They say we’re not in neutral, so it’s time we showed them where it is

THE Americans know that one of the most effective ways to concentrate people’s minds is with the mighty dollar.

So, when Irish people had the temerity to protest at Shannon airport during which a bit of damage was done to one of their planes, they retaliated.

They adopted diversionary tactics. Instead of Shannon, the planes were diverted to Frankfurt.

When Bertie Ahern decided to send in the troops to keep an eye on the American hardware, the Yanks had a change of heart and the lucrative landings were restored.

It is a measure of what Mr Ahern thinks of our intelligence that he said in a statement no evidence existed to link the suspension of flights carrying US troops through Shannon with the embarrassing security breaches at the airport.

Apparently, the US Chief of Command for Europe, General Wald, declared that they were happy to continue to use Shannon, but then as a military man he would be happy to see a few tanks and machine-guns on display.

The American business, of course, is very important to Shannon and the region generally, but the financial loss wouldn't be anything like what the Brits did to the French, with a little bit of encouragement from their American friends.

Tony Blair blocked a decision to award a French company a £3 billion contact to build the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers because of anger at President Jacques Chirac over Iraq.

The fact that the French president had also invited President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe to Paris for a summit on Africa this month in defiance of EU travel sanctions didn't help either.

A recommendation from Britain's Defence Procurement Agency that the French firm Thales should be the leading contractor was guillotined by the PM in a fit of pique, despite the fact that it won the competition to build the two navy carriers simply because it had produced by far the best design.

Instead, Britain's BAE Systems was made the prime contractor and the French company are to be given the crumbs, from which they are unlikely to make very much profit. A kind of perverse "let them eat cake." It didn't help Anglo-French relations either that Tone's petulant decision was taken after he had a chat with his betters in the White House.

America is rather narked about President Chirac's attempts to delay George Dubya's excursion into Iraq.

It is interesting to remind ourselves that when the US was given permission to use Shannon, there was a little caveat attached. The approval was granted way back in the 1950s by the then Minister for External Affairs, the late Frank Aiken.

But the concession to use Shannon to transport troops would be withdrawn in the event of a serious deterioration in the political situation in Europe or the Middle East.

However, political expediency was always considered a virtue in this country, especially with something like our ambivalence towards neutrality.

It's a case of 'now you see it, now you don't.'

During the week the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen, responding to criticism of the Government's permission to let the US military use Shannon, said that Ireland was never completely neutral.

Last weekend Tánaiste Mary Harney said the country cannot be neutral any more, and the Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, said it was impossible to be neutral.

Three different opinions from the Cabinet on an issue of fundamental importance for any country.

It is also something which excites many people, but they really don't know what they're getting excited about.

Mr Cowen also adopts the a la carte attitude to the subject by suggesting there are two sides to neutrality: military neutrality and political neutrality.

Most of us know what we mean by neutrality, and there's very little room, if any, to get confused, like our Government obviously is.

Confusing other people is one thing, but it doesn't help when you're confused yourself. Bertie Ahern's confusion about priorities caused him to send in the army to protect American military planes when a few well-trained Alsatians would have done the job.

Seeing that there is so much confusion in the Cabinet about our neutrality policy whether we have one and in what circumstances it may or may not apply it's probably time that the people made up their minds through a referendum.

The Government might not be too impressed with such a suggestion because it could prove very awkward to know exactly what the people think about anything, but particularly neutrality.

I have no problem under normal circumstances with allowing US military aircraft use Shannon, but America is well on the way to starting a war with Iraq for its own purpose, and that is hardly normal.

It is hardly normal either that our own Government should adopt such an over-the-top attitude to the protesters by sending in the army.

Of course, those responsible for damaging the navy military aircraft, or assaulting gardaí, were totally wrong. But to send in the army because Bertie Ahern is embarrassed is ridiculous.

Watching US Secretary of State Colin Powell present his "irrefutable and undeniable" evidence to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, was a little bit unreal.

I have no doubt he is a decent and honourable man, but he was trying to convince the world of the justification for a war on Iraq and he was doing so with such compelling exhibits as an artist's impression. The drawings were largely of trucks and, to be quite honest, anybody with a ruler and pencil, and without the shakes, could have drawn them.

Any child with a colouring set could have done them. Even the lads at Langley wouldn't have had a problem.

Another piece of evidence was a purported transcript of an intercepted conversation between an Iraqi general and another gofer with a voice-over in accented English about removing incriminating items before the inspectors had sight of them.

There were also hazy satellite pictures of sites where outlawed weapons or chemicals were alleged to have been manufactured, but they could just have been rundown sheds on Craggy Island.

Undoubtedly, the world, and certainly Iraq, would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, who is unlucky enough to be sitting on the second biggest reserves of oil in the world.

What Colin Powell listed out as being in Saddam's possession - chemical weapons of all descriptions, nerve agents, biological weapons and mobile biological weapon labs - would leave even Alfred Hitchcock in a state of terror.

Without doubt Saddam Hussein is a man to whom evil is second nature, but some of the so-called evidence, like the artist's impression, would not have been admitted in Judge Judy's court.

Not when you want to start a war.

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