Is Sinn Féin softening on neutrality? Mary Lou McDonald would reject such an assertion, but...

In this extract from his new book, Irish Times Crime and Security Correspondent Conor Gallagher explores Sinn Féin’s stance on neutrality and how it could change the State’s position

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said putting neutrality on a constitutional footing is one of her party’s priorities. Photographs: PA/Getty Images

Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, agrees with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on neutrality in more ways than you might expect, or than she might admit. Like the leaders of the Government parties, she has no desire for Ireland to enter Nato but she believes that it is correct to send non-lethal military aid to Ukraine.

“My personal view is that assisting Ukraine in that way was the right decision and the right call,” she said in an interview, although she believes it’s a fine line between funding weapons of war and non-lethal military aid. On the proposals, still in their infancy in late 2022, to send Irish troops to train Ukrainian soldiers in demining and ordnance disposal, the Sinn Féin leader said: Others might reflect that that is crossing a line and taking a side, but Russia is the aggressor and one which has broken international law […] They’re bombarding a civilian population. So I think there is the basis for those interventions.

But she feels that the Government is pushing the margins and “sailing close to the wind”. Like the Government, McDonald believes the Defence Forces need significant extra funding to protect national security. Capabilities like radar and cyber defence badly need to be upgraded, she said, as well as conditions for serving members. “You could not defend some of the circumstances in which they are asked to serve. So of course, there needs to be an adequate spend in all of those capacities,” she said. Sinn Féin endorses the recommendation of the Commission on the Defence Forces to move to LOA 2 (Level of Ambition) and increase defence spending by 50 per cent. If that’s the case, however, it will take a long time to get there under Sinn Féin’s most recent proposals. In its alternative budget for 2023, the party proposed a 7 per cent increase in capital defence spending, compared to the Government’s 25 per cent increase, which itself was criticised in some quarters as unambitious.

Furthermore, McDonald makes clear that LOA 2 is an end state for Sinn Féin, not a step towards LOA 3, which would triple spending and bring Ireland roughly in line with other small EU countries. “Others might have that ambition, but since we’re not for joining Nato, that’s not an issue for us,” she said, ignoring the fact that the LOA 3 is designed to equip the military to offer a minimum, independent defence to an external attack and has little to do with joining Nato.


While she differs on how fast and to what extent Ireland should increase its national defence, McDonald has broadly the same definition of neutrality as her opposite numbers. When the leaders of the three largest parties, plus Simon Coveney who was minister for defence and foreign affairs during the first year of the Ukraine war, were asked how they defined Irish neutrality, all four described it as a military neutrality that is dependent on Ireland not being a member of a military alliance. To varying extents, all four also said that Ireland’s neutrality was a positive or active one, which involves a commitment to multilateralism, the international rule of law and peacekeeping.

In other words, Irish neutrality is, and should be, of a non-isolationist nature and one which allows it to take sides in conflicts, but not direct military intervention. Even the leader of Sinn Féin, the most pro-neutrality major party, believes this definition can accommodate sending military aid and trainers to an ally such as Ukraine.

At first glance, these similarities suggest there is not much disagreement between the main Opposition party and Coalition Government on the topic. But when it comes to EU defence, there are fundamental differences between the Government and Opposition on how much integration is too much. For example, Sinn Féin remains adamantly opposed to Irish participation of any kind in Pesco (Permanent Structured Co-operation); neither is McDonald a fan of the EU taking a leading role in peacekeeping projects, even those under a UN (United Nations) mandate.

“They’re problematic for us,” she said. “The best flag to enter anywhere as a peacekeeping entity is under the United Nations flag.” McDonald believes there is an ambition in some quarters to make the EU a global security actor to rival the United States, but that this is “not what the world needs right now”. Crucially, she believes there should be no move towards a proper common defence agreement at EU level; that, given that most EU countries are Nato members, entering such an arrangement with them would not make sense for Ireland.

One of McDonald’s goals if Sinn Féin takes power is to place Irish neutrality in the basic law of the EU in a way that goes far beyond the “specific character” reference contained in the Lisbon Treaty. Such a move would put Irish neutrality on par with the Swiss version in terms of international legal recognition of its status. It is an ambitious proposal and one that could perhaps damage Ireland’s standing in the EU. It would certainly upset French and German officials who have recently attempted to reinvigorate the push towards common EU defence.

But in McDonald’s view, enshrining the right of members to remain neutral in law would strengthen the EU, not weaken it. She believes Ireland could form part of a network of EU neutrals, which would add “another string to the EU’s diplomatic bow”, and that this network could take the lead in EU conflict resolution efforts in situations where the involvement of EU-Nato members could prove counterproductive.

Listening to comments by Sinn Féin TDs in recent years, it would be reasonable to assume the party is for immediately pulling Ireland out of initiatives like Pesco, the EU battle groups and Nato’s PfP (Partnership for Peace). Withdrawing from these programmes would be a complex task. Not only would the programmes themselves be impacted, severely damaging diplomatic and military relations in the process, but the Defence Forces would also suffer.

Our position as a neutral is absolutely fundamental to our identity domestically and internationally

—  Mary Lou McDonald

Millions already pumped into interoperability projects would go to waste. The military would become isolated from advances in technology and doctrine and increasingly unable to serve alongside peacekeeping partners overseas. In every overseas posting, Irish troops work with foreign militaries, often relying on them for basic functions such as transport, intelligence and reconnaissance. It is easy to see how the Defence Forces falling behind in areas such as, for example, surveillance drone technology, could damage its ability to carry out its overseas mission and perhaps even place its personnel in unnecessary danger.

However, the Defence Forces may have less to fear from a Sinn Féin government than first appears. McDonald takes a more pragmatic approach to Irish participation in EU and Nato projects than her party has in the past: “I would not be advocating a sudden pulling out. Nothing dramatic like that,” she said. The party would instead examine each initiative “very, very carefully to see if it were possible for Irish participation to continue without a leeching into the Nato system”.

So, under a Sinn Féin government, participation in PfP or the battle groups or even Pesco might continue based on these assessments? It is a possibility McDonald leaves open: “It might require a little bit of re-engineering,” she said.

McDonald believes it is important the Defence Forces remain capable of serving overseas in peacekeeping and humanitarian roles. Participation in military partnerships may be a cost she is willing to pay for this – “We live in the real world and so it’d be a case of balancing those things,” she said – but one thing is not up for discussion: while Sinn Féin may accept that Ireland would have to remain in the PfP programme, there would be no further integration with Nato structures if the party were in government. In other words, under a Sinn Féin government, there is no chance of Ireland moving to the second level of PfP, as countries like Finland, Sweden and Ukraine have done in recent years.

Is the party line on neutrality softening? Its members, including McDonald, would reject such an assertion, but there is additional evidence of shifting points of view since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In 2018, the (then) government expelled a Russian diplomat in a show of solidarity with the UK following the Salisbury poisonings. In response, McDonald immediately accused the government of disregarding Irish neutrality. She demanded to know the national security reasons behind the expulsion and said that the government was “asking us to trust Boris Johnson, which, dare I say, might not be the wisest course of action”.

Two years later, the day after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, McDonald changed tack entirely. In response to the invasion, she called for the expulsion not merely of a faceless Russian diplomat or two, but of the Russian ambassador himself, which would effectively end diplomatic relations between the two countries. It is a call she has made several times since. This time, however, the Government is the one arguing for restraint, saying it is important to keep diplomatic channels open.

When asked about this in November 2022, McDonald had a simple explanation, which echoes Sinn Féin’s long-standing distrust of British intelligence. She said that, after Salisbury, the Irish government made a national security decision based on an assessment by MI5, “which, let it be remembered, does not have a great track record in this country or indeed others for always being entirely accurate”.

On the other hand, the illegality of the invasion of Ukraine was clear for all to see. Ireland did not need British spooks to tell it what was happening. Therefore, for McDonald, the two situations are not comparable. The contention that internal security decisions should not be made based on assessments by other countries’ intelligence agencies is a reasonable one of course. But it also ignores the fact that Ireland lacks an intelligence service capable of carrying out its own assessment of such matters and must therefore place some trust in the intelligence provided by the old enemy.

If Sinn Féin has become softer on neutrality, it is not the only one. As recently as 2017, the Green Party were some of the most vocal opponents of Ireland signing up to Pesco, with party leader Éamon Ryan arguing that Pesco would imperil our status as a “neutral, non-aligned country”. In July 2022, as part of the Coalition Government, Ryan and his colleagues voted to expand Ireland’s participation in Pesco from one project to four. Separately, before entering government, Ryan supported a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution on three separate occasions. When a fresh proposal was put forward by [Richard] Boyd Barrett in March 2022, all Green Party TDs voted against it.

By comparison, Sinn Féin’s apparent move towards the middle ground on neutrality has been far less dramatic. Unlike the Greens, all Sinn Féin TDs voted in favour of Boyd Barrett’s March 2022 proposal. His Bill proposed adding three clauses to the Constitution. These would bar Ireland from joining any common defence alliance, be it through Nato or EU; end the use of Irish facilities such as Shannon by the US military or any other foreign power; and, most dramatically, prevent the State from participating in “any war or other armed conflict” or helping a foreign state to prepare for such a conflict (the only exception is if Ireland itself is attacked). It is easy to see how the latter clause could prevent Ireland from sending supplies or trainers to assist Ukraine, or possibly even taking part in sanctions against a rogue state such as Russia.

McDonald said putting neutrality on a constitutional footing is one of Sinn Féin’s priorities. She did not say what form this would take, but that the clause would likely set out a commitment to military non-alignment, multilateralism and the international rule of law. Asked if this could limit Ireland’s freedom to help countries like Ukraine, McDonald said a “great deal of thought” would have to be put into the proper formula of words. “We would have to be very careful,” she said. It seems then that any future Sinn Féin proposal would not be as strongly worded as Boyd Barrett’s Bill or any of the five previous failed attempts by Sinn Féin to insert neutrality into the Constitution (there have been nine attempts in total, including one by the Greens and one by the Labour Party).

Once neutrality is placed on a constitutional footing, Sinn Féin intends that it will stay that way. But what if it becomes a sticking point in the progression towards Irish unification, a process McDonald believes will begin within the next decade? For example, what if northern unionists don’t want to leave the protection of Nato? “Our position as a neutral is absolutely fundamental to our identity domestically and internationally,” McDonald said. On the other hand, if the issue does arise in this context “it will have to be discussed”. She is not convinced it will emerge as a sticking point, however. McDonald said neutrality and Nato membership has yet to come up during her many dealings with people North and South on the topic of unification. The health service, pensions, the currency: these are the issues that concern people when it comes to unification, she said, not neutrality.

We have natural protections and we don’t have very many natural enemies. That is no reason to be complacent, but Ireland is unlikely to have a conventional military attack

—  Simon Coveney

If neutrality is to find a place in the Constitution, surely McDonald agrees with proposals from Micheál Martin for a Citizens’ Assembly on the topic? “I was kind of surprised when he said that, because we have a backlog of citizens’ assemblies, some of them really, really urgent at this stage,” she said. McDonald suspects the Fianna Fáil leader made the suggestion in the wake of the Russian invasion because he believed Irish opinion had dramatically shifted away from neutrality. That has not happened. McDonald feels that, if there is to be a Citizens’ Assembly, it should be as a step towards enshrining neutrality in the Constitution, rather than moving further away from it.

Unlike others in her party and on the left in general, McDonald does not accuse the Government leaders of trying to secretly bounce Ireland into Nato. Not in so many words anyway. But she does believe Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are “at best lukewarm” on neutrality and that there has been a “chipping away” of it. “It’s the truth they are fearful to say out loud,” she said.

In her view, these parties have only ever stood up for neutrality after being forced to by the public, such as following the rejections of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. Furthermore, she believes some members of the Government parties (she doesn’t say who) “would prefer to be playing with the big boys”, referring to Nato.

Is this fair? None of the politicians, diplomats or military leaders cited here have said they believed Ireland’s interests are best served by joining Nato. Even the most military-minded Dáil members, including former Army Ranger Wing Commander turned Independent TD Cathal Berry, are not in favour of joining Nato as it stands. The same goes for Micheál Martin, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar.

Coveney’s term in office as minister for foreign affairs and defence saw a massive upheaval in the global threat picture. While still in that post, Coveney said that joining Nato would not “add significantly to Ireland’s foreign policy in terms of capacity to influence world affairs”.

His view was that Ireland is not Finland. It does not have a 1,300km land border with a predatory autocratic behemoth of a state. Instead, Ireland is an island in the Atlantic with the US on one side and the UK and EU on the other, neither of which currently poses a security threat. “We have natural protections and we don’t have very many natural enemies. That is no reason to be complacent, but Ireland is unlikely to have a conventional military attack,” Coveney said.

Unlike McDonald, however, Coveney does not shut the door on Nato membership completely. Right now there is no strong appetite to join but “obviously, circumstances could change that”, for example, if there is “some catastrophic turn of events in the context of the war in Ukraine which left Irish people feeling very vulnerable. That of course could change things”.

Is Ireland Neutral? The Many Myths of Irish Neutrality by Conor Gallagher is published by Gill