Brendan Hoban: We cannot be neutral in this outrageous war   

We cannot be neutral in this outrageous war                     

Western People 22.3.2022


Atrocity after atrocity after atrocity. Just when it appears as if there’s a smidgeon of hope in the far distance, yet another atrocity reminds us that the people of Ukraine are still mired in an uneven conflict, not of their making. Innocent bystanders. Suffering senselessly. Hapless victims of Putin’s ambition to leave his mark on history. He already has, of course, though not as he imagined it would be. Or, as he would like it to be.

Putin is no hero. Just another dictator in a long line of autocrats, tyrants who conspired to oppress their own people and who will be catalogued forever in the same dustbin of history as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

As I write some are attempting to put a positive gloss on the possibility of a breakthrough in peace negotiations but the news tells a different story.

As I write several of today’s papers report on the deaths of a pregnant woman and her unborn baby ­– who last week were removed from the shattered remains of a bombed maternity hospital; on Twitter there’s a stunning picture of thousands kneeling in a Polish Street praying the Rosary for Ukraine; and every night our television screens are full of indescribable scenes with Russian bombs targeting those (mainly men) left in Ukrainian cities while their wives and children look on from the relative safety of foreign lands. It would, as we say, draw tears from a stone.

How can this nightmare be allowed to happen? More pertinently, how can it be stopped?

Nato, with resources ever-ready to clear the sky over Ukraine, feels impelled not to intervene in case they set off World War III. Others cling grimly to a convenient concept called ‘neutrality’, that at once enables them to do nothing while imagining that they hold the higher ground.

So, incongruously, India and Pakistan unusually found themselves on the same side as Putin in refusing to vote against Russia in the UN as they tried to put a public relations gloss on their decision when everyone knows that the real cause is their dependence on Russian oil and gas. But Switzerland, so long identified with a policy of resolute neutrality, publicly joined the imposition of sanctions.

Thankfully, Micheál Martin and Simon Coveney spared Ireland’s blushes early on by naming the moral imperative – the obvious difference between right and wrong ­– and by recognising that while neutrality may have something to be said for it, there’s no such thing as being neutral when confronted with indisputable evil.

In other words, it’s not possible to be neutral when right is on one side and might without right is on the other side. Or as the late Archbishop Tutu put it so graphically once: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality’. Or as a columnist in the London Times, Clare Foges, put it recently: ‘We must recognise the bleeding obvious – you cannot be neutral in a war as asymmetrical, aggressive and repulsive as this one’.

On the sidelines of Putin’s outrageous war, there was something almost comical about efforts by some of our smaller political parties to distance themselves from Russia, when heretofore they carried a flame – insignificant though it often was – for Putin.

Sinn Féin was among them, as usual holding a wet finger in the air to determine what way the wind was blowing, and removing systematically from their website over the last few weeks (among others statements) Sinn Féin’s previous positions on Russia.

An example was Mary Lou McDonald’s criticism of the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, for expelling a Russian diplomat over the poisoning of two people in Salisbury in England. Mary Lou’s penchant for garnishing her public statements with a bit of sulphur in the hope of embellishing her revolutionary image are now part of the 2,729 pages being excised from the Sinn Féin web-site in order to burnish her image in the expectation of high office. Burning the evidence.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are left with a series of conundrums to ponder. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history but isn’t there something a bit demeaning about cheering on the Ukrainians while at the same time not really doing much to help them – like the former owner of a beautiful pair of red cherry high heels who gifted them in a black canvas bag as part of a contribution to the war effort in Ukraine.

Is it acceptable to urge the Ukrainians on when we’re not too sure that we would do what they’re doing or even wonder if the risk they are taking is really worth the price they’re paying? Are we becoming so inoculated to the sheer awfulness of this war that we are almost relegating it to the level of a spectator sport? What depths of trauma will remain for millions of people after Putin’s legacy to posterity and how can it all possibly be dealt with? And what images will haunt us in years to come?

In 2015, Alan Kurdi was a three-year Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background whose body was washed up from the Mediterranean Sea. John F. Deane’s poem, Refugee, helps is to remember that compelling image, lest we forget:


This, then, is the Christ.

They named him Alan, Alan Kurdi.

He is three years old.


Red T-shirt, short-sleeved;

Navy-blue shorts, shoes navy-blue.

He has been washed ashore.


He lies, face down, on the wet shingles.

He is helpless; he has been helpless

All his life. He was obedient


In everything.

He was lifted aboard a crowded dinghy.

He had few words.


He is the word.

In him all things were created. And in him

All things hold together.










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