Defence review needs to provide means to sustain neutrality

White Paper opportunity to restate our position

Ireland’s  participation in UN  peacekeeping missions, has allowed the Defence Forces access to the technical information necessary to achieve inter-operability with other   states  –  on patrol on UN mission in East Timor in   1999. Photograph: Conor O’Clery

Ireland’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions, has allowed the Defence Forces access to the technical information necessary to achieve inter-operability with other states – on patrol on UN mission in East Timor in 1999. Photograph: Conor O’Clery


Each time there has been a referendum on an EU treaty predictions have been made in some quarters, that a no vote would end our neutrality. They were wrong. Amsterdam, Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon have long been ratified by the Irish people, and our national defence policy of neutrality is still very much in place.

However, our failure to invest properly in the Defence Forces continues to undermine its credibility.

A sovereign state has three options in providing for its national defence. It can opt for neutrality and take on full responsibility for its own defence. It can join a military alliance and commit to mutual defence with a group of nations sharing the same values and interests. It can also conclude a defence treaty, or a defence agreement, with a friendly neighbouring state to share in the defence of both countries.

Later this year the Government will conclude a White Paper on Defence, which presents an opportunity to restate our neutrality, or otherwise. The Green Paper on Defence issued last year invited a debate on all aspects of national defence, including the neutrality issue. Over the years the lack of open and honest debate on our policy of neutrality has resulted in entrenched positions, particularly so on the pro-neutrality side.

Motivated for the most part by a genuine concern for peace, but also influenced by pacifism, anti-Americanism and anti-EU sentiments, Irish neutralism has, in some quarters, hardened into an ideology. For some adherents it has become a dogma, a religion through which the faithful hope to avoid Armageddon. Long left unchallenged, it has now become almost blasphemous to criticise neutrality.

As a result, in Irish politics it is a vote loser to criticise neutrality. No matter who is in power, opposition parties will jump on any government that is “soft” on the issue. Successive governments have backed themselves into a corner – the best they can come up with is a concept of military neutrality. We are told that we are politically committed, but not militarily committed.

Weather reports

In reality Ireland’s policy of neutrality has always been flexible and pragmatic. From de Valera allowing crucial weather reports to be passed to the Allies during the Emergency, to Bertie Ahern allowing the US army to avail of stopover facilities at Shannon, the purist’s idealistic interpretation of neutrality has not been upheld.

But Irish neutrality in the second World War helped to keep us out of the war. It worked because of a specific set of circumstances. Elsewhere in wartime Europe most neutral states were overrun and occupied. It is significant that neutral states which were invaded did not revert to neutrality at the end of the war .

Countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark will never again fall for the illusion of security provided by a policy of neutrality. So what should we do? Since the end of the cold war, the argument for joining Nato has weakened. Moreover, Ireland’s joining Nato’s Partnership for Peace, and participating in UN-approved, Nato-led peacekeeping missions, has allowed the Defence Forces access to the technical information necessary to achieve inter-operability with other participating states, without having to join the alliance. So, unless the circumstances change, there is no strong case, at present, for Ireland to join Nato.

But what about our involvement in the EU? Ireland is already committed to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy(CSDP). While this policy “may in time lead to a common defence” [Nice Treaty], Ireland has an opt-out clause on inclusion in common defence, enshrined in a constitutional amendment. Our policy of flexible neutrality can live with CSDP but not with EU common defence which would have a commitment to some form of mutual defence which would be incompatible with any concept of neutrality.

However, EU common defence is a far off aspiration – in reality, for the present, a dead duck. As long as Nato is in existence EU members states, the majority of whom are Nato members, have no pressing need to develop an EU common defence. Moreover, France, the great advocate of the latter, has become less strident, in this regard, since its reintegration into Nato during the Sarkozy period. So we can rule out, for now, both membership of Nato or inclusion in an EU common defence.

Defence agreement

An objective observer might suggest we explore the third option, a possible defence agreement with the UK. Since I am not an objective observer, I won’t pursue that option further!

However, the CSDP is up and running, and provides the EU with a context for co-operation on security and defence-related issues. This is the framework within which all EU member states can enhance the EU’s role in peace support operations, and can develop capabilities to deal with threats such as international terrorism and cyber warfare. As a committed member of the EU we should play a full part in developing CSDP. In particular our policy on neutrality should not become a straitjacket to limit our role in CSDP.

We have a policy of neutrality, which, to be credible, requires proper investment in the Defence Forces similar to other neutral countries. Like other neutral countries Ireland should have a minimum deterrent capability to fight on land, sea and in the air. Elsewhere I have outlined why we need to increase defence spending to at least 1 per cent of GDP when the recession is over. Without such investment our policy of neutrality remains militarily untenable.

Col Dorcha Lee (retired) is a former Irish Defence Forces provost marshal and director of military police

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