Irish neutrality has nothing to fear from post-Lisbon era

Wed, May 21, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:The new treaty cannot override long-established foreign and security policies - but it is crucial we remain at the heart of Europe, writes Joe Costello 

ONE OF the central issues that has engaged the No and Yes campaigns in all of the treaty debates since Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1972 has been the issue of Irish neutrality.

Ireland has no history of military adventurism, though our people have fought in foreign wars for centuries.

The banner draped over Liberty Hall by James Connolly at the outset of the first World War, which proclaimed "Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland", was a powerful statement against the military imperialism and military aggression which engulfed most of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

Since the foundation of the State Ireland has proclaimed its neutrality and followed a policy of non-alignment.

This policy was well expressed by Éamon de Valera as the clouds of war were gathering over Europe in 1936: "All small states can do is resolutely to determine that they will not become the tools of any great power and that they will resist with whatever strength they may possess every attempt to force them into a war against their will."

The United Nations became the vehicle for Irish military activity abroad. Since Irish troops set foot in the Congo in 1959, Ireland has established a proud record of military and civilian service abroad. Eighty nine Irish soldiers and gardaí have given their lives under a UN mandate.

The European Union is a direct product of Europe's revulsion against the slaughter and genocide of millions of people in two World Wars, particularly the second World War.

Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers, stated: "Make men work together, show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries there lies a common interest." Thus it was that the European Union originated as a peace project to channel the nation states of Europe away from conflict to social and economic solidarity.

The EU provided much of the support and context to bring peace to this island in the Good Friday Agreement. As John Hume said when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998: "It is now clear that the European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution."

Europe has been at peace with itself and with the rest of the world since the Treaty of Rome 50 years ago. Yet despite the EU track record of peace, No campaigners are convinced that each treaty leads inevitably to militarisation.

The doomsday situation has not come to pass and there is nothing in the Lisbon Treaty to suggest that the EU of the 21st century will depart from the principles and practices of the EU of the second half of the 20th century or that Ireland's policy of military neutrality is at risk.

Respect for the United Nations Charter of Human Rights in the EU's dealings with the wider world is the constant and reassuring thread throughout the Lisbon Treaty.

Article 3 states: "In its relations with the wider world the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens. It shall contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular, the rights of the child, as well as the strict observance and the development of international law including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter."

Articles 27 and 29 outline how different states with different military capabilities will take responsibility for carrying out the military and civilian missions decided on unanimously by the Council of Ministers of the 27 member states.

Article 27 further affirms that EU missions abroad must be confined to areas of "peacekeeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter". Three-quarters of EU missions to date have been non-military in nature, involving only police and civilian personnel.

Article 27 also makes it clear that member states engaging in military operations "shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities". Clearly there is little value in having an Irish force in Lebanon or Kosovo or Chad which is not trained and equipped to the highest modern standards.

These are the EU criteria and procedures for military missions.

But Ireland requires further restrictive criteria before participation in any mission. The mission must be mandated by the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly; it must be approved by the Government and voted on by the Dáil. This is the "triple lock" mechanism to ensure that Ireland is only involved in UN mandated missions of best practice.

Finally, Article 27 states that "the Common Security and Defence Policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence when the European Council acting unanimously so decides." Ireland has consistently opposed a common defence which would lead to the establishment of an EU army. Any such proposal would require the backing of all 27 member states and Ireland on its own can veto it.

Moreover, Ireland made its position very clear during the Nice Treaty debates in 2002 when all the EU member states agreed to the Seville declaration which states that the Treaty of Nice "does not impose any binding mutual defence commitments. Nor does the development of the Union's capacity to conduct humanitarian and crisis management tasks involve the establishment of a European Army."

That remains the agreed position of the EU.

The sentiments of the Seville declaration were carried over into the 26th Amendment to the Constitution as part of the Nice Treaty ratification in 2002. Thus the Irish State is constitutionally prohibited from entering into any common defence that might be established under the treaties.

To be doubly sure, the wording of the 28th Amendment to the Constitution Bill, which will be voted on by referendum on June 12th, will contain the following further prohibition:

"The State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence . . . where that common defence would involved the State."

It is clear from the above that Irish neutrality has nothing to fear from the Lisbon Treaty. Ireland has articulated a very consistent and substantial foreign and security policy over the decades. It is a carefully crafted policy that has given direction and substance to our neutrality as a small independent nation.

Through the UN and the EU, Ireland has had the opportunity to develop its brand of active neutrality on a large stage.

Thus it is crucially important that Ireland remains involved in and committed to the United Nations mandate.

It is equally important that Ireland remains at the heart of Europe, participating fully in common foreign and security policy deliberations and in the European Defence Agency.

Only then can Ireland articulate its distinct vision for a European Union which has firmly renounced its militarist past, and which can move forward into the 21st century as a powerful force for conflict resolution, humanitarian aid and global peace.

Joe Costello is Labour Party spokesman on EU affairs and is the party's director of elections for the Lisbon referendum campaign