Slán abhaile, Russia 

Occupation and partition are not the right answers in Ukraine, as they never were in Ireland, argues Paul Breen

Across the water in Northern Ireland, there are thousands of murals serving as a commentary on times past and present. Amongst them, there are several that bear the words Slán abhaile, meaning “safe home.”

This was a simple message directed at the British Army who were generally viewed in nationalist areas as an occupying force. Even if they’d allegedly come as peacekeepers, that was not how they were seen. History shows that you can’t win over a population by occupying their lands or by shooting civilians in the streets, as is happening in Ukraine right now. Ordinary people are suffering and being killed at an alarming rate, even those previously welcoming of Russian influence and culture.

Death and destruction is coming at us on our TV screens in such a way that we cannot help but be touched by the situation. Shortly before Russia’s invasion of February 2022, Channel 4 News covered a story of several teachers going about their lives in a Mariupol school. Last week, returning to the scene of that story, the channel’s reporters revealed that one of those teachers, Lyudmila Semernya, had died. Allegedly she was then buried in her back garden in the way that we might bury a family pet.

Though the deaths of teachers in Khan Yunis should horrify us as much as in Kyiv, it’s the post-death indignity that makes us all the more shocked. Ordinary people are expendable in the rush of Empires towards their own sense of self-greatness, as we know all too well in Ireland.  

Though there are clear differences in the geopolitical realities of Ireland and Ukraine, many similarities exist. The first is that a sense of Irish nationhood existed long before the Irish nation became a physical reality. As such, Russia’s argument that Ukraine is not a real country because it has never been independent for long is a patronising one.

Yet Putin’s manoeuvres in the name of protecting a Russian minority is not so radically different to Britain’s partitioning of Ireland as a means of ‘protecting’ a statistically similar 20% Protestant minority. And just like in Ireland, any partitioning of Ukraine signals a dark road ahead.

That’s not to say Northern Ireland ever experienced anything so violent as what’s happening in Ukraine. The wholesale destruction of towns and cities has been utterly barbaric. But if we keep going down this road of conflict without a way out, it’s going to stay just as brutal.

Right now, it’s hard to trust Russia and they obviously feel the same but somewhere along the way there will have to be conversations where solutions are reached beyond moving the Doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.   

Lessons from history show that there’s a lot of truth in the Chinese quotation that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. By just arming Ukraine and seeking to push Russia out militarily, are we just feeding them a fish? Surely, if we want to give them a lifetime of peace and national sovereignty, we have to push for a Slan Abhaile to the Russians. That doesn’t just mean saying goodbye to the army of occupation but ‘safe home’ in the other sense of the word too.

Somehow we need to make it possible for Russia to get out, without feeling the need to take a huge chunk of Ukraine’s territory and people with them. Then in another sense of the translation, Ukraine can be a safe home for all its citizens. We must do everything we can to encourage dialogue and demilitarisation. Through their own experience of fostering reconciliation, Ireland and Britain can play a part in shaping that conversation. Nation-building, not partition, is the key to resolving this, no matter how hard that seems right now.

If Ukraine is divided into two states, this will become another war without end, a European Kashmir in which the only winners are the arms’ dealers, just like the lawyers in a divorce. Russia’s alleged attempt to crush Ukrainian nationalism has proven to be a spectacular own goal. Through the killing of ordinary civilians such as teachers, they have taught us all why such wars need to be prevented before they even start.

Labour, as a Party and a movement, should focus on this as a policy. When this war is resolved, as it hopefully will be, we need to work ever harder to resolve all conflicts wherever they are happening in the world. Ukraine isn’t the first or only war taking place right now and it didn’t just start a few months back but it’s potentially the most deadly. Therefore, this isn’t a time for either whataboutery or getting sucked into jingoism. It’s about making sure the lessons of the past are not repeated and across the world from India to Ireland, partition has offered no real solutions.

The Ukrainian people deserve better and to begin with they deserve an immediate end to war, with their interests and nothing else shaping the agenda. Putin might think he’s scripting his name into history for eternity alongside those such as Napoleon and Stalin. But let’s hope in the long run, we create a world where it’s the likes of Lyudmila Semernya we remember better. Her death has taught us so much about her country’s fight for life and why we need to pay attention to the lessons of history. Somehow we need to find a means of de-escalation and stop this from spiralling into a state of endless war from now to midnight.

Paul Breen is a member of the Labour for Irish Unity executive

Image: c/o Mike Phipps

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