Powerful enemies and Ireland's neutrality

THE longstanding Irish policy of neutrality, an ongoing balancing act of several competing pressures — nationalism, the post-colonial relation with Britain, a burgeoning involvement with European politics — came under particular scrutiny in 1983.

British defence secretary Michael Heseltine seemed to reopen the wounds of Charles Haughey’s pro-Argentina stance on the Falklands War of the previous year by denouncing Irish neutrality at Aldergrove airport in Belfast on May 4, 1983.

“Those countries who do not play a part in Nato should ask themselves why they should take advantage of the umbrellas we provide,” he declared.

James Prior, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was in Dublin that day and obviously considered the Heseltine comments unhelpful. In fact, he told Peter Barry, the foreign affairs minister, that Heseltine’s comments were “unforgivable”.

He went into full reverse on returning to Northern Ireland.

“I refute entirely that Mr Heseltine made a gaffe,” the Northern secretary declared in the Glens of Antrim next day. “Mr Heseltine in no way was impugning the neutrality of Southern Ireland which we have always respected,” he added. “Sometimes we have thought the South was not as neutral as it ought to have been.”

Mr Prior explained: “It wasn’t Ireland’s neutrality that upset the prime minister during the Falkland Island dispute, it was what she considered at the time to be lack of Ireland’s neutrality.”

In the following weeks there was much debate about the propriety of neutrality while Ireland was part of the European Community.

The neutrality issue came to the fore in September after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner, with the loss of 269 passengers and crew on board. Barry, the foreign affairs minister, denounced the outrage, and the Irish government expressed its revulsion by postponing the annual meeting of the Irish Soviet Commission, due to meet later in the month to review economic co-operation between the two countries.

“As national leaders and members of the international community we should respond to this act against the safety of international civil aviation which directly affects all of us,” President Ronald Reagan wrote to the Taoiseach on Sept 8.

The US was suspending any extension of co-operation with the Soviet Union in the area of transportation, and Reagan was calling on other leaders to suspend “Aeroflot service to their countries for an initial period, perhaps 60-90 days until the Soviet Union responds to our very real concerns”.

The following day, the Irish government announced the expulsion of two Soviet diplomats, Guennadi Saline, who was first secretary and press attaché, and Viktor Lipassov, the 2nd secretary, along with his wife Irona. They were accused of “unacceptable activities”.

It was later suggested they had been consorting with the IRA, but there appears to be no explanation for the expulsion in the State Papers just released.

A 60-day ban was placed on Aeroflot flights to Shannon, other than the 22 weekly scheduled flights, and the airline was banned from picking up or setting down passengers in Ireland, but passengers in transit were allow to use the facilities, so the ban made no real practical difference.

The Irish Airline Pilots supported a call by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations not to fly to USSR, but this had no practical impact either, because no Irish airline flew to the Soviet Union. There was, however, some confusion on Sept 22, when an Air Lingus pilot refused to allow two Soviet diplomats to board his flight at Heathrow. Aer Lingus duly apologised. The pilot mistakenly thought Irish pilots had agreed not to carry Soviet diplomats.

There was little effective action the Irish could take against the Soviets, which was not surprising — even the Americans seemed hamstrung. On Oct 23, 1983, the US suffered another setback abroad when Islamic Jihad attacked US Marines in Lebanon. A suicide bomber drove a truck into a Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US servicemen, and wounding 128 others. It was the deadliest day for Marines since the Battle of Iowa Jima during the second World War.

Reagan was beginning to appear as ineffective in his foreign policy as his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. A dramatic response was needed in the wake of the Beirut disaster, but the Irish ambassador clearly considered Reagan’s response breathtakingly absurd.

THE president’s reaction, two days later, was not in Lebanon or the Middle East, but on the tiny 133sq-mile-island of Granada in the Caribbean. US forces invaded the island, which had a population of only 110,000. The US said their troops were introduced to protect the lives of Americans living on the island, but if that had been the motive they could easily have been removed.

“America has no more respect for laws and borders, for the codes of civilisation, than the Soviet Union,” the New York Times thundered in an editorial. Officially, Granada was a British possession, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued strongly against the US involvement.

“This action will be seen as intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation,” Thatcher warned. “I ask you to consider this in the context of our wider East/West relations.”

Garret FitzGerald, the Taoiseach, raised more than a few eyebrows when he dared to criticise the US landing in Grenada. “We regret the invasion and have to say that juridically it is a breach of international law,” he declared during a visit to Greece.

Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, promptly cancelled a visit to Ireland planned for later that week. “This sudden cancellation is not unrelated to the unprecedented and unwise attack by the Taoiseach on the American intervention in Grenada,” a Fianna Fáil spokesman complained.

When the Cuban ambassador at the UN privately called on Irish counterpart Noel Dorr, the latter was able to deflect him. “The Taoiseach’s comment in Athens was available to us in the Irish papers on the day the ambassador visited me,” Dorr reported. “I was able to draw it to his attention and thus head off his request for some kind of governmental statement on the events.”

This was real neutrality.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up