Maurice Earls writes: Following the Treaty of Limerick, Ireland’s capacity to put an army on the field capable of defeating the English ended. For some time, there was hope that Catholic Europe would provide such an army. That turned out to be a vain hope.
Irish political culture has been shaped ever since by this reality. We are the great negotiators. We are the great users of whatever political instruments are available to exploit. Our method is patience. We proceed in increments toward our goals. We make strategic concessions and blow hard about our peaceful nature, while all the time inching forward. Eventually, with the aid of carefully modulated violence, the autonomy project crossed the line in 1922. The strategy worked even if, in retrospect, the method offers something less than full emotional satisfaction.
For some, moral satisfaction has been achieved by elevating our military caution into an almost mystical love of peace. But we are not actually especially non-violent. Like many small nations we simply learned the everyday utility of pragmatism the hard way.
The value of pragmatism persisted after independence. De Valera assured the British in 1937 that the state would never be used as a base to attack Britain. The treaty ports were handed over and, as a result, the economically and demographically fragile state managed to stay out of a war which could have led to its collapse.
Pragmatism of its nature, however, is not always emotionally or morally satisfying. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Ireland there was a widely expressed moral revulsion at exercises in imperial aggression around the world and support for those who took on aggressors militarily. In the nineteenth century, for example, the Irish public were very familiar with and very supportive of Poland’s struggles against its imperial enemies, including Russia. There is probably an element of emotional displacement in enthusiastic Irish support for anti-imperialist struggles abroad. Today, the widespread feeling of moral revulsion at Russia’s imperial aggression in Ukraine draws on that tradition, a tradition that is much stronger than that of military neutrality.
Yet on the face of it, the situation in Ukraine is one which fits the Irish historical experience and is suggestive of a “pragmatic” settlement. A big country with massive resources is pushing into a smaller, weaker country. The answer suggested by the Irish playbook is crystal clear: negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, because, well, you’re not going to beat them, are you?
Preference for negotiated settlement is reflected in our constitution. Article 29(2) affirms “adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination”.
Sabina Coyne Higgins recommended the traditional Irish pragmatism and commented:
I cannot be but dismayed that people would find anything unacceptable in a plea for peace and negotiations …
But this time it is different. A military power greater than that of Russia has come to Ukraine’s assistance. It could well be that things will not go as hoped for by the aggressors.
What would the response have been, if say in 1914, to pick just one possible date, a friendly superpower had said to the Irish:
We have vastly superior weapons than the British. We don’t want to go to war with them ourselves, but we will give you weapons, as many as you need. We will also coordinate a worldwide ant-British campaign and train your soldiers to the highest military standards.
The answer would surely have been in the affirmative.
It turns out that Ukraine’s friends in Europe, at mounting expense, and also the US, in the form of military training, equipment and funding, have offered just such help. For the Ukrainians, this support changes everything and postpones the requirement for peace negotiations.