Don’t write off post-war order

Don’t write off post-war order President Higgins at Glasnevin Cemetary
The View


Martin Mansergh


Commemoration of the ending of the First World War on Sunday, November 11, both here in Ireland and at the international ceremony in France where world leaders gathered, was conducted with great dignity and solemnity. The sacrifices of those who fought were acknowledged, but with the message that such wasteful carnage must be prevented at all costs in the future.

President Michael D. Higgins made one of his finest speeches in Glasnevin Cemetery, as he was about to enter his second term. People will look in particular to him to find the right tone during the commemorative period that covers the struggle for independence, the formation of the State, partition, and the civil war.

In Ireland, certainly in the Republic, the armistice commemorations involved the general community, where once they were left to a small minority.

The Catholic Church has played an important leadership role in recent years in encouraging not just a broader view, but in encouraging people to acknowledge family connections to the war without false pride or shame. Many local historians have helped collect and present data on those who participated in a sensitive manner.

Ireland, like most other European countries, was a very different place at the end of the war from what it had been at the beginning. Small nation states were brought into being, as conglomerate and militaristic empires broke up. Most of Ireland too wanted to break out on its own, even though it was tied to one of the victors.

Unfortunately, peace-making was botched from many points of view. Populism demanded war damages that defeated countries were in no position to pay. There was no equivalent to the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, which helped the exhausted countries of Western Europe to rebuild.

One way or another, most of the newly independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe floundered, and succumbed either to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union of Stalin or both over the next 20-30 years. Independent Ireland, better protected by geography, narrowly escaped intact from world conflict by which it was surrounded. Its neutrality, firm in principle, was pragmatic in its exercise.


A touching part of the European remembrance was the visit of President Macron and Chancellor Merkel to the clearing in the forest of Compiègne, where they sat together in a replica of the railway carriage where the Armistice was signed in 1918 and where France’s surrender to Germany was also received in June 1940.

Franco-German reconciliation, on which not just the European Union but the peace of Europe is built, is a quite remarkable phenomenon, and a great tribute to successive statesmen and -women in both countries. It is also a strong example to others. President Macron’s speech near the Arc de Triomphe criticised strongly national egoism as incompatible with universal values.

There were incongruities, however. As Breda O’ Brien observed in last Saturday’s Irish Times, it was a strange occasion to be promoting the idea of a European army.

Like President Trump’s call for a large increase in NATO defence spending, this may have less to do with European vulnerability to conventional attack or military pressure, and more to do with trying to procure orders for the arms industry, where the US and the European Union fiercely compete.

A European army subject to slow EU decision-making processes would be no substitute for NATO, as far as nervous frontline Eastern European States are concerned. The post-war order should not be too hastily written off.

Ireland, while quite willing to cooperate on peacekeeping and against international terrorism, has never shared the post-colonial ambition of some EU partners to project military as well as economic power, These matters have been discussed since the inception of the EEC, and crucially the French National Assembly declined a European Defence Union in 1954.

The other glaring incongruity is the chaotic spectacle of Brexit, where a deal reached between the UK and the EU is surrounded by political turmoil. If the deal survives, the ratification debate in the House of Commons may have something of the drama and unpredictability of the Treaty debate in the Dáil in December 1921 and January 1922. At least, there is now in place of infinite possibilities a definite plan, which can be accepted or rejected. An agreed Brexit is not available on other terms.

The practical consequences of no agreement are ones that no British government trying to survive would want to contemplate, particularly the seizing up of traffic through channel ports.

The Irish Government and its officials are to be commended first for maintaining a calm approach in a threatening situation, and secondly for maintaining the focus on preserving the gains of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. If we were still in de Valera’s time, there might have been a temptation to respond to statements about “the integrity of our precious Union” with reminders about longstanding violation of the integrity of Ireland.

Today, we are content to insist on maintaining the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement, which, with the Single Market, has underpinned peace and the unimpeded movement of people and goods across the border, across the Irish Sea and across the land-bridge to Continental Europe.

One difficulty in dealing with Brexit, and also its pale and diminutive reflection in Irexit, is that the arguments for them are ideological and take little account of the economic interests of those who need jobs to make a living. Unlike Britain, Ireland has a limited domestic market, and absolutely needs the wider EU market. According to a recent Oireachtas report, 25% of income tax comes from employees of multinationals.

Northern Ireland businesses and farmers may be majority unionist in orientation, and supporting a deal concluded by a British Conservative Government is hardly disloyal, compared to trying to bring that government down. Northern Ireland could have the best of both worlds, but needs the visible restoration of political stability to reassure prospective investors and to maximise the competitive advantage.