independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Helping Britain's army marks end of 'social workers with guns' era

Alan Shatter

FINALLY, finally, some sense has prevailed in the Army's relationship with the British army. The deployment of a handful of Army soldiers on a training mission in Mali with soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, a full 90 years after the two armies went their separate ways, is a long overdue recognition of political, cultural and geographical realities. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Minister responsible is Jewish, and is therefore less beholden to the traditions of querulous deference to "republican" sensitivities, which has gravely undermined the willingness of our political classes to engage in any closer military co-operation with the British.

It helps of course that Mr Shatter is also Minister for Justice, meaning that he brings substance to the argument. Traditionally, the Minister of Defence was the least capable and most lightweight political poltroon to whom the Taoiseach owed the largest debt: this had to be paid by someone, and so the poor bloody infantry, usually got him. A register of the ministers for defence of this Republic has all the martial valour of a convent laundry-list. Which was why for years, Irish soldiers' battle-dress looked like a job-lot bought in an Army & Navy store in Pimlico in 1946, and they lumbered around in Unimog and Panhard armoured personnel carriers that had, apparently, been bought from some Argentinian scrap dealers.

And of course, the other problem was the army with which the Army should most logically be co-operating with was British: a common language, a common land-border, a common military culture, even common staff college at Camberley – all conspired to ensure the minimum of commonality between the two. The Fourth Green Field was one reason for this, for our sulky neutrality was in large part underwritten by Partition. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Republic – so the De Valeran argument went – could never be part of a NATO alliance involving a country that had so unnaturally divided the island of Ireland.

Through a quarter of a century's cross-Border terrorism, the two armies were never able to speak to one another directly, unlike the IRA units they were opposing. Thus was Irish sovereignty tetchily affirmed. The two countries joined the EU at the same time, yet when the EU battle groups were formed, we appended ourselves to the Nordic countries.

At least this way, Irish dignity was preserved. We remained, in Olivia O'Leary's trenchant phrase, "Britain's official non-friend".

If this was retribution for past sins, it was more than a little eccentric. After all, Poland was put in charge of a battle-group that included units from Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia, all of whom had, relatively recently, been invaded and laid waste by the fifth country in the group, Germany.

Of course, what our political classes think and do is quite different from the behaviour of those they rule. Hundreds of young Irish who have unable to join their own Army, or who seek the serious war-fighting that is not possible with the Defence Forces, have been joining the Irish Guards, and the Royal Irish Regiment. The latter, as part of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, is now one of the most respected and decorated infantry units in the British army. The small number of Army soldiers contributing to the Mali mission should have no reason to feel inferior to the Royal Irish: firstly, though they have no war-fighting experience, for the most part, they joined for the most noble of reasons: patriotism.

THEY are soldiers of the Republic; it is quite impossible to describe what wonders that does for their morale. Secondly – and barely of less importance – their kit is now extremely good: their armoured personnel carriers, their rifles, their backpacks and their field-dress are actually superior to the British equivalents.

But be in no doubt. The Mali training mission has nothing to do with traditional "peacekeeping": the days of social workers with guns are over, the era of peace-enforcing, by violent means, is upon us.

From Nigeria to Somalia, throughout the Arab world, and on either side of the Hindu Kush, armed Islamism is resurgent. Ireland is now taking its place in the line in the great war of values, which was formally declared on 9/11. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he would welcome Irish membership of NATO. So would I.

An informal US base already exists in Shannon, and the US is our largest foreign investor. It's time to affirm that relationship with a binding treaty, which finally recognises that Ireland is on the eastern flank of America's eastern ocean, and which, most of all, declares that that flank is in friendly hands.

Irish Independent

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