As dawn rolled in over Ukraine ’s agrarian east on the morning of 24 February 2022, Russian infantry flooded across the border into the rural outpost of Milove. That morning, Irish citizen and Ukrainian soldier, Vadym, recalls that Europe woke up to a “new page in the history books”.
Dubliner on the Frontlines
Vadym, who first moved to Ireland with his wife in June of 2001, made a living as a painter in the Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown. He managed to forge what he described as a “comfortable life”. However, within 7 days of the first Russian boot treading on Ukrainian soil, the former Soviet soldier left behind his partner and children and made the journey to Poland by plane before crossing the border into his homeland.
When asked why he saw no other option but to take up arms against Putin’s army, the Irish citizen remarked, “It’s not hard to explain. First of all, what would you do if England invaded Ireland? Would you stand aside and watch women and children fight in your place? As a man, I cannot sit and watch this happen on TV, it’s just not me”.
Vadym, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, is based on the Eastern front, where the fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces is at its most intense. The conditions rarely amount to more than sheer squalor, with the muddy trench system akin to the infamous warfare of World War I. Speaking candidly about his experiences, he stated “you just can’t imagine what kind of life I am living now. You are under pressure every minute, you are scared every minute, you are constantly asking God to give you life for one more day.”
Despite the incessant fighting and daily death which surrounds him, the North Dublin painter remains in good spirits – “I try to be happy every day, because life is so, so short, shorter than you’d believe.. but what really helps is my 20 boys [military unit]. We feel patriotism and pride, in fighting for our country and its president”.
When asked about returning home to Ireland, Vadym declared that “this is a test for mankind. This is a test for real men. It is a new era for my country and Europe, and I will be a small piece of it. I will stay until we finish the job”.
Irish Combat Presence
Vadym is not the only Irish citizen to have left these shores for the violence and incomprehensible desolation of Ukraine’s Eastern front. Furthermore, in spite of official government figures which site the number of Irish citizens in combat within Ukraine at as low as 20, the number is almost certainly many multiples higher.
Speaking exclusively to the College Tribune, a source within the Ukrainian Foreign Legion confirmed that “as many as 10 Irish lads a week are enquiring about joining the Legion”. Whilst many of those considering joining the combat effort may not follow through past the initial point of contact, it is extremely likely that the number of Irish fighters in Ukraine far exceeds the official tally.
It is not just boots on the ground though which draw the topic of Ireland’s neutrality into contention, but rather the comments made by some of its most prominent political figures. In November, then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin remarked in the Dáil chamber that despite “Ireland’s official policy of being militarily non-aligned, we are, however, not politically non-aligned.” Meanwhile, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Simon Coveney, was quoted by opposition parties as saying “we were not neutral,” with regard to the bloodshed in Ukraine.
Cathal Berry TD interview
To further reinforce this distinctly non-neutral rhetoric, the Tribune spoke with Cathal Berry, Independent TD for Kildare South. Berry, who himself served 23 years in the Irish Defence Forces before his election to Dáil Eireann in 2020, insisted that Ireland must do more to support Ukraine in their fight against Russian aggression.
Berry was quick to offer his support to the Irish stance of neutrality around Ukraine, stating that “We are moderate like the climate here, in that we don’t lurch from one extreme to another. I am in favour of remaining with what has served Ireland well over the last hundred years.” However, he also voiced his belief that Ireland can do more to aid Ukraine, most notably his suggestion that Ireland should be “providing an air defence system as well as humanitarian aid due to the targeting of civilian infrastructure by the Russian Federation, which is a complete war crime.”
The former Army Ranger was more forthcoming though in his support of those trained Irish citizens who have raced to defend Ukraine. Berry stated that “There are some highly experienced military individuals out there, and fair play to them, that’s their choice and I have no problem with that at all. It can be a place for highly experienced, ex-professional soldiers who can make a significant contribution there and I’d have absolutely no issues with it if people have the appropriate skills”.
The Kildare South TD himself has travelled to Ukraine as part of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and has witnessed the sheer bedlam which the conflict has precipitated along the Polish border.
“There were refugees streaming over the border 24 hours a day. It was a humanitarian catastrophe. All the train stations, bus stations and airports were thronged with people”, Berry said speaking to the Tribune.
Ireland’s Obscured Neutrality
Again, these are quotes that the vast majority of the Irish populous would agree with. However, they clearly obfuscate the issue of Ireland’s already contentious neutrality even further. By supporting Ukrainian forces, to such an extent that Ireland is in favour of Irish citizens engaging in combat on the ground alongside millions of euro worth of non-lethal aid and the raft sanctions implemented upon the Russian government, there can surely be no argument that Ireland’s neutrality is now in name only.
So, in light of this overwhelming evidence concerning the issue of Ireland’s transparent Pro-Ukrainian stance, why does the Irish government continue to sit on the proverbial fence of neutrality? As a nation more than familiar with being subjected to the ploys of a colonial neighbour, Ireland of all countries should be taking centre stage -– in a diplomatic sense at least — when it comes to supporting the Ukrainian efforts in the war.
Many who favour the familiarity and “security” which Ireland’s historic position of neutrality brings would be quick to point out that Ireland would make such a minute difference militarily if at all. Given the frankly pitiful capabilities of our armed forces, it would simply be a waste of everyone’s time and resources. However, despite being a militarily insignificant nation, Ireland is one of great diplomatic and political importance.
We as a nation have stood so resolutely behind the white flag of neutrality, even throughout both World Wars, that if we were to now fully embrace our already explicit Pro-Ukrainian position it would send a clear message throughout Europe and the rest of the world as to what side holds the moral authority in this war.
To have Irish citizens endure the hellish combination of a Ukrainian winter and fighting Putin’s army and not even acknowledge the sheer extent of their efforts would be bordering on insolence on behalf of the Irish government. Upholding this neutrality any longer would certainly appear to be out of tradition rather than any sense of actuality or comprehension of the Ukrainian conflict.
Although largely symbolic in gesture, the ground-breaking removal of Ireland’s neutral status would be one which not only best fits the realities and extent of Irish involvement within the Pro-Ukrainian war effort; but, would also serve to honour those Irish citizens such as Vadym, who have fought to defend their homeland’s sovereignty.
If Ireland truly is committed to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s claims this month that Ireland “will help Ukraine for as long as it takes” both in a humanitarian and financial sense, then surely the government can afford the symbolic gesture of adopting a Pro-Ukrainian stance. If we cannot “stand resolutely” in name with Ukraine, then how can we “stand resolutely” in reality?
After a year at war, it is time to make the change.
Rory Fleming – Features Editor