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
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 reportsIn 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.