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'Ireland can't be a nodding duck': Howlin says Labour will push for end to US military use of Shannon

The Labour leader said inspections of US aircraft should be carried out.

US Vice President Mike Pence in Shannon Airport last week.
US Vice President Mike Pence in Shannon Airport last week.
Image: @PANationalGuard

LABOUR LEADER BRENDAN Howlin says if his party gets into government he will insist that inspections be carried out on all US military aircraft that land at Shannon Airport. 

The issue of Ireland’s neutrality was highlighted last week when US Vice President Mike Pence met with US troops during a stopover at Shannon Airport. 

Pence disembarked Air Force Two to meet the soldiers, who were on their way to Iraq, while they were also refuelling at the airport. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie for the general election podcast The Candidate, Howlin said the Labour Party would go head-to-head with President Donald Trump and end the use of Shannon for US military planes unless those troops were involved in UN-sanctioned military operations. 

“There are a lot of moral issues that are difficult and would have consequences. But we’ve said that, unless those troops were involved in a war or a mission that was sanctioned by the United Nations, we will not let them use Shannon. 

“I think most people agree with that in Ireland. We don’t want to have our neutrality compromised. Neutrality is something precious and positive,” he said, 

He added that if such a ban was to be brought in, it would mean that inspections of the aircraft that state they are on a mission sanctioned by the UN would need to be inspected.

“If we’re going to actually implement what we’re suggesting we’d have to have some sort of inspections,” he said. 

Concerns about the lack of inspections of US aircraft that land at Shannon have previously been raised in the Dáil by a number of TDs including former Independents 4 Change TD, now MEP, Clare Daly. She said that trusting the US government’s assertion that no arms or weapons are on board flights is not good enough and claimed the US military sees Ireland as almost an outpost of the US, rather than an independent, neutral state. 

Howlin said that Ireland’s neutrality should be positively utilised as a force for good.

“We’re currently campaigning for a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, but it has to be for a purpose, not to be a sort of nodding duck, but to actually challenge the strong and the mighty and make a moral case for it,” he said.

He acknowledged such a move would face significant push back from the US, but said the next government must do what it can to “morally change things for the better”.

“I believe most Irish people would argue for that,” he said. 

The Labour leader said his party would also initiate an open debate on how to renew and reinvigorate Ireland’s military neutrality, and would also question Ireland’s participation in Pesco – the EU’s permanent structured cooperation arrangement.

In 2017, the Dáil voted in favour of signing up to the pact, by 75 votes to 42. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael backed the motion.

TDs from numerous political parties recently raised concerns about the government trying to “ram” through a vote on Ireland joining the defence pact.

The plan raised concerns here that it could undermine Ireland’s neutrality.

Some argue Pesco is the first step towards an EU army, with its proposals such as inclusion in the European command centre, a network of logistic hubs across Europe and a creation of a European crisis response centre, as well as the joint training of military officers.

Labour and Sinn Féin

Before the Labour Party can put its fingerprints on any government policy-making, it will have to sidle up to other political parties after the election. 

Who might that be? Howlin said he will talk to Sinn Féin but said issues of taxation, and trust, mean there are very significant barriers to working with the party. 

While he said both parties have worked together on legislation, cooperation in government “is a different thing”.

“You can’t escape the issue of trust, and trust between parties is really important in the formation of government…  the issue of trust with Sinn Féin is real, who actually is calling the shots there?”

One thing they do agree on is a three-year rent freeze, one which Howlin maintains is not unconstitutional, as claimed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. 

He said former Labour minister Alan Kelly introduced a rent freeze in 2014, and there were no legal challenges. If there is a court challenge, the government should fight it, he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the judiciary would rule against that legislation.

“In the rare event that it wasn’t [the court case on a rent freeze] successful then we put it to the people, and change the constitution to give supremacy to the right of people to have a house,” he said. 

Howlin admitted that his party has made mistakes in the past, and he often questions if he could have fought harder against austerity measures. 

“We made promises in advance of that election that we weren’t able to fulfil… We had to make difficult decisions, we didn’t make always make the right decisions. And I regret what happened with Irish water for example.

“We made lots of mistakes,” he said. 

TheJournal.ie’s Election 2020 series of The Candidate will sit down with each party leader and put your questions, recorded by you, to them, to help you decide who to vote for on 8 February.

Subscribe to The Candidate now to catch our full interview with Brendan Howlin. 

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