Very soon after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Defence Minister Simon Coveney signaled that hundreds of Irish soldiers will soon be sent to Mali. This is a country the vast majority of Irish people know very little about, considering our state’s armed forces are going there. But what’s really bizarre is that the government’s statements have added absolutely nothing to our knowledge or understanding of the place. I’m not accusing them of lying about it either: they have simply said nothing about Mali at all.
Most people in Ireland remember the debates around the Lisbon Treaty, and how we rejected it the first time around partly because of a fear that it would tangle us up in European military adventures. Now Article 42.7 is being raised by the French government in a call to other EU countries to back up its attacks, proving that those fears, which establishment politicians sneered at, were entirely justified.
The Irish army has a handful of soldiers taking part in the UN mission in Mali already, but these moves following the attack on Paris represent a new departure. The idea is not to extend Irish UN peacekeeping commitments but simply to send more troops to Mali, with the openly-declared purpose of freeing up French resources. In fact, it needn’t even be Mali. “We’ll speak to France to see where we may be of assistance to them,” Coveney explained. One Irish Independent headline summed up the rationale for the plan: “Irish troops set for Africa to ease burden on France.” It hardly even matters what country in Africa.
Since our government’s complete indifference to Mali itself is striking, we need to make some basic points about the country, its history and its politics. The Tuareg minority in the north are a group that straddle several different countries in North Africa, and to one extent or another face persecution in all of them. Mali has seen wars and rebellions many times based on the fact that many Tuaregs strive for an independent republic called Azawad. In some ways they are comparable to the Kurds. This conflict is central to the present situation in Mali, as is the contrast between the very poor north and the relatively more prosperous south.
More generally, Mali’s history as part of the French Empire is indicated by its suspiciously ruler-straight borders. France was a brutal and exploitative conqueror in Mali, just like elsewhere. Of course, imperialism didn’t end with formal independence: Mali’s economy remains desperately underdeveloped and dependent on foreign capital that comes in with strings attached. Other countries, including France, look enviously on it as a source of gold and uranium.
The utter misery, underdevelopment and dependence of the country, the failure of its ruling class to provide for its people, and the yearning for independence of its Tuareg minority are reflected in Mali’s violent and turbulent history and in its present situation. We see coups and counter-coups, rebellions and insurgencies. What the “international community” regards as its government is just one faction that has been unable to unify the country or guarantee basic security even after a military victory aided by France in 2013. The near-collapse that led to the invasion was a result of the above factors, but more directly it was caused by the catastrophe in Libya, which was brought about by an intervention which the French government helped to lead. This last point alone should call into question how sensible it is to help France in its military adventures around the world.
I don’t claim to know a huge amount about the politics or history of Mali. This article has contained a meagre three paragraphs outlining some points that need to be explored and addressed a lot further. But that’s three paragraphs more than we have gotten from any Irish government minister. They have been happy to talk about France, but not so happy to talk about the country they will actually be sending armed representatives of the state into.
Bizarrely, Coveney justified the plan as “the least we could do.” This is something we mutter while clasping the hand of a bereaved friend at a funeral when they thank us for coming. It’s not something we say when we’re explaining why we’re sending soldiers to a distant country. It’s as if the whole mission is being undertaken just to console France: change your profiler to a tricolour, tweet “#jesuisparis”, and while you’re at it, send the army to a country most of us can’t place on a map.
People’s genuine shock and horror at the attacks is being cynically abused to convince us to walk a little further down the road the Lisbon Treaty pulled us a few paces down. That road leads to a situation where Ireland sends young men and women to die and be maimed in imperialist wars in distant countries.
Coveney has insisted that claiming that this violates Irish neutrality is a “contradiction,” because it’s a peacekeeping mission. In fact there is a contradiction, but it’s Coveney who’s on the wrong end of it: he’s openly saying we’re in it to help France, then he’s covering himself by saying we’re in it for the peacekeeping. The facts are that France has material interests and an imperial history in the country, and that we’re choosing this over other missions, explicitly to free up France to bomb Syria.
We need to recognize this as an important moment in the history of the Irish Defence Forces and Irish foreign policy. It was not unexpected, but it is significant. This is not just chipping in to a UN peacekeeping mission, as the army has done many times before: our government is consciously and openly taking up this task in order to help France bomb Syria, which they believe will somehow make the world a happier place.
Most of us don’t know enough about Mali to make a sound judgement about whether we’re helping or harming the people there with the presence of our state’s army; a quick look at the issues should give us plenty of reasons to worry; the absolutely criminal and disastrous history of the “War on Terror” should make us more than wary of getting involved; but sure, it’s the least we could do.
By Manus Lenihan