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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 18 Dec 1981

Vol. 96 No. 17

Situation in Poland: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann takes note of the present situation in Poland.

This motion was tabled because concern was expressed earlier today from all sides of this House. I believe this concern echoes that of the Irish people about developments in Poland, a country with which we feel a special affinity not only because it is fundamentally an agricultural nation but because of its religious ethos so similar to our own.

It is at times like this it is brought home to us how high a value we should place on our hard-won system of parliamentary democracy. This painful struggle in a country which has had too much suffering already in this century grieves all of us who must witness it, as we do daily on our television screens and in our newspapers. I am sure that in raising this matter today we all earnestly hope ways will be found to bring the Polish nation safely through this saddening and apparently deepening crisis.

I second the motion.

The Government, together with their partners in the European Community, are following events in Poland closely and with deep concern. Following a discussion of the situation by the Foreign Ministers of the Ten during their London meeting, a statement was issued last Tuesday in the following terms:

The Foreign Ministers of the member states of the European Community are concerned at the development of the situation in Poland and the imposition of martial law and the detention of trade unionists. They have profound sympathy for the Polish people in this tense and difficult time. They look to all signatories of the Helsinki Final Act to refrain from any interference in the internal affairs of the Polish People's Republic. They look to Poland to solve these problems herself and without the use of force, so that the process of reform and renewal can continue.

Foreign Ministers of the Ten are continuing to follow events in Poland with particular attention, and agreed to remain in close consultation on this question.

We in Ireland have always felt a special kinship with the Polish people whose history and traditions have so many parallels with our own. For this reason the Irish people feel with a particular keenness the general anxiety concerning recent developments in Poland.

The concern in the past few days was added to by the scarcity of direct information from the scene. As you will be aware, official Polish radio broadcasts yesterday confirmed that seven workers had been killed in clashes in Katowice. These deaths can only be seen as a tragic aggravation of a situation which has already brought Poland to the brink of economic and civil disaster.

In the tense conditions of Poland today, it is imperative that those who have assumed primary responsibility for the maintenance of order and who wield the instruments of power should show the utmost restraint. There is also heavy responsibility on the Polish authorities to respect basic human rights and freedoms in the most concrete way by not violating these rights in the defence of order. It is of the greatest importance that the Polish people themselves should be allowed to resolve their internal social and political conflicts without interference or the threat of coercion from outside. It is evident that the trial facing the Polish people is extremely difficult, but the task of restoring social peace and civic unity to Poland will only be achieved in an enduring way by a return to negotiation and reconciliation in which all elements of the Polish nation must be allowed to play their part. This aim will not be served by large-scale official repression and violence.

As I speak, the Review meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe is in session in Madrid. Virtually all the countries of Europe, including Poland, are represented there. The Helsinki Final Act, with which that Conference is concerned, contains a set of principles and a programme for action to which all the member states have given their solemn commitment. The Final Act contains specific provisions with regard to human rights and fundamental freedoms which all states acknowledged should form the basis for a more secure and better life for all the peoples in Europe. It is crucial to the future of the enterprise undertaken in Helsinki and for the credibility of detente in Europe that Poland be allowed to resolve its problems peacefully and without the use of force.

The Irish delegation to the Madrid Conference will speak later today to stress on behalf of the Government the concern with which we view events in Poland and to reiterate the sentiments which we all share.

The Government have already, through the EEC, provided a substantial amount of food aid to Poland and are concerned to ensure that this aid reaches the Polish people. They are prepared to facilitate fully the efforts of non-governmental organisations in channelling food, medical and other humanitarian assistance to Poland.

We are deeply distressed by the situation which has evolved in Poland in the past few days. We have many things in common with the Polish people. I know we say that about many countries but I think in regard to Poland it is particularly true. Because we have so many affinities with them we are in a position to appreciate the position they are in at the moment, to sympathise with them and to feel for the crisis in which they are involved. It is particularly sad that it should have happened at this time. It would have been critical and very sad at any time but in the Christmas season for a nation to whom Christmas means so much, for a country which has a deep religious feeling and for whom this season is of particular importance, it is particularly sad that it should have happened to them at this time.

We have watched with admiration the struggle by the Polish people, by Solidarity, in recent months against doctrinaire policies, restrictive measures and particularly against the dead hand of Communist administration. We have watched with admiration the struggle they have made to introduce at least an element of democracy into the Polish system. All of us I am sure, hoped that that struggle would be successful and peaceful.

The Minister has stressed that our policy must be one of advocating non-interference by the USSR and indeed by any other country and I fully support that policy. Obviously, we cannot interfere ourselves. It would be quite wrong for the European Community to interfere and, of course, most of all it is imperative that the USSR be discouraged from making any attempt to interfere. This is a matter for the Polish people. They must be allowed to resolve it in accordance with their own methods and views of how it should be resolved.

A great deal has been achieved by the struggle in recent months. We have been told by the present Polish Government that most of these achievements will be maintained, that there is going to be no effort to go back to the situation that existed before Solidarity came to take action. I hope this pledge will be honoured and realised and that the struggle so far will not have been in vain. All we can do is to hope and pray that the struggle, the sacrifice and the efforts that were made will have a successful and a peaceful outcome. Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with the Polish people at this time.

The tragic details filtering out of Poland since the military clamp-down call for an urgent and sustained response from Ireland and elsewhere in the free world. On behalf of the Labour group I join with the other groups in this House and with bodies such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in condemning the military take-over and calling for the immediate release of the many thousands interned since last Sunday.

For most of us it is frightening to witness how ruthlessly a popular movement can be crushed by military power and how effectively a total media black-out can be imposed even in the eighties, the age of sophisticated telecommunications. However, as news has leaked out, it has only confirmed the worst fears: the deaths of at least seven miners in Silesia, hundreds injured in the course of struggies between the soldiers and workers or students in various Polish cities, and, ominously, the arrest and internment of as many as 49,000 Polish people in the space of five days. These unfortunate people who are interned have been herded into two enormous concentration camps — one apparently outside Warsaw and the other in Gdansk — where they endure appalling conditions in sub-zero temperatures and are isolated from their families.

But words and expressions of sympathy are cheap. A more sustained effort and structured support from the West towards the Polish people are needed at this critical time. Before the military take-over, and the purported justification for that take-over, Poland was collapsing under the combination of enormous foreign debt and gross inefficiency in the Government's administration. The consequence for the ordinary people there was chaos: serious food shortages in the cities, lack of basic essentials in the shops, confusion and frustration everywhere. The West responded by sending food parcels and other essential items in. Western banks were discussing ways and means of rolling over the overdue interest charges and the debt of somewhere in the region of 2.4 billion dollars falling due for repayment in 1981.

Now the United States administration appears to be adopting a hardline approach on further supplies of food aid and the US banks seem to be emulating this with a similar hardline stance on debt repayments. How can this help a beleaguered people and a collapsing economy? Is it not likely to lead to more repression and, thereby, to increase the prospect of Soviet intervention, with terrible potential consequences for peace and stability in the world?

Ireland must use her voice and influence within the European Community, particularly in the context of European political co-operation, to urge a more flexible and humane response to developments in Poland. This includes practical help both in the provision of food aid and other essential help to the Polish people, and also on working out arrangements for servicing the huge Polish debt to enable that economy to be stabilised.

At such a critical time — when lives literally are at stake — we must be careful not to raise false expectations of western intervention, as happened with tragic consequences in Hungary in 1956. But neither must we threaten such severe economic sanctions that we precipitate worse repression internally and increase the prospect of direct Soviet intervention. We should support the Polish community, the Red Cross and other agencies in this country in sending vital food and necessities to Poland. We should work towards a collective European response which is more flexible, more mature and more humane than the stance presently adopted by the US administration.

It is fair to say that there will be less joy at Christmas than usual this year in Ireland because of our own problems on this island. But now we share the agony of the Polish people with whom we have, as has been mentioned, such affinity and links and a somewhat similar historical experience. They must have not just our sympathy but our sustained support. The opportunity to discuss our concern in this House forms part of that response. I would like on behalf of the Labour group to express my gratitude to the Minister for consenting to be present in the House today so that we could express our collective concern.

I share the expressions of concern at the grave situation in Poland. Just now in the news it was reported that the Austrian Chancellor described it as the gravest crisis yet to threaten European and world peace. On that score alone this motion is timely and I, too, appreciate the Minister's statement and presence in the House.

I am speaking for a certain strand of public opinion. I am not so sure I am speaking for my fellow Independent Senators because the definition of an Independent is, of course, that he is independent of other Independents. I share the general sentiments, though not some of the loaded political emphasis, in the contributions I have heard. It is true that there are historic affinities between Ireland and Poland. In fact, it is of interest that 19th-century observers, political scientists and national philosophers found the comparison between Ireland and Poland even from the early 19th-century a striking one. It is not necessary to labour the details of the comparison. The affinity is there and we share it. It was good to read that Ireland has shared in the general attempt to bring relief to the Polish people in terms of economic aid and the supply of credits for the purchase of intervention beef and so on. As Senator Robinson says, we want more of this kind of thing.

I am not so sure that we should go beyond that. I am not so sure that we should lecture the Polish Government at present or that we should confidently express opinions about what should or should not be done in what is, after all, an internal affair. Despite all the predictions of the hawks, the Soviet Union has not intervened in the past 18 months. Indeed, it seems to me that the Soviet Union should be given due credit for its prudence at least, if nothing else, in not intervening.

The west has not been without fault in the past 18 months in its attitude to the Polish crisis. Unfounded hopes had been raised. There has somehow been the vague suggestion that Poland can be converted into a western-style democracy. Certain hard realities have to be faced. It may be possible to give socialism, indeed it is to be hoped that socialism will be given a more human face in Poland and elsewhere in the eastern world, but the Polish Government — and again I cite the RTE news I have just heard — have made it clear that socialism will not be undermined in Poland. Senator Ryan referred to the hope that the struggle of Solidarity and so on over the past year or so would not be in vain. A number of people in Poland would take the view that there has been a longer struggle to establish socialism in Poland and its fellow-countries in the eastern bloc and that that struggle is not going to be in vain.

These are realities which perhaps appear unfamiliar from this particular perspective on the fringe of western Europe but nonetheless they are realities. I believe that the western press and western governments have been somewhat irresponsible, if you like, in raising unfounded hopes and in inflating the crisis in almost daily predicting intervention by the Soviet Union. That kind of self-fulfilling scaremongering cannot but aggravate the crisis.

I may say also that the concern for free trade unions came from some surprising quarters over the past 18 months; I mean from administrations like that of President Reagan, who is no lover of trade unions, free or otherwise, and indeed from some domestic opinion here, the same kind of opinion which says that trade unions should be put in their place, that they are getting above themselves and so on but who are full of enthusiasm for Solidarity in Poland. There are certain anomalies and contradictions in our attitude towards these matters. We should keep in mind that not only are the Poles going through their own agony but that they are a pawn in the east-west struggle also. The Soviet Union is not the only interferer: it is the most obvious interferer but it is not the only interferer in the situation.

I would like to quote from the Taoiseach's speech which was published in the Eighteenth Report on the Developments in the European Communities which we began to discuss yesterday. The Taoiseach recalls how the European Council in Luxembourg a year ago stated that:

The Polish people should be free to face their internal problems in a peaceful manner and without outside interference. Any other attitude would have very serious consequences not only for Poland but for the world.

I could not agree more but surely those words are capable of more than one meaning? That they "should be free to face their internal problems without outside interference" applies all around and very much so. That is what we should keep in mind today and that is also why I am happy that the motion is phrased in this neutral manner. There is, indeed, little more that we can do in this House than take note of the present situation in Poland. It would be very ill-advised of us to pontificate on the complex dimensions of the problem in Poland, as ill-advised, let us say, as it would be for a Polish legislative assembly to debate the situation in Northern Ireland.

I agree fully with Senator Robinson that the decision of the American administration to cease aid in these circumstances was an extremely retrograde one. The giving of economic help is putting our money where our mouth is in this situation. Beyond that I would deprecate any tendency on behalf of people in this House to tell the Poles how they should conduct their business. We must beware in this grave crisis of giving the impression that we are emulating the Skibbereen Eagle. With these considerable reservations I share with my fellow Senators deep concern about events in Poland.

I would like, too, to place on record my own and most Senators' appreciation of the manner in which this House has been permitted to have the Minister here and to discuss this matter. If we in this House are to play our part within the constitutional framework we must be able to address ourselves with immediacy to the issues of the moment.

I welcome the Minister's statement and his reassurance that our Government are reiterating our country's position in line with our historic traditions. It is also good to know that the members of the European Economic Community, representing, as they do in a group, the vanguard of the European tradition of constitutional democracy, liberty and respect for human dignity, have also spoken. Whilst I agree very much with the analysis made by Senator Murphy of the practical realities of the situation and the need to maintain a practical balance, it is impossible for many of us not to reach this situation without some kind of emotional reaction. The question that we must ask is what can we do? Is there anything else but words that we can offer? Bitterly and very acutely I am reminded of the experience which many of us had in 1956 when we listened in utter frustration and helplessness to the pleas for help, in effect unheeded, of the people of Hungary in somewhat similar circumstances. Associated with that is the bitter taste of betrayal, still felt in my mind 25 years afterwards, when we heard behind the rumble of the tanks of Soviet imperialism the news that Britain and France had gone into Suez to try in vain to prop up the last remnants of the older western European version of colonialism and also in effect to discredit in the eyes of the Third World the better aspects of our civilisation. When we read, see and hear day after day in all parts of the world as well as in Poland that tyranny is still alive, that the inhumanity of man to man continues not just unabated but enhanced and made more obscene by the wonders of modern technology, we are reminded of the pessimism enshrined in the words of the poet Matthew Arnold in his poem Dover Beach which is to be found in the New Oxford Treasury of English Verse, page 377:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

No certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

If our history means anything, if the age-long struggle of our people has any significance, it is that even at times like this we must have hope. We must reject the counsels of pessimism. We must resolve again and again that we will create a world order in which cannot happen with impunity the kind of thing that is happening today not just in Poland but in El Salvador and Karamoja and in all corners of the world where men, women and children are striving to live as human beings: we must strive for a world order in which peace and justice will prevail. If our independence as a nation means anything, it means that we should stand up and be counted in the councils of the world for such an order, not just in vague theoretical terms but at every practical opportunity that arises. We must change the system or lack of system as it exists. We must replace the jungle of the world economic social and political order with something more approximating to the targets and objectives of human aspirations. It also means that we in this island, the representatives of the people and also the ordinary men and women of all Ireland must take responsibility for our own future and bring to this beautiful country peace and justice, not only for our own sake and that of our children but so that we can play upon the stage of the world the role for which our history has so evidently prepared us.

Ar an gcéad dul síos fáiltím roimh an Aire agus guím gach rath ar a chuid oibre. Is fear fiúntach, consiasach, macánta é agus táimid faoi chomaoin aige inniu ach go háirithe as ucht teacht isteach anseo agus éisteacht leis an díospóireacht seo.

Some years ago during a Mass at one of the smaller chapels in Lourdes I had the privilege of meeting a Polish group. After Mass we got into conversation with them. The leader of the group had served with the Polish Army during the last World War and had spent some time in England and later in the Six Counties. What amazed me, apart from the extraordinary devotion of this man and his group, was his knowledge of our history. He was able to place into perspective very accurately our status here, our conditions, our ambitions, our dreams in the Republic and our ethnic groups in the Six Counties. He had an extraordinary grasp of our history and of what we stood for and what we hope to achieve some day. That for me was proof positive of the affinity in spirit and in mind and to some extent in physique between the Polish people and ourselves. We had the misfortune to be situated alongside very powerful neighbours, nations whose purpose seemed to be always to extend their own frontiers without respect for anybody else's frontiers. We had that similarity between us. Now our hearts — I speak not alone for this House but for the whole of Ireland — bleed for the Polish people. They have a colossal struggle in hands to establish what we take for granted, freedom. We can come into this House and speak our minds. We can meet each other in the lobbies, we can be very friendly with everybody and we can respect everybody's opinion. We argue and discuss, but we have that freedom. Long may it live.

Conditions in such nations as Poland are very difficult for people such as ourselves to understand. You have to meet these people. I have experience also of having had some friends, athletes, at the Olympics in the capital of Poland's neighbour, a very powerful nation. Everything was very orderly and nice but these athletes and their supporters sensed the utter lack of personal freedom. Everything was as it should be, so to speak. Nobody had permission to speak about anything. Again I say, long live our freedom.

Our hearts bleed for the Polish people and the Polish nation's greatest son, his Holiness, the present Pope. I would suggest that, along with sending out such a resolution as this, there are things we can do, things we cannot do, things perhaps we may not do; but in so far as it lies within the Government's power to give any aid they will have the support and the gratitude of all the Irish people. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is a very understanding man and will take our views back to the Government. We live in extraordinary times. This could be a flashpoint in Europe. Maybe it is a testing time, but when the dust dies down I feel that freedom will triumph.

In Ireland we have watched with hope and admiration the re-emergence of democracy in Poland under the leadership of Lech Walesa, and so it is with distress and dismay that we now see this movement being beaten down behind closed doors with loss of life and massive and cruel internment.

Experience shows that once a revolutionary movement gathers force it becomes difficult to contain. Initial successes widen the horizon of expectations and extreme and imprudent elements become harder to control. To the outside observer it would seem wiser if Solidarity had not pushed so hard so fast, if they had been content to consolidate their gains and ensure, if they could, the incorporation of democratic elements into a compromise system of government. It was unfortunate that their aim could in the latter days have been represented in an extreme form such as an immediate take-over of power. Russia and Communist Europe generally are in too unstable a state, political and economic, for a challenge of this significance to be passed over. Few people realise that the eastern bloc is even more depresed, more stagnant economically, than the western world.

However, nothing in any way excuses repression, whether direct or indirect. One must hope that Poland will not be invaded by Russia, that other powers will not intervene and that the Polish Army. Government and Communist Party will return quickly to a respect for human rights and recognise the need to reach accommodation with such a large body of their fellow-citizens. They need to do this if there is to be any restoration of communal order or economic co-operation — and there has been very little of it for years past — to preserve the integrity of that long-suffering, admirably brave and patriotic nation. All we can do here is strongly support all the efforts of our own Government and of voluntary bodies to bring medical aid and food supplies to the suffering people of Poland.

I have nothing to say that will in any way add to the range of discussion which has already taken place on this topic, but I am concerned that this assembly would be as objective as possible in talking about the terrible situation which exists in Poland. I have been impressed by the presentation from Senator Murphy which took that point as its central theme: the necessity for this assembly to be as objective as we can be, bearing in mind the paucity of information and the lack of knowledge which exists as far as the Polish situation is concerned.

I have an immediate interest in the sense that I identify with the protest from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions declared yesterday at the imprisonment of trade unionists and the attack on the trade union movement in Poland. I must add that I and some of my colleagues have inadequate knowledge of the scene there and insufficient knowledge of how Solidarity were going about their business and whether they were going too fast, too slow, too radical, too moderate or whatever. We must be careful that we do not pass judgment which in time will not be able to stand up. As well as decrying any imprisonment of trade unionists I also deplore very vehemently the interference of the military organisation in Poland or elsewhere. When soldiers or a Government supported by military take over control, we are then at a very critical stage. The oppression and other problems which flow from military control are to be deplored. I fear that once military people take over they want to hold on to the type of power and control which that gives them and it then becomes increasingly difficult for the ordinary people to return to some semblance of democratic activity in which human rights and civil liberty will be accepted as the norm.

My identification with the resolution is on the basis that I oppose strongly the imprisonment of people who are about their ordinary business of trying to educate each other and to contribute to economic, social, political, spiritual and cultural democracy. Equally I deplore the intervention of armed forces to dictate policies or subjugate people in no matter what part of the world. In that contest I also deplore the intervention of American forces in El Salvador or anywhere else by way of advice or influence, as I deplore the intervention of international finance in trying to control the destiny of a nation through the conomic power that is within their grasp.

I am grateful to my colleagues who have spoken here today. I assure them that the Government, and my Department in particular, will endeavour to keep as closely in touch with this situation as possible. We will remain in consultation with our colleagues of the European Economic Community. It will be of help to me and the Government in determining our attitude as this situation develops to have had the benefit of the views Senators expressed here today.

Question put and agreed to.

I take this opportunity to wish each and everyone of my colleagues the blessings and joys of the season, and continued success and prosperity in 1982.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.50 p.m. sine die.