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Cracks appear in Dail argument for use of Shannon airport

On Thursday, the Government's luck finally ran out with the outbreak of war against Iraq, and the opening of verbal hostilities in the Dail on the same issue. Political fence-sitting was no longer possible, and it was time to climb down. After six hours' debate, the Government won the vote, but more by superior voting power than by the force of its own arguments.

For the Government, it seemed that nothing very much had changed over time. Nominally, the policy of military neutrality was still intact, but adapted to fit nearly any set of circumstances. International friendships (with the US and Britain) were maintained, and the national economic interest was protected. The Government had balanced, as Brian Cowen said, our interests with our principles. The balancing act represented an Irish solution to our military neutrality problem. The solution reflected a political need to offer tacit support to Britain and the US (through the use of the Shannon facilities) while at the same time denying that this was a breach of our neutrality code.

The terms of the motion said it all. There, the Government came down firmly on the side of the UN. It was mildly disapproving of the US-led war on Iraq, regretting that it had been started without a second UN resolution, "notwithstanding the claims of the coalition to be acting on the basis of an existing Security Council mandate". The rebuke could hardly have been milder, the slap on the wrist less painful, or more diplomatic.

For the Opposition, matters had changed utterly. Principle was sacrificed to expediency, and our military neutrality had been abandoned. For Pat Rabbitte, Ireland had not joined the coalition of the willing; it had joined the "coalition of the shilling". The Government, although claiming not to support the war against Iraq, nevertheless was facilitating the US war effort. Of course, the Government was doing so in the time honoured way. It was allowing the US military to overfly the country, and to use the landing and refuelling facilities at Shannon. Once again Ireland was neutral on the side of the Allies. But in the Second World War, needless to say, Allied forces were never given landing and refuelling rights, and they were also denied access to the sea ports.

Both sides in this debate overstated their respective positions. The Government insisted that a seamless thread of consistency ran through its neutrality policy over time. Clearly, this was not the case. So, in citing Vietnam and Kosovo as past precedents to justify its present policy on overflights and landing rights, the Government recognised no inconsistency between what was granted then and now, even though the current US military action has failed to secure a UN mandate.

The Opposition parties went to the other extreme. Fine Gael, Labour and the rest chose to discount the reality that foreign policy is primarily based on a calculation of national interest, political and economic, and much less on morality and principle. And in Ireland's case, quite simply, that realpolitik means sustaining US investment in Ireland, keeping the interest of George Bush and Tony Blair in Northern Ireland and, above all, not alienating, in their hour of need, those who have been most helpful. Fine Gael, out of office, was doing what, almost certainly, it would never do in power: denying the Shannon facility. Labour, which has already opposed those landing arrangements, also opposed the 1991 Gulf war even though the US-led coalition had UN authority to remove Iraq from Kuwait.

And for good measure, we even had Sinn Fein proposing an amendment to the Government motion, calling on "all states in possession of weapons of mass destruction to put them verifiably beyond use". This particular piety came from the party with a paramilitary wing, its own standing army. The IRA is still in possession of its lethal weaponry, having refused to decommission its own terrorist arsenal. Indeed, the IRA has engaged in the same delaying tactics as Saddam, and for almost as long. It was a moment of high comedy at the end of a tense and acrimonious six-hour debate.

And yet up to a week ago, it looked as if the Government's luck might have well held throughout the Iraq crisis. First the good luck: Ireland's term on the Security Council ended in December, a month after Resolution 1441 was backed unanimously. And that meant the Government narrowly avoided involvement in the recent weeks of UN controversy. Last month, the Taoiseach said a second UN resolution, was a "political imperative" before taking military action against Iraq. Had that been happened, the Government would have backed the UN decision, thereby defusing the Shannon issue. Originally, the Government had defended the Shannon arrangement largely on the grounds that the facility bolstered the credible threat of force that underpinned Resolution 1441. This warned of "serious consequences" (military action) if Iraq failed to disarm.

This, however, now raises an obvious question for the Government. If the overflight and landing facilities for the US military were justified on that basis of that UN authority, then how are the continuance of those arrangements now justified, given the lack of any UN authority for US military action.

Irish military neutrality, never a very meaningful concept, has become increasingly meaningless. Being neutral, as Fianna Fail backbencher, Barry Andrews pointed out means "different things to different people". Just how different, we saw last Thursday.

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