Minister Cowen: Statement to Dáil Éireann on the situation regarding Iraq- 2
As the Taoiseach has made clear, we have also been faced with the specific domestic question of whether or not, in the absence of a second Security Council resolution, to withdraw from the United States and its allies the right, subject to the normal conditions, to overfly our territory and to transit through Shannon airport.
In 1990/1991, the then Government made clear the position that the extension of overflight and landing facilities at Shannon did not give rise to any question of Ireland's declaring war or participating in a war in the Persian Gulf. The Government have decided that they will continue to make these peripheral facilities available. This does not change our general policy of military neutrality. Ireland will not participate in this conflict and we have undertaken no commitments.
The question of overflight and landing facilities is a far more complex and difficult issue than the simple formulations offered to this House by the opposition suggest.
It is clear that, in line with our traditional policy of military neutrality, Ireland could not play any direct role in military action against Iraq in the absence of a second Security Council resolution. But it is certainly not the case, whatever may be said by the opposition spokespersons, that to maintain the granting of longstanding facilities represents a clear breach of our military neutrality as it has developed over time. Sixty five years ago we adopted a policy of military neutrality in the World War II. Fifty years ago we started providing the landing and overflight facilities. Since then, throughout the conduct of our military neutrality policy, these facilities have formed part of that policy. To withhold them now, is to redefine, not to maintain, the established policy position in this area.
Neutrality has been shaped by the realities of the world around us, as much as it has been a statement of our fundamental attachment to peaceful means of resolving conflict, where this is possible. In Ireland's case, it has meant non-membership of military alliances, and specifically non-membership of an alliance with a mutual defence commitment
Neutrality does not mean, and has not meant, a complete opposition to the use of force in all cases. If it did, we could not be members of the United Nations, the Charter of which provides for the use of force in certain instances. Nor does it mean that we are incapable of forming a view of our own on the merits of a situation, and acting accordingly.
Facilities identical to those now being enjoyed were granted to the United States and its allies during the Kosovo conflict, despite the absence of explicit UN authorization. This was in line with long-standing previous practice in earlier conflicts, whether UN-sanctioned or not. And historical research has made it increasingly clear that, during World War Two, despite the apparently exact and punctilious maintenance of a neutral stance in a much more widespread and ferocious conflict, Éamon de Valéra offered practical assistance to the Allies in a number of important ways. This reflected his own basic sympathies in that war: but, equally importantly, it also reflected his careful assessment of what was in Ireland's national interest.
For us now to withdraw facilities from the United States would be a departure from existing arrangements, and from precedents stretching back over fifty years. Moreover, in so doing, we would be in danger of being perceived by members of the coalition as in a sense siding – at least psychologically – with Saddam.
Whatever view we may take of whether the course that has led the United States, Britain and others to this point, it is surely beyond doubt that, once battle begins, we must hope for their quick and decisive victory over a brutal and savage dictatorship, with minimum loss of life.
I know that other European neutrals – Sweden, Finland and Austria – are not allowing additional facilities. But none of them is in the same situation. Ireland, with its very extensive airspace lies on the direct flight path between North America and Europe and the Middle East. That is why the current arrangements have evolved. Sweden and Finland are remote from such flight paths, and Austria is easily circumnavigated.
Conversely, the most severe critics of American policy, France and Germany, are continuing to make their airspace and other facilities available. They would steadfastly reject any suggestion that they are participating in the US military campaign.
Let me be quite clear with everyone in this House and with the Irish people. I am profoundly saddened that we have arrived at this point. Everything I said and did over recent months had a single purpose: it was designed to promote a multilateral solution and bolster the resolve of the Security Council to face up to its responsibilities.
But having arrived at this point, hard choices must be made. That is the responsibility of government – a heavy responsibility that we must discharge with the utmost seriousness. We have to weigh all the concerns: the deep attachment to neutrality that Irish people have, how to define neutrality in a very complex set of circumstances, the value of international friendships and the expectations that come with these friendships, and the implications there may be for the material well being of our people.
All of these concerns are legitimate, and I accept that people of goodwill may reconcile them in different ways. But the Government has weighed all the concerns and reached a clear decision.
To withdraw facilities from the United States – and I emphasise that it would be withdrawing as distinct from offering facilities - would, of course, be one way of registering our distress and disappointment at the failure which conflict represents. Some might be tempted to argue that the United States would not be troubled by such a decision. That, in my view, is completely to misread the mood of the US Administration, and of the American public, especially in the light of their changed perception of the world since the events of 11th September.
For Ireland now - of all the countries of the world - to take what would be seen as a more negative and unfriendly step than any other European country would, in my view, be seen as opposition to the allied coalition rather than retaining a policy of non-participation in the military action.
We hope that the humanitarian consequences of the conflict will be limited. Those participating in the military operation have a duty under international humanitarian law to ensure that they are minimised.
Minister of State Kitt has already given the House details of the contribution that Government have made to help ensure that UN agencies would have the resources to mount an effective humanitarian operation in Iraq.
The Minister of State has also outlined steps that the Government have taken to ensure that Irish aid organisations have the necessary funds to participate strongly in the humanitarian effort without delay.
A Cheann Comhairle,
It is essential, now and in the days and weeks to come, that the Security Council, in responding to the situation as it develops, seek to re-establish a unity of purpose and of action. It is time for charges and countercharges to cease. I genuinely do not believe that there has been proven bad faith, on either side of the argument: rather there are genuine differences of perception and of assessment, which under the pressure of events have sharpened into disagreement.
Obviously, the implications and consequences of the Security Council's failure to agree will be complex and long-lasting. But we simply cannot afford paralysis. The world needs an effective United Nations. Not least, the people of Iraq and of the region will need the urgent, comprehensive support of the United Nations and its agencies in the alleviation of humanitarian distress. In due course also, United Nations assistance will be needed by the people of Iraq in the rebuilding of a just and prosperous society, and of a reformed state.
The alternative to the collective system of security embodied in the United Nations is a return to the international anarchy which plagued the first half of the twentieth century. No one can want this. That is why I am confident that the UN will overcome this crisis and continue as the centre of an effective system of collective international security. Ireland will, as the heart of its policy towards Iraq, continue to actively and strongly support that vital work. That is the most useful and important part that we can play.
A Cheann Comhairle
Our ties with the United States are deep and long-enduring. As everyone in this House knows, they are founded on human and family bonds, celebrated yet again over the past week. The United States has been a haven and a beacon of light for millions of Irish people over the years. The importance of our economic connections, in supporting directly and indirectly hundreds and thousands of Irish jobs, is manifest. And the United States continues to be a staunch friend in the pursuit of lasting peace in Northern Ireland. This support from the US has come from all parties as well as from Capitol Hill and civil society.
For many of the same reasons, our relationship with the United Kingdom, and our appreciation of the particular personal role played by Prime Minister Blair, are immensely significant. We have no bilateral relationships more important than those with Britain and the United States.
For us now to withdraw facilities at Shannon would not only be in direct contrast to what we have done on previous occasions, but would antagonize two of our most important friends and partners. The core of our neutrality, as I have said, lies in independence of judgement – in being able to make up our minds about what is right for Ireland. That is the question facing all of us in the House today. Faced with the hard choice we must make, the Government believes that it is right both in terms of our principles and our interests to take the decision we have laid before you. I commend the Motion to the House.