Partnership for Peace is a first step in a European commitment
My Oxford dictionary defines neutrality as "not supporting or assisting either side in a dispute or conflict". If one accepts that very narrow definition then one can clearly appreciate decisions by previous Irish governments on remaining neutral in times of conflict.
The two major decisions on neutrality were those covering our non-belligerent status in the second World War and our resolve to remain outside NATO during the Cold War.
These decisions were legitimate options which our government took and as such must be accepted whether one agreed with them or not at the time.
We were not unique in our decision in either case. Others chose similar options. The neutrality of our fellow neutrals Sweden, Finland and Austria in the Cold War was very different from ours, however.
They raised large conscript forces to defend their neutrality and equipped them accordingly. That was the choice; either join an alliance or be neutral and prepared to defend that decision. In Ireland's case we chose the latter, and then shamefully neglected our Defence Forces. We were never neutral; we were isolationist and virtually demilitarised.
Now that the Cold War is over we still talk about our neutrality. It has become a sacred cow which in the absence of major world conflict means different things to different people. The Government scribes have been quite clever. They have seen the obvious contradiction of being "neutral" in a "no major conflict" world. They have therefore over the past few years used the term "military neutrality" to describe our stance.
One can presume that military neutrality means that we will not join any military alliance. As there is now only one real military alliance left in the world we should examine briefly our attitude to NATO.
NATO emerged after the second World War due to the expansionism of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was founded to counterbalance NATO. This led in turn to a division of most of the developed world into two armed nuclear camps and conflicting areas of interest throughout the developing world.
Our government declined an invitation to join NATO, declaring our neutrality in the Cold War. In truth, we were a little less than honest since we did not provide forces to defend ourselves and we were quite happy to shelter under NATO's nuclear umbrella.
Again, Ireland's decision was a democratic one and whether one agreed with it or not it was our national policy. There is no doubt that although the concept of a "balance of terror" is unacceptable to any civilised person, it was responsible for keeping a world nuclear war at bay.
The Warsaw Pact is no longer with us. New models of world security continue to be developed. NATO has remained and will continue to remain. It guarantees the involvement of the world's most powerful country in European security. NATO has also found its niche as a "heavy duty" peacekeeper.
I think that Ireland will not become a member of NATO. There is neither the political nor the public appetite for it. There is no major or world conflict on the horizon and Ireland has pragmatically used the Security Council mandate to allow its troops to serve under NATO command in Bosnia. It is a logical policy stance.
What is less logical is our attitude towards Partnership for Peace (PfP). With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, eastern European countries, in pursuit of their security, applied to join NATO.
NATO wanted a stable Russia and felt that this might undermine her.
Partnership for Peace emerged as a solution to the problem. It would be a "waiting room" for NATO where the aspiring members could be checked out on human rights, democracy, democratic control of the military and other principles.
It would also allow time to deal with Russian insecurity. The process worked very well. Some of those early applicants are now full members of NATO. If one accepts that PfP existed only as a waiting room for NATO and that we were "militarily neutral" and were not interested in joining the alliance, one could accept that we had no business joining PfP. This was the decision of government at the time.
PfP has, however, changed dramatically since it was founded. It is no longer exclusively a waiting room. It provides co-operation between NATO and non-members of the alliance in training for UN peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, rescue operations and other areas which interest prospective members. In a very flexible way PfP lets each participant decide on the areas and extent of their involvement.
This has opened it up to such a degree that countries with deep antipathy towards NATO, such as Russia, are members. Our fellow EU "neutrals" are members and Switzerland is a member. Ireland remains outside, isolated with San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein and the Vatican for company.
It is interesting to compare the positive attitude of fellow neutral Sweden to our say-nothing, do-nothing approach. Sweden sees itself as militarily neutral, supporting the UN and holding the EU as central to defence and security institutions. Given, however, that the majority of our European partners are NATO members, Sweden sees PfP as an important point of contact between NATO members and non-members.
Like Sweden, our decisions on neutrality, military neutrality and NATO all have a certain logic to them. Our attitude to PfP, however, beggars belief and can only be born of ignorance. It makes a poor foundation for security and defence in the EU/WEU.
Ireland has been a committed EU member since 1973. In the past 25 years the EU has developed and grown and Ireland has changed, too. We have also reaped much benefit from our membership. We have supported all developments including some very difficult ones such as EMU.
Now we are on the move towards a Common Foreign and Security Policy. Much work remains to be done, and it is going to take time particularly as far as the defence and security element is concerned. We should be eloquent in the debate. We should bring to it our own unique approach to security and defence but we must be credible or our voice will not be heeded.
What will be the vehicle for security and defence? The Western European Union - the so called European pillar of NATO - would be much favoured by the pro-Europeans; NATO by the Atlanticists, but not all EU members see themselves as NATO members. What will emerge will be a complex and overlapping arrangement which will be able to include all nuances.
What is now required is less timidity in developing our own views on the whole area of defence and security. From the day we joined the EU we have been on a journey inter alia towards a joint security and defence framework. We need to clarify our attitudes. We can stay militarily neutral and outside NATO but we can't smokescreen our way out of our developing commitments to our European partners. The only honourable alternative is to leave the EU. If we are to remain, joining PfP would be a first step in showing that we are serious.
Lieut Gen Gerry McMahon is a former chief-of-staff of the Defence Forces