Kevin Myers: Almost from independence, we abandoned our duty to defend
Fifty years ago today, Irish troops on UN duty were landing in the Congo, and though much of the Ireland of 1960 is gone, a few things survive from that time.
Perhaps the most important is the sense of patriotism that drew people from civilian life to the Defence Forces, when potentially better careers, with better prospects of war fighting, awaited (and still await) would-be Irish soldiers in the British army. But such careers do not satisfy the single, fundamental appetite that sends an Irish cadet to the Curragh, or a soldier to Cathal Brugha Barracks, now or in 1960: patriotism.
Last Friday's ceremony at Baldonnel to commemorate that earlier generation of patriots should have been graced with a C144 Globemaster, of the kind that took them to the Congo. It didn't show. A neat little parable for, half a century on, our Defence Forces still lack lift despite economic growth unparalleled in Europe since the German Wirtschaftswunder. This is both pathetic and immoral. For throughout this time, we've cadged planes and pilots off other countries -- even God help us, Chad and Ukraine -- just as we cadged lifts off the Americans 50 years ago.
Some of the infantilism underwriting this culture was exemplified by Noel Browne TD, when he urged that Ireland should not use US aircraft to transport troops to the Congo, but employ our own means. What? Some Galway hookers? A new Brendan Voyage? The truth is we had no way of transporting our soldiers across the world then, and we have none now, and the reason is explained in two letters: UN -- Unprincipled Neutralism, and the addiction to UN service.
For the latter has come to be profoundly damaging to the development of the Defence Forces. It has created a widespread preference amongst the simpering classes of D6 that the Army should be composed of vegan midwives who also happen to have done a spot of target-practice. It has also created a parallel belief that defence forces come cheap. Yet the fantasy that you can be a republic without defending your waters or your skies, or a single potato field, has deep roots. These were evident during the seventh plenary session of the Treaty talks, around 6pm, on Monday, October 24, 1921, when Arthur Griffith accepted British defence "rights" over independent Ireland. "We accept the principle that (British) security should be looked after, though the working out of details might be very difficult."
And there, philosophically, the matter rested, though with this strange inversion: after de Valera's renegotiations of the Treaty to end the Economic War, 18 years later, Ireland effectively became a permanent defence dependency of first the United Kingdom, and later the USA. This is the morally deranged vantage point that the Unprincipled Neutralists of today use to babble meaninglessly about "our much respected neutrality", and to denounce the immorality of arms expenditure, even while simultaneously extolling the virtues of the Army's peacekeeping duties within the United Nations, which are made possible, of course, by other countries' arms expenditures.
Well, you can't blame the Army for this, nor for the fact that the Minister for Defence is usually the most unimportant member of the Cabinet. This is still part of our political culture, just as it was 50 years ago. Yet throughout this time, the Army has produced outstanding soldiers, such as the very great Colonel Justin McCarthy, killed on active service just as he was about to succeed General Van Horn as UN Force Commander in the Congo, and General Sean Mac Eoin, who went on to become UN force commander. And many, many fine soldier-patriots have served the flag, the Republic and the UN since then.
What do such men, in their graves or on their pensions, make of the claims on us made to date by the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern? His income from public speaking last year totalled €467,200, and his salary as a TD amounted to €92,672 -- in all, some €560,000. Yet since resigning as Taoiseach, he has charged the State €5,682 for use of VIP airport facilities, €8,331 for mobile phone calls, and €13,040 travel costs; a total of €27,053 tax-free, much of it no doubt incurred on those public-speaking jaunts. A little experiment: with that information in mind, please try and fit the words "patriotic duty" and "Bertie Ahern" in a sentence that does not include a negative.
But for soldiers like Mickie Joe Costello, or Dan McKenna, or Justin McCarthy, or Sean MacEoin, or Dave Stapleton, or Gerry McMahon, or the late Dermot Earley (RIP), or the owners of those proud old backs at Baldonnel on Friday, such a grammatical construction would present no problem at all -- though, of course, such men would be deeply reluctant to admit that love of country was what drove them to military service in the first place.
For just as, almost from the outset of independence, we abandoned our military duty to defend this republic, its seas and its airspace, we have similarly surrendered all public expressions of patriotism to the terrorist, the yahoo and the drunken lounge bar braggart. It is time to reclaim the word.