Nothing remotely progressive about neutrality

Defending neutrality

What are so-called socialists doing upholding the foreign policy of their ‘own’ bourgeois state? Anne McShane upholds the principles of international socialism

Recently, in June 2023, the Irish Neutrality League completed a series of ‘People’s forums’: Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Besides the veteran Bernadette McAliskey (appearing via Zoom), other speakers included Richard Boyd Barrett (People Before Profit TD), Catherine Connolly (independent TD), Mairead Farrell (Sinn Féin TD), Frances Black (independent senator), Carol Fox of the Peace and Neutrality League (PANA) and Dublin councillor Daithí Doolan (Sinn Féin). Amongst those hosting the events were Action for Ireland (Afri), Irish Anti-War Movement and the Irish Network for Non-Violent Action.

Formed in September 2022 the Irish Neutrality League is a “broad-based umbrella group” according to PBP. In other words, one of those unpopular popular fronts, where the left allows nationalist and pacifist forces to set the political agenda.

Let us take a look at the INL’s main component parts. PBP, well, its dominant Socialist Worker Network, is aligned with the International Socialist Tendency headed by Alex Callinicos in London. Despite that, or because of that, PBP dreams of entering a Sinn Féin government as a junior partner. A well-trod path that sees leftwingers of yesterday become today’s responsible statesmen.

Then there is PANA. Established in 1996 as a front for the ‘official’ Communist Party of Ireland it advocates “an independent Irish foreign policy, maintain Irish neutrality and promote a transformed United Nations as the organisation through which Ireland should pursue its security concerns”. Indeed the CPI’s latest political resolution declares that “CPI affirms the sovereign right of nations to self-determination without external interference and supports a broad, UN-based order of sovereign states underpinned by international law”.1 Afri similarly states that it is “guided by the primary goal of the UN Charter: ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’”.

And then to Sinn Féin. Its spokesperson on foreign affairs and defence, Matt Carthy TD, made a submission to a recent government forum on International Security Policy (held to provide a veneer of public engagement around its project of closer cooperation with Nato). In it he confirmed SF’s commitment to an “independent foreign policy and military neutrality” and called for a referendum to enshrine military neutrality in the constitution. This, Carthy declared, is not isolationism;

On the contrary, as is rightly the case with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our position as a neutral country provides a strong platform on which to identify breaches of international law, occupation, annexation and military aggression when they present. Nor does it mean that Ireland cannot take actions in response to such aggression and breaches of international law. Ireland can and should advocate for sanctions, diplomatic and economic, seek to amend trading relationships and provide non-lethal and humanitarian supports to states who are the victims of such actions.

So SF does support war. Sanctions are invariably the first weapons of war, and impact the working class of that country, who lose jobs and see prices rocket, as capitalists relocate to safer pastures (witness the current flight of the Russian oligarchs on ‘ghost planes’ to Dubai). And SF has also pledged “non-lethal” backup to war efforts - exactly what the Irish government is currently providing to Ukraine.

The same Matt Carthy was reported in the Irish Times on May 13 as having stated that, if in government, SF would not automatically withdraw from any existing arrangements made with Nato, including involvement with Pesco and Partnership for Peace - two Nato fronts. He stated that “we will not withdraw Irish defence forces from pre-committed operations and exercises” and any future initiatives would be judged based on the principles and opportunities that neutrality provides.2

PBP responded with feigned alarm: “If this is not true, Sinn Féin should come out and strongly deny the Irish Times reports. If they do not, this is a grave retreat from genuine neutrality.”3 But neither Carthy nor SF has resiled from this statement, which was clearly deliberately made to reassure the European Union and Nato that it presents no threat to the established order.


The INL, which styles itself on the organisation of the same name established in 1914, states in its pledge: “We define Irish neutrality as non-participation in wars and military alliances, as set out in the 1907 Hague Convention V, and as the positive engagement in the peaceful, non-military resolution of political conflicts.”4 Therefore it is for the peaceful coexistence of capitalist states. It follows that the majority explicitly espouse the virtues of the UN, which is presented as a force for good, acting in the interests of “international law” (itself code for peace).

But reality tells a very different story. The UN has a long and bloody history of voting for wars and sanctions. The first Iraq war was launched by UN resolution in 1991. A devastating attack, as so-called ‘smart bombs’ rained down on Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, resulting in a death toll of more than 50,000. Sanctions followed, including the deadly 1997 ‘Oil for food’ programme. The UN ‘peace missions’, of which there are currently 12 in operation, are designed to ensure that the imperialist world order is sustained. The US has enormous power over the UN and its decision-making and global programmes, including the awarding of contracts, education programmes and women’s rights. A cursory glance at its record will show it is a deeply partisan body, and certainly not a humanitarian one.

SF is clear that it wants Ireland to play a part on the world stage. “Military neutrality” means not sending soldiers to fight, but anything else is just fine - including being involved in the military training of Nato-approved armies.

But what of the so-called left? The CPI still pays lip service to Marxism. The same goes for SWN. One of its leaders, Kieran Allen, wrote a piece on the relevance of James Connolly’s attitude to World War I in March 2022. He argued that:

James Connolly was aligned with a small number of revolutionaries who argued that ending war could only be achieved by the overthrow of capitalist rule. Lenin argued for revolutionary defeatism, Karl Liebknecht that the “main enemy is at home”, while Connolly put it more bluntly, writing that “The signal of war ought to have been the signal of rebellion … when the bugle sounded the first note of actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution.”5

This same Lenin also argued that there should be no concessions made to the myth concerning the ‘neutrality’ of small nations in such circumstances. In early 1917 he wrote opposing the Swiss social-patriot assertion that “We Swiss are defending our neutrality: we have stationed troops on our boundaries for the express purpose of avoiding participation in this robber war!”6 This, he argued, was perpetuating a deceit by presenting the Swiss bourgeoisie as genuinely independent from the rest of the capitalist world order and in some way democratic:

Swiss banking capital is intimately associated and intertwined with the banking capital of the great powers … Moreover, Switzerland has reached a much higher level of capitalist development than Romania and Bulgaria. There can be no question whatever of a popular ‘national’ movement in Switzerland: that period in its historical development ended many centuries ago.7

In contrast to Lenin, Boyd Barrett very definitely adopted the position of the Swiss social patriots in an article in March 2022. In it he argued strongly that Ireland had to remain neutral in the new circumstances of war - “the idea that the invasion of Ukraine, monstrous as it is, requires Ireland to reconsider its neutrality makes no sense”.8 This was despite the fact that the Irish political establishment has “succeeded in ensuring that in terms of actual policy Ireland has always operated firmly in the camp of US imperialism”. And now the government is trying to further undermine popular support for neutrality: “Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown big majorities in favour of neutrality and not subordinating Ireland to the Nato war machine.”


Boyd Barrett believes that “retaining a position of neutrality is vital”, as “potentially it gives Ireland a platform to give a positive political lead in the world”. He gives the expulsion of the Israeli and Russian ambassadors by a future left government as something which would “send an enormously powerful statement against imperialist occupation and oppression around the world”. Those who question his strategy, who say that “Irish neutrality has already been so eroded that it is not worth defending any more”, miss the point. For Boyd Barrett,

Even the fig leaf of neutrality that still exists does constrain our political establishment to some degree, which is why they would like to get rid of it. Moreover, a successful people power campaign to defend it would offer the potential to make the neutrality much more real.

The idea that Ireland has ever been neutral is blatant nonsense. Since its adoption as a political position by Éamon de Valera at the outset of World War II, it was never more than a masquerade. At the time it had a lot to do with the fact that blatant support for the British military might have stirred up republican opposition. But Ireland has always been politically in the pay of imperialism - British and US.

The Irish state’s participation in the Ukraine war and its ever-increasing involvement in Nato does need to be opposed. But not by calling for the government to comply with a policy of neutrality that has never existed. Or to create illusions in SF as a benign force, when it has made it clear that it supports international imperialism’s current adventures.

This campaign for ‘neutrality’ is a form of small-nation patriotism. Internationalism is replaced by a nationalism founded on myths and lies. Those members of the PBP who still consider themselves Marxists should rebel.

  1. communistparty.ie/en/policies-documents/political-resolution-of-the-26th-national-congress.↩︎

  2. www.irishtimes.com/politics/2023/05/13/sinn-fein-drops-pledges-to-withdraw-from-eu-and-nato-defence-arrangements.↩︎

  3. www.pbp.ie/defend-neutrality-but-where-does-sinn-fein-stand.↩︎

  4. neutrality.ie/pledge.↩︎

  5. www.rebelnews.ie/2022/03/22/james-connolly-and-war.↩︎

  6. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jan/00c.htm.↩︎

  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jan/00c.htm.↩︎

  8. www.rebelnews.ie/2022/03/06/defend-irish-neutrality.↩︎