Submarines were in the news recently, with the surprise announcement that Australia is to become a nuclear power. Commentators in Britain noted how “Brexit” was intended to allow a “pivot to the [Far] East” in diplomatic priorities, but if this shift is centred on Australia or, indeed, India, will this amount to a tail wagging a dog within the world of the British Commonwealth? Maybe not, if they are all nuclear powers.
A century ago, Michael Collins met Winston Churchill and one of the first questions he was asked was how many submarines Ireland wished to build. He replied that Ireland had absolutely no interest in “madcap” submarine technology. However, virtually all other countries did. Were Irish nationalists, therefore, thinking and acting like inhabitants of a ship in a bottle? Had they no concept of “the balance of power”?
About a decade ago, a scholar of international relations suggested that the Irish were preoccupied instead with “asymmetry of power”. Perhaps one could say that was another way of saying “the imbalance of power”.
The professed Irish desire for neutrality was largely an expression of Ireland’s desire not to fight “Britain’s wars”. British Commonwealth membership from 1922-48 did not overrule this policy for the Irish army. However, Ireland would not fight any other wars either. This was de Valera’s idea of “external association” with Britain. To other countries, however, it could appear that Ireland existed in the position of a British protectorate. Not only was the island effectively guarded from foreign powers by British naval and air forces via partition, but the Irish state also had no interest in assuming such responsibilities, which were deemed both prohibitively expensive and contrary to the Irish public’s desire for a demilitarised state. To Irish eyes, the extent to which partition governed options for the country was unsettling and often seen as an equivalent to a tail wagging a dog. Yet were the island a unitary and independent state its defence would require naval, air & ground resources far beyond what the Irish public were either accustomed to or perhaps ever likely to entertain. The two issues were not always associated but they certainly could have been.
One might wonder a century after the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1921 about its legacy. Yet one might be better thinking how specific agreements reflect only moments of time within a constantly evolving international order. My own book “A history of Ireland in international relations” treats the entire history of Ireland in that light.
The government’s “decade of centenaries” programme has treated events of a century ago as a question that is relevant to inter-community relations. As it draws to a close, perhaps it can begin to be seen as a question that is also relevant to international relations. Once framed internationally, the roots of imbalances of power can not only be identified but the causes of their growth, or decline, can also be better ascertained. The way countries evolve nationally is often dependent on what is occurring internationally.