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Is Ireland Neutral? The Many Myths of Irish Neutrality: A timely read

Conor Gallagher’s lively book seeks to amplify questions around our defence policy

Is Ireland Neutral? The Many Myths of Irish Neutrality
Is Ireland Neutral? The Many Myths of Irish Neutrality
Author: Conor Gallagher
ISBN-13: 978-0717195992
Publisher: Gill Books
Guideline Price: €18.99

The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, published last year, laid bare the consequences of historic neglect and underspending. The Army’s submission to the commission asserted that it “is not equipped, postured or realistically prepared to conduct a meaningful defence of the State against a full spectrum force for any sustained period”. In 2021 Ireland spent 0.2 per cent of GDP on defence, “the lowest in Europe”.

Debates about Irish defence policy and neutrality have been infrequent and often ambivalent, and this timely book seeks to amplify and expand them. Where does the balance lie between principle and pragmatism? Has Ireland ever really been neutral? Can it be? Should it be?

Conor Gallagher, crime and security correspondent for this newspaper, moves swiftly through the decades to assess the gulf between the rhetoric and reality, the mixed messages and the shadow language. There are gaps in his reading and research, but he makes good use of the numerous volumes of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. There are sharp observations, too, revealing interviews and reminders of arrangements and decisions often neglected or conveniently ignored.

There is also an admirable clearheadedness in directly confronting tricky questions as they have emerged at various points and continue to emerge, especially due to the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The book provides a good introduction to a vexed question and pulls few punches. Much space – perhaps too much – is given to those deeply sceptical about Irish neutrality, but the book is also a reminder that constant references to a “traditional Irish neutrality” are often convenient contrivances.


When he was taoiseach in 1962, Seán Lemass was strikingly clear about Ireland’s desire to join the EEC and follow that path of integration wherever it went: “We recognise that a military commitment will be a consequence of our joining the Common Market and ultimately, we are prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality. We are prepared to go into this integrated Europe without any reservation as to how far this will take us in the field of foreign policy and defence.”

That willingness to abandon an independent foreign policy, it might be thought, ran roughshod over the position of his predecessor, Éamon de Valera, who was at the helm during the second World War. But de Valera, for all his determination to keep Ireland out of that war, was no absolutist when it came to foreign policy and was aware that geography as well as history needed to be weighed up. When in the United States during the War of Independence he had insisted “Ireland is quite ready by Treaty to ensure England’s safety and legitimate security against the danger of foreign powers seeking to use Ireland as a basis of attack against her”.

Col Dan Bryan, second-in-command of G2, the Irish Army military intelligence branch, was adamant privately in 1936 that to be neutral, a state had to adhere to “very onerous military and international obligations” and defend its non-alignment, but at that stage Ireland was “not relatively but absolutely disarmed”.

The Constitution de Valera introduced in 1937 did not enshrine or even mention neutrality. The decision to declare neutrality in 1939 was deemed to be the best way of serving Ireland’s interests at that point. De Valera also hinted that Ireland could join a defence alliance with Britain if partition ended.

Involvement with peacekeeping missions since 1958 has involved 75,000 individual peacekeeping tours with 88 fatalities and little discussion on the consequences for neutrality

The extent of neutral Ireland’s assistance of the Allies during the second World War is well known and documented (“a co-operation so broad that it wouldn’t be covered by even the most flexible definition of neutrality”). A pro-Allied approach was necessary, it was thought, “lest London take matters into its own hand”. Assistance in the maritime and air domains and joint intelligence operations coexisted with strict censorship. Unfortunately, Gallagher does not draw on recent extensive scholarship on this period in books by Clair Wills, Brian Girvin and Karen Garner.

There are anonymous interviewees quoted in the book, one of whom, described as a “senior official”, says a memorandum on the use of Irish airspace by Britain’s Royal Air Force has existed since 1952: “a commitment on their part to come to our assistance.” This is apparently “approved by the Irish Cabinet on a yearly basis” and includes “permission to track Russian military aircraft which enter Irish sovereign airspace”. In the absence of documented evidence, there is a frustrating woolliness about all this.

In referring to the cold war climate in the 1950s, it has often been erroneously asserted that Ireland’s decision not to join Nato was about preserving neutrality, but Ireland was open to membership if partition ended. Seán MacBride, the then minister for external affairs, suggested that an alternative to Nato membership, a bilateral defence arrangement between Ireland and the US as a “consolation prize”, was a non-runner.

The preferred script for Irish politicians was that there could be no question of neutrality between communism and democracy, and Ireland co-operated with the UK when it came to the mapping of Ireland to prepare for possible Russian aggression. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, data on Soviet aircraft passing through Shannon was shared with the US. Taoiseach Jack Lynch told the Dáil in 1969 that “we have no traditional policy of neutrality in this country”.

Involvement with peacekeeping missions since 1958, three years after Ireland joined the UN, has involved 75,000 individual peacekeeping tours with 88 fatalities and little discussion on the consequences for neutrality. The label “peace enforcement mission” to describe Irish soldiers’ involvement in the Congo in 1960-1961, during which 26 Irish soldiers were killed, was a euphemism for war, and Gallagher’s overview would have benefited from reading the 2014 book by Michael Kennedy and Art Magennis, Ireland, the United Nations and the Congo.

As taoiseach in 1981, Charles Haughey argued in the Dáil that “in thinking about our defence policies, we should not resort either to emotionalism or ideology, but rather we should calmly and realistically consider every aspect from the point of view of our own fundamental interests”. Former diplomat Michael Lillis insists that Haughey was willing to “make a move” on neutrality and “even on Nato”, though there is a lack of documented evidence about this and the contention that “Haughey privately proposed to Thatcher some sort of Anglo-Irish co-operation on defence”.

Irish forces have operated under Nato command since 1997 but the author is convinced the past 20 years have shown that Partnership for Peace (PfP), originally designed for structured co-operation between Nato and former Warsaw Pact countries, “is not a waiting room for Nato”. He also outlines the controversies since the 1990s over Irish neutrality in the context of attempts to progress a common European defence policy; some of these tensions found expression during the Nice and Lisbon referendum campaigns and their reruns.

The way around such concerns was an EU promise that defence arrangements “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain members”. These were presented as “solid guarantees” that Irish neutrality would not be damaged, along with an addition to the Constitution that the State would not adopt “a decision taken by the European Council to adopt a common defence”, and the “triple lock” restraint on military deployment of more than 12 soldiers. Anything above that requires Dáil and government approval and a UN resolution. The latter gives China and Russia, members of the UN Security Council, an effective veto over such deployments.

Irish ‘checks’ on US flights through Shannon are a joke; instead, the reliance is on ‘assurances’ from the US

Since 2001, three million troops have transited through Shannon and caused acute tensions during the war in Iraq in 2003. Veteran campaigner Edward Horgan was able to argue effectively that Ireland was in breach of neutrality according to international law. Justice Nicholas Kearns in the High Court agreed that neutral countries allowing the transit of belligerent troops through their territory seemed incompatible with the status of neutrality in international law, but also that Horgan’s personal rights were not being infringed. Irish “checks” on US flights through Shannon are a joke; instead, the reliance is on “assurances” from the US.

Many regard the evolution of commitments as a “slicing the salami” approach to neutrality, reflected through Irish involvement in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco), the European Peace Facility (EPF) and the EU Military Assistance Mission in Ukraine (EUNAM). There are further plans for an EU rapid military deployment capacity, while “Ireland is already a member of the Nato co-operative cyber defence centre for excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, where a defence forces officer is permanently seconded”.

Ireland has no military primary radars and has a “massive attack surface” for possible digital offensives. Mark Mellett, former chief of staff of the Defence Forces, says the issue is not neutrality but whether we are “willing to resource our security” and if not, remain under the “unofficial protection” of the Nato umbrella. Strong Finnish criticisms of Irish neutrality are aired and there is a detailed focus on Switzerland, where neutrality is defined more tightly and upheld more strictly, but the Swiss too have stretched and adapted their definition.

Gallagher suggests that it is “reasonable to conclude that Ireland is not neutral”, but also that Ireland is “closer to being neutral than non-neutral”. Even those writing books on Irish neutrality can tie themselves in knots. His conclusion suggests “pure” neutrality does not exist, which is really the point Irish governments have been making since the foundation of the State. Gallagher recommends a pragmatic approach, “stripped of ideology” with “freedom to act in specific situations as best suits their interests”, and he insists neutrality is not a moral question.

All these assertions, of course, are open to challenge and there is still strong public support for Ireland to be neutral, however people are choosing to define it. What is needed now is a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss this vital matter; that was promised but has been parked or abandoned. Gallagher’s lively book is a reminder that such stalling is a mistake.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His latest book is Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War (Profile)

Further Reading

Robert Fisk’s mammoth In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-45 (A Deutsch, 1983) broke new ground and allowed him to use his skills as war correspondent and historian: “virtually every statement”, he wrote, “is based on contemporary archive material or on the recollections of those who took part in the wartime events discussed”.

Clair Wills’s That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War (Faber & Faber, 2007) skilfully navigates ambiguities and cross purposes and incorporates poetry, fiction and drama. “For most Irish people,” she writes, “their concerns had always been about how to be neutral, how to keep themselves apart from the war without denying that inevitably, the war was part of them.”

Irish Foreign Policy (Gill and MacMillan, 2012), edited by Ben Tonra, consists of 14 chapters by leading scholars in the field. Tonra observes that after 1922 “one might have thought that the development of a strong martial tradition would have been a priority for the State”. But it was not, partly because of the legacy of Civil War, the contested legitimacy of the small state, and the practical capacity of it to maintain and effectively deploy armed forces.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column