.” In his “One World” column, he looked at what was being said internationally on the likely form of the postwar world order. He saw problems ahead and his purpose was to get his Irish readers to consider the consequences of altering geo-political realities.

He told his readers that in Britain the very senior civil servant Lionel Curtis- remembered in Ireland as Secretary to the Irish Conference of 1921- was arguing that relations between sovereign states were essentially anarchic and that another war was inevitable unless there was to be an end to national sovereignty. GDH Cole, the radical Fabian economist, whom O’Faolain describes as one of the “most powerful opponents of national sovereignty” is quoted as saying.

The idea of nationality as the basis for an independent statehood is obsolete. Economic development… has destroyed it finally. The independence of small states, and indeed of all states, save the largest and richest in developed resources, is impracticable now that a mechanised army and air-force belonging to a great state can simply sweep aside all the resistance they can offer.

O’Faolain argued that Axis thinking was similar and quoted the Weekly Review of the German News Agency speaking of a “New order in Europe” where

every nation, honestly and openly prepared for cooperation, could take the place due to it, and freely develop its life and powers. After the war the European economy will necessarily have to be organised on a unified basis. The individual cultural life of each nation will only be enriched as a result of the intercourse with other nations.

(The Review was a Nazi production, a digest of German newspapers which was permitted to circulate in neutral Ireland, to Westminster’s irritation)

O’Faolain continued his survey:

What Russia is hoping for one can only induce: but Victor Gollancz in “Russia and Ourselves”, speaking presumably for the Left, the Socialist, or possibly the Communist in general, defines the way forward in terms of three great Unions who will take the small nations under their wings: “An enlarged USSR (herein, for instance, lies the greatest hope in the Balkans), a Union of Western democratic Socialist Republics, and Anglo-America”

O’Faolain said the popular English press accepted the same “trinity of powers” The Marquess of Donegal – a British aristocrat- argued in the Sunday Dispatch that there would be a

… far eastern block under China; Russia trading for Europe; and the US and Britain dealing for the rest of the world and, as the only armed force, an international air force, consisting of the members of the great nations that we can trust, the British Empire, the United States, Russia and China

Another English newspaper suggested that it was on Britain, the United States and Russia that “will fall the task of world-settlement, and- do not let us shirk the issue- for a time at least the task of world rule.”

Cole also commented:

Is it not most likely that the problems of Poland and the Balkans and of Hungary will be solved by their inclusion as Soviet republics within a vastly enlarged state based on the USSR? At this prospect, some Social Democrats, I know, will hold up their hands in holy horror. But I for one should regard this as a far better solution than the return of these States to their past condition of precarious, poverty-stricken, quarrelsome, independent sovereignty,

Mr Vernon bartlett we are told put the case more humanely in the News Chronicle

 The USSR, The USA and the British Commonwealth of Nations have no desire to grab territory. They want to see the small nations grow strong and confident by federation

O’Faolain refers to this pattern of commentary in support of his argument that Ireland was facing a changed world and should not lose any time in acknowledging it and deciding on a strategy calculated to serve its national interest. His overriding concern was whether an interdependence could be fashioned in which national sovereignty could be substantially upheld.

There were some commentators he found more congenial than others. General Smuts was one. Smuts argued that if Britain emerged victorious from the war, she would have considerable prestige but

 from a material point of view, she will be a poor country. She has put in her all…There is nothing left in the till. She has put in her body and soul and everything into it to win the battle of mankind. She will have won it but she will come out of it poor in substance.

In answer to Britain’s inevitably reduced postwar condition he asks

 Should we not cease as Great Britain to be an island. Should we not work intimately together with those small democracies in Western Europe…They have learned their lesson, they have been taught by the experience of this war when centuries of argument would not have convinced them. They have learned that standing by themselves on the Continent, dominated by one or other great power…they are lost.

O Faolain liked this idea of “a great European State”. He says that prior to 1919 England’s decline would have been received positively in Ireland, but he says

 This is 1944…our position has altered. Some of England’s difficulties are our difficulties….We have large mutual trade and investments.

He acknowledges, “Our relations are bedevilled by the historical injustice of partition” but seems to think this matter could be solved relatively easily. “As [t]he future difficulties of Europe political, economic and defence approach us both inexorably and will affect us both”.

He is open to the idea of deep cooperation with a democratic, transformed and European Britain. His purpose in outlining his ideas he says is solely to provide information that will inform public debate:

It is not our business. And indeed, at this stage it would be beyond the power of any small democracy to see far through the coming storms. Our own interest is to be sure that the Irish public is fully aware of the developing position.

Yet, he is clear enough on what Ireland’s general policy should be

  She will rather join hands with other smaller nations, as she did before now in the League under the leadership of Mr de Valera, as conscious of her inalienable rights as of her unavoidable responsibilities in a world faced by the need of a reformed order… Moreover, Ireland is well-fitted to play an international role. She understands what nationality means; she knows that what interests all the small nations is not, as some left-wing publicists imagine, merely a sort of social revolution irrespective of political independence; she knows there is no human reality at all, for instance, in the New Statesman idea of a future Europe which will ‘achieve a revolutionary fraternity and dismiss these timid variations of the old pattern of nationalism and sovereignty in order to advance towards a wider union of peoples.’

Ireland, he argues can only enter in a Union which will “guarantee the essentials of absolute equality, and national distinctiveness.”

In conclusion O’Faolain approvingly quotes a defence of small nations from HG Wells – the last person, he says, from whom Irish readers would expect it – which denounces the fact and concept of hegemony:

That word is “Hegemony”. The Japanese love it. It is a word I would make taboo everywhere. The world is to reconstruct itself under the benevolent “Hegemony” of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, or Panamerica, Japan or a Pan-Slavic union, and so  forth and so on. Certain big powers are to boss the show. The little peoples are to cuddle up and be protected. And exploited. No more Imperialism! Wicked stuff that was! Just Hegemonies!




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