By Clare Daly TD.
Writing in his 1941 autobiography, novelist and journalist Stefan Zweig, who had fled his native Austria in 1934 when the fascists grabbed power there, noted that one of the crucial techniques that Hitler and his ministers had used during their rule was to have introduced their most extreme measures gradually – strategically – in order to gauge how each new outrage was received. “Only a single pill at a time and then a moment of waiting to observe the effects of its strength, to see whether the world conscience would still digest the dose,” Zweig wrote. “The doses became progressively stronger until all Europe finally perished from them.”
Zweig’s metaphor is a version of the idea in political theory of the ‘Overton Window’, or the window in political discourse of what is acceptable, sensible, reasonable. Outside the window frame are all those political ideas that are unthinkable or radical. However, the window of acceptability can and does shift, so that things that were once unthinkable become eminently sensible and reasonable – but not without a lot of nudging by both politicians and the media.
In case it is not obvious why I’m talking about Austrian refugees and political theory, Zweig’s metaphor for the slow, incremental shift in what is normal and acceptable can help us to understand the all-out assault on Irish neutrality we’re seeing at the present moment. Because the rot in terms of the Irish state’s approach to our neutrality started some years ago with Shannon, and where we are at now would not have been possible without the incremental shifts in the Overton Window over years by successive governments and the state apparatus with regard to US military use of that airport.
Shannon has been used for years by the US, but its use as – to quote retired Irish Army Captain Tom Clonan – “a virtual forward airbase” of the United States really took off after 2003, when the US invaded Iraq. Over that year and the next the US’s extraordinary rendition of prisoners to places like Guantanamo Bay became big news, and the Irish government came under public pressure about the US military’s use of Shannon, particularly around suspected rendition of prisoners to black sites.
While many people no doubt remember that controversy, what is probably less well-remembered is the fact that back in 2010 and 2011 Wikileaks released thousands of US diplomatic cables – and among them are a clutch that describe the Irish government’s interactions with US officials over Shannon in that period around the Iraq war. The cables are a treasure trove that give the most amazing insight into how US-Irish relations work – in particular, how utterly supine Irish politicians are in the face of US power, and how utterly arrogant US officials are with regard to their rights to use our sovereign territory to wage war.
From the cables we know that Bertie Ahern told the US ambassador in 2004 he had been assuring the Dáil that no ‘enemy combatants’ were being rendered through Shannon – but of course he did not actually know if there were or not because the Irish government was not searching the planes. That led to him begging the ambassador for reassurance that the Americans would keep news of any shackled and hooded prisoners passing through Shannon under wraps.
Cables sent over years show US and Irish officials discussing ways they could cooperate on managing public discomfort with the US military using the airport through media and public relations strategies. Cables consistently praise the Irish government for its efforts “in the face of public criticism” on behalf of the US in Shannon.
This is key. Because two things were happening here over 2003/04: the Americans were testing the Irish government – slipping them Zweig’s pills and waiting a moment to observe whether their consciences could digest it; and the Irish government was testing the Irish media and public. For the Americans, they knew that if the government was prepared to allow the use of Shannon by the US military in the face of public criticism even as it grew from a murmur to a roar over extraordinary rendition, then it was open season for them in the future.
Media role in shaping public opinion
In terms of the government’s manipulation of the public, without doubt the disquiet made them nervous. But when they did not pay any kind of political price for it, thanks in no small part to a media that quickly lost interest in the issue, they – and maybe more importantly, the officials in the permanent government – knew that ultimately they could get away with pushing their luck on the US use of Shannon. It is important to emphasise, of course, that the media played a huge role in shaping public opinion on this, when it wasn’t keeping people in the dark altogether – something it continues to do a bang-up job of.
And that is how we got to where we are today. A place where, on a single day last October, no less than seven planes on contract to the US military passed through Shannon and there wasn’t a murmur from the political establishment. A place where 60,968 US troops on their way to and from wars in the Middle East were facilitated through Shannon in 2017. A place where planes regularly take off from Shannon to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti from where they launch special forces and drone strikes on Yemen as support to Saudi war crimes.
Back in 2005 a senior Irish diplomat was warning the US ambassador that they were under pressure to inspect planes; in 2007 Dermot Ahern was musing to the Americans that the odd random inspection wouldn’t be a bad idea to provide him with political cover. Now we are at a point where the political establishment flat-out refuses to inspect planes and two TDs are arrested when they try.
Most significantly, after almost two decades of intensive US military use of Shannon, we are now at a place where the political window of acceptability has shifted from one where politicians nervously sought assurances from the US authorities about flights through Shannon to one where our Minister for Foreign Affairs shrugged off US use of Shannon recently by saying, “Ireland is a natural and very convenient stopover for flights crossing the Atlantic on the way to parts of the Middle East”. No mention at all of the contradiction in a neutral country acting as a “convenient stopover” for belligerent troops on their way to and from imperialist wars of aggression in the Middle East.
Steps towards an EU army
We see something similar happening with our neutrality more broadly. Fine Gael are pushing their luck to see how far they can go. Earlier this year, of course, we had the government signing us up to PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation], a terrifying and unspeakably dangerous step towards an EU army.
But it is not just PESCO – it is arms exports to Saudi Arabia and EU Battlegroups; it is NATO warships in our ports and Irish ships in Operation Sophia; it is Department of Defence officials ambling around London arms fairs. It is our government planning to shell out €200 million on a multi-role ship capable of carrying a battalion of soldiers along with freight capacity for military vehicles at a time when the Irish Navy is drowning under the weight of a recruitment and retention crisis.
I think it is fair to say that for a government to have tried all of this back in 2003 would have been unthinkable. And that is why all of us who are dedicated to Irish neutrality, and dedicated to neutrality actually meaning something in practice, have to up our game. The Irish public is overwhelmingly behind our neutral status but there is a concentrated effort by some within the political and media establishment to nudge and massage them into accepting a completely attenuated version of that neutrality – one where joining military alliances and hosting a permanent US military airbase does not contradict it. We need to seize the momentum back. Because if we don’t act then those who are determined to destroy Irish neutrality once and for all will succeed. And once it’s gone, there is no getting it back.
Clare Daly is an independent socialist TD for Dublin Fingal. Visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @ClareDalyTD