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Lemass commemoration

We had magnificent weather in Deansgrange cemetery for the annual Sean Lemass commemoration. He and his wife Kathleen are buried under a very modest headstone in keeping with his generally ascetic lifestyle.

I made a few remarks at the event on Lemass and Europe.

For many Irish revolutionaries, the main attraction of the EEC was that it was not the UK. It was an antidote and a counterweight.

But Lemass saw the potential not just for Irish sovereignty but also for Europe in general.

As early as 1929 he advocated the creation of a United States of Europe.

Lemass was always open to dismantling long held policies and to revisiting taboos whether it was his approach to the EEC, Northern Ireland or the UK. The EEC provided for him the necessary prequel to achieving unity on the island. Brexit and the continuing battle over the protocol bear this out vividly.

As Tom Garvin wrote in his biography, “Due in large part to Lemass’s almost prophetic insight of a generation previously, the Irish were far more accepting of the idea of Europe as the future than the British were.”

Lemass would recognise today’s Foreign and European policy as ones that he sketched out six decades ago.

When Lemass’s government approved the first deployment of Irish troops overseas in 1960, he started a peacekeeping tradition that continues to the present day including the Irish government sponsoring the first ever UN Security Council resolution on peacekeeping last year.

When Lemass’s government developed Ireland’s key role in the creation of the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), a thread of foreign policy began which led to Ireland being one of just three EU member states attending at the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in March this year.

On security and defence however his approach did not become policy. He famously felt that if the EEC was worth having it was worth defending. As far as European defence was concerned he recognised “that a military commitment would be an inevitable consequence of joining the Common Market and that ultimately Ireland would be prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality”.

It would be foolish to speculate about what Lemass would think of this or that current policy issue. But it is clear that he instinctively opted for involvement over isolation.

In a speech in Rockwell College in 1960, in remarks about the Cold War, he said, “in the ideological conflict which has divided mankind into two opposing camps there is no neutrality, and we are not neutral. In this struggle the concept of neutralism, positive or negative, is a dangerous illusion.” And just to remind you, he was Taoiseach at the time.

I believe that we need to abandon the ‘triple lock’ that outsources decisions on foreign policy to the UNSC. I have just come back from New York and three days of meetings in the UN and let me be absolutely clear; despite positive notes like the resolution I mentioned earlier, the UNSC is no longer fit for purpose and it is madness to allow this body to be the final arbiter on whether we deploy our troops to trouble spots around the world.

We also need to revisit the constitutional block on EU Common Defence. If we were attacked, we would expect our EU colleagues to come to our aid. Our constitution makes it very difficult for us to reciprocate.

As Lemass told his audience in Rockwell in 1960, “in the final analysis, the fate of mankind will be our fate also.” In the same way, the fate of Ukraine is the fate of Europe.

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