Opinion Analysis

Monday 18 February 2019

A severe case of don't mention the war

Ireland's Kosovo stance makes us more neutered than neutral, writes Political Correspondent Joseph O'MalleyDAVID ANDREWS described Irish foreign policy on Kosovo last week as being caught between a rock and hard place. The Government couldn't condemn the Nato attack on Yugoslavia, nor endorse it. In the first war on European soil in some 50 years, the Government neither approved nor disapproved of the Nato action.

Ireland's neutrality policy on the issue was hard to explain, and even more difficult to justify. And particularly when the Government found last week's EU Summit negotiations on Agenda 2000, suddenly overshadowed by the Kosovo war. In Gay Mitchell's phrase in the Dáil on Tuesday, the Government was more neutered than neutral.

Around the negotiating table in Berlin, some 11 of the EU member states were Nato partners involved in the war effort against Yugoslavia. The exposure of Ireland's hollow brand of neutrality could not have come at a worse time. It left the Government facing some hard choices.

To condemn the Nato air strikes risked alienating Tony Blair and Bill Clinton when the Government most needed their support and assistance, on Northern Ireland, this week. Such an approach also risked losing the goodwill of the EU Nato members, as Agenda 2000 negotiations, on Structural Funds, neared the final decision.

Instead, negotiating circumstance dictated the strategy adopted: namely, to sit tight and say nothing on Kosovo, and cause the least offence possible. So David Andrews stonewalled, and pointed to the division of opinion within the Security Council. Three members, he said, claimed the NATO attacks were justified on humanitarian grounds, and two (Russia and China) insisted they were not, and were a breach of sovereignty.

However, the Government had no view of its own. It was not for Ireland to judge between the conflicting views expressed. And it also refused to pass judgement on whether the NATO bombings were legally justified, or not. As a statement of foreign policy, it was a remarkable cop-out.

But for a Government actively campaigning for a place on the UN Security Council, this sudden incapacity to make a judgement hardly advanced its claim to representation. Particularly, when it cannot decide on the very issue that divides the Security Council which it hopes to join. Equally, it hardly helps Dick Spring's chances of becoming the EU's high representative for foreign policy, which involves co-ordinating foreign policy planning for the Council of Ministers

The Government's fudging of the neutrality issue was seen as a pragmatic pursuit of national self-interest, both in the context of EU negotiations and Northern Ireland.

After all, the deadline for the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive was just a week away. And the Government as last time is heavily reliant on British and American pressure to broker a settlement. Therefore, the Government knew this was the wrong time to alienate those on whom it may again need to rely for a successful outcome. However, the more pre-occupied both leaders are with Kosovo, the less time they may well have for the North, as it faces a Good Friday deadline.

As a strategy the Government approach worked. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were not too surprised by the Government's fence sitting posture on Nato air strikes. And in the negotiations on the EU Agenda 2000, the Government, in securing £3.4bn in financial transfers, did somewhat better than expected. Outright condemnation and the adoption of a high moral tone, might well have produced less for Ireland in the EU negotiations.

On either count, the Opposition were left with little to complain about.

The Government couldn't be faulted for its negotiations on CAP reform, while the Structural Fund receipts, outweighed the political mishandling of the Government's original 15 county application, including Kerry and Clare, for Objective 1 status. On Wednesday in the Dáil, Fine Gael's John Bruton adopted a position as ambiguous and unsatisfactory on the Nato air strikes as the Government's own. Where he might have been expected to support the NATO action, he showed himself just as circumspect as David Andrews, more neutered than neutral.

Over the past year the Government has been uncomfortable on the European defence issue. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in 1996 that joining Partnership for Peace (PfP) would first require a referendum. By last month he had completed a remarkable U-turn. Ireland would join later this year, and without a referendum.

The move is an attempt to bring Ireland into line with the other EU neutrals, already within PfP, and to eliminate some of the criticism that Ireland is a free rider on European defence, where we get the benefits of military protection, but without having to pay the costs, or incur the risks. Many years ago, before Ireland joined the European Community, Sean Lemass said a Europe worth joining was a Europe worth defending. However, once Ireland joined, that sentiment later came to mean something else.

According to Charles Haughey, a Europe worth defending was one where Ireland's living standard had reached four-fifths of the EU average. That has now been achieved, thanks in no small part to Europe's generosity in providing substantial financial transfers. Yet Ireland is just as resistant to joining military alliances as before, despite greater European integration. Nevertheless, the momentum in Europe is very much towards common European defence, and cannot be ignored by Ireland.

Last December, the French and British Government agreed to give the EU a real defence policy role. And in June, at the EU Summit in Cologne, German proposals to strengthen European defence and security policy will be on the agenda.

And, after Kosovo, European defence has assumed greater urgency and significance.

Roots of the Kosovo conflict

1389: Ottoman Turks defeat Serbs at Kosovo. This has long been exploited by Serb nationalists as a rallying call for reclaiming their ``cradle of nationalism'' despite the now overwhelming non-Serb population (90 per cent ethnic Albanian).

1968: Many arrested in first pro-independence demonstrations by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

1974: Yugoslav constitution redrawn; declares Kosovo autonomous province within Serbia.

1980: Yugoslav leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito dies.

1981: Ethnic Albanians hold street demonstrations demanding Kosovo be declared a republic; dozens injured.

1989: Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic strips Kosovo of autonomy. More than 20 killed in protests.

1990: Yugoslavia sends in troops to impose control. Serbia dissolves Kosovo's government.

1991: Separatists proclaim Kosovo a republic, which is recognised by neighbouring Albania.

1992: Ibrahim Rugova, who advocates a peaceful path to independence, elected president of separatist republic.

1996: Pro-independence rebel Kosovo Liberation Army emerges; claims responsibility for bombing police.

Feb 1998: Militant Kosovo Albanians kill two Serb policemen, leading to police reprisals by Milosevic, now Yugoslav president.

March 1998: Dozens killed in Serb police action against suspected Albanian separatists.

April 1998: 95 per cent of Serbs reject international mediation on Kosovo. International sanctions imposed.

May 1998: Milosevic and Rugova hold first talks but Albanian side boycotts further meetings.

Jul/Aug 1998: KLA seizes control of 40 per cent of Kosovo before being routed in Serb offensive.

Sept 1998: Serb forces attack central Kosovo, where 22 Albanians were found massacred. UN Security Council adopts resolution calling for cease-fire and dialogue.

Oct 1998: NATO allies authorise air strikes against Serb military targets. Milosevic agrees to withdraw troops and facilitate the return of tens of thousands of refugees. Belgrade agrees to allow 2,000 unarmed monitors to verify compliance.

Oct/Dec 1998: US envoy Christopher Hill tries to broker settlement. Scattered daily violence undermines fragile truce.

Dec 1998: Yugoslav troops kill 36 KLA rebels. Six young Serbs killed in café, prompting widespread Serb protests. Fighting in north kills at least 15.

Jan 15, 1999: ethnic Albanians slain outside Racak, spurring international peace effort.

Jan 29: Serb police kill 24 Kosovo Albanians in raid on suspect rebel hideout. Western allies demand warring sides attend peace conference or face NATO air strikes.

Feb 6-17: First, inconclusive round of talks between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs in Rambouillet, France.

Feb/Mar 99: Yugoslav forces sweep through Macedonian border region, digging in across from NATO forces on alert for possible peacekeeping mission, and bombard KLA in the north. Rebels launch several attacks on Serbs.

Mar 18: Kosovo Albanians unilaterally sign peace deal calling for a broad interim autonomy and 28,000 NATO troops to implement it. Serb delegation refuses and talks suspended.

Mar 20: International peace monitors evacuate Kosovo, as Yugoslav forces build up and launch offensives. NATO aircraft and ships ready for possible bombardments.

Mar 22: US special envoy Richard Holbrooke visits Belgrade to warn Milosevic of air strikes unless he signs peace deal. Milosevic refuses to allow NATO troops in Yugoslavia.

Mar 23: Holbrooke declares talks a failure. NATO authorises air strikes. Yugoslavia declares state of emergency, its first since WWII.

March 24: Nato launches air strikes.

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