When HMS Biter, Charger and Pursuer docked at Irish Naval Service (INS) headquarters last Tuesday, they made history. It was under-reported, but these Royal Navy patrol and training ships were the first British naval vessels to dock at Haulbowline Island in 80 years. None have do so since Haulbowline was handed back to the Irish Free State, alongside its neighbouring Spike Island – the first of the so-called Treaty Ports to be returned.
While not a Treaty Port itself, Haulbowline was named in the treaty as the Royal Navy claimed its use for nonexclusive fuel storage. The island hadn’t seen an official British vessel since July of 1938 until last week, when Biter, Charger and Pursuer spent almost 24 hours in its docks. As Mark Malone of the Sound Migration blog was the first to point out, the ships arrived around lunchtime on Tuesday, 27th March and remained berthed until around 8AM the next morning, when they left for the nearby Port of Waterford. On the phone to the Royal Navy’s press office, I was told that the vessels were most likely on patrol, but the long berth was not explained and a further email requesting more information received no response. The only news report on the visit says that it was part of a squadron tour.
So why is this important? Well, the Treaty Ports – and British ships staying the fuck away from them – has long been a symbol of Irish independence from its former colonial oppressor.
The Treaty Ports – Lough Swilly in Donegal, Spike Island and Berehaven in Cork – were retained by the UK as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the Irish War of Independence in 1921. But, in 1938, they were returned to Ireland as the Free State and the United Kingdom wound down the economic tit-for-tat known as the Anglo-Irish Trade War.
With war against Germany firmly on the way, Winston Churchill, then in opposition, asked the House of Commons, "What guarantee have you that Southern Ireland… will not declare neutrality if we are engaged in war with some powerful nation?" When World War II eventually came, his suspicions were proved correct. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera established Ireland’s ports as proxies for the fledgling Free State’s neutrality and independent foreign policy by refusing to allow allied forces the use of the Treaty Ports. This led to convoys from North America being routed via Iceland to Northern Ireland. As it turned out, this left them less susceptible to German anti-shipping air attacks, but Ireland had used its ports in a show of independence.
The reappearance of Royal Navy vessels at Haulbowline happened on the same day as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement that Ireland would expel one Russian diplomat as "an act of solidarity" with the UK after the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. This is unnerving for anyone invested in Ireland’s longstanding, almost Swiss-levels, of neutrality on the world stage.
The now-reciprocated expulsion is the first in the history of the Irish state to be done on the basis of foreign intelligence. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald questioned the wisdom of the Irish government being asked to "trust Boris Johnson", which seems prescient now that Porton Down has confirmed it did not definitively identify the source of the nerve agent used on the Skripals. The fact that Royal Navy ships turned up to neutral Irish ports for the first time in 80 years is at best a badly-timed coincidence, and at worst a further indication that Irish neutrality is a thing of the past.
Richard Boyd Barrett of the Solidarity-People Before Profit party probed the consistency of the government’s approach, saying that his request to call in the Russian ambassador over the use of chemical weapons in Syria had been ignored.
Varadkar had to double down on Ireland’s neutrality following the expulsion, saying, "Ireland is a neutral country, we do not join military alliances, we will not be joining Nato, we will not be part of a European army." But he also said that when it comes to "terrorism, assassinations… chemical weapons and cyber terrorism, we are not neutral one bit". This would hold more weight if he had taken any action when it was discovered that MI5 had attempted to orchestrate the assassination of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, or if the state had ever pressured the British government to release the documents they withheld from Henry Barron’s inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May of 1974.
It would appear that Varadkar has regressed after a strong showing against the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party during negotiations over the status of the Irish border after Brexit. Having previously followed a kowtowing policy of deference to more powerful countries, Varadkar’s rush to join the more than 20 nations expelling Russian diplomats would infer that his stand over the border was only possible thanks to the "unconditional support" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ireland has been neutral to a fault in the past – de Valera famously sent condolences to the German ambassador after Hitler's death – but it is a policy that has largely kept it out of British and American power struggles with both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. The vestige of neutrality has been slowly stripped away by tacit endorsements of dominant western foreign policy such as PESCO membership, involvement in NATO’s Partnership for Peace – but not NATO itself – and the continuing use of Shannon Airport by American military personnel.
Aside from the border issue, Varadkar has sought to cosy up to a Tory government that seems intent on stoking tensions with Russia; the diplomat’s expulsion being the most explicit indication yet that any notion of Irish neutrality will soon die out. The fact that the only coverage of the concurrent historic visit of the Royal Navy to Irish Naval HQ was the Afloat report, an INS Facebook post and a statement by a local Workers’ Party councillor makes it seem like it could happen quietly.