It may be time to bring back the Skibbereen Eagle. In September 1898, the plucky publication from that west Cork town issued a stern warning to no less a target than the Tsar of Russia.
Their leader writer proclaimed that the paper would “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia, and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression, and man’s natural rights”.
Now Moscow’s growing threats against Ukraine have worsened to crisis point just as the Russian navy will hold manoeuvres off the coast of west Cork. Linking the two events is not as farcical as it might first appear.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was in Brussels yesterday meeting EU counterparts, which included a videoconference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The USA’s head of foreign policy had spent previous days engaging in diplomacy with his Russian counterpart trying to stave off calamity in Ukraine which will be felt across the world.
Last week saw mishandling of a US-EU response to rampant Russian aggression against Ukraine, which Moscow claims is simply an integral part of its territory. US President Joe Biden’s early reactions were a mess, while the EU showed disunity.
There are rifts in the new German three-party coalition government on the issue. And French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be on a solo run in a key French EU presidency address at the European Parliament where he talked of the need for Europe to engage in dialogue with Russia.
Mr Coveney’s trip to Brussels yesterday was also a welcome break from talking about a Champagne party at his department’s HQ in a time of lockdown. But it was also an important task to show Ireland was on message with the EU’s hopefully much more co-ordinated answer to a dangerously deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
The minister also raised the issue of the Russian plans for massive naval manoeuvres some 240km off the coast of west Cork and Kerry. Dublin is concerned by this development but largely powerless without help.
The Russian naval defence action is legal in international law as it is outside Irish territorial waters. But it is within Ireland’s economic zone and it is, on the face of things, gratuitous and has as-yet-unknown environmental consequences for bird and marine life and potential coastal pollution.
Independent observers have said the choice of coastal waters off Ireland for this naval exercise also points to weaknesses in EU defence.
This brings us back to Ireland’s strange non-position on this issue for many years. When Donald Trump became US president in 2017, he rather crudely told European leaders they could not rely on Washington to be the world’s policeman. His successor, Joe Biden, is far more genteel – but he may not be a million miles from The Donald on the question of US involvement in defence of Europe.
It has stimulated renewed discussion about European defence co-operation. Ireland’s lack of engagement in these discussions down the years has been allowed pass largely unnoticed by a long-standing sense of atrophy on the defence issue within the EU. It all reminds us of a building EU debate on developing common defence – a debate Ireland has so far dodged. A total of 21 out of the 27 EU member states are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) defence alliance which emerged from the ashes of World War II as the US leading the European allies.
Some Nato and EU members are convinced “Atlanticists” who place pretty much all their faith in the link with the US. Others, notably France, are at times ambivalent about this clear American dependence. It may have prompted President Macron’s ill-timed comments last week.
Ireland is among five members of the European Union which still describe themselves as a neutral country in some form. The others are Sweden, Finland, Austria and Malta. Renewed talks about the development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy have again rekindled talk about how these five are, or should be, neutral.
At all events, all five have different reasons for being neutral and varied views of what it entails. Finland and Sweden find themselves currently under very direct neighbourly pressure from the Ukraine crisis and Sweden already engages in considerable co-operation with Nato.
Irish voters’ rejection of the EU Nice Treaty in 2001 led to assurances from the other member states that Ireland’s neutrality would be respected. This led to the Nice Treaty being passed by voters in a second referendum in November 2002. And that was by and large the last big mention of the issue.
These Russian exercises remind us we don’t have the means by air or sea to effectively monitor what is going on. Nor do we know how we’d respond to cyber attacks and/or atypical attacks such as we saw in Poland and Lithuania when migrants were used as proxy weapons last year.