Ireland would be a welcome addition to Nato if it voted to apply for membership, the organisation’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has said.
Nato respects Ireland’s military neutrality and will never put any pressure on any country to join the alliance, Mr Stoltenberg said in an interview with The Irish Times. “It’s always something they do by their own free will.”
He said the planned accession of Finland and Sweden to the European and North American intergovernmental military alliance took place with “absolutely zero” pressure from Nato.
Mr Stoltenberg said he is confident Finland and Sweden’s membership process will be completed after Turkey dropped its objections to the countries joining the alliance following negotiations. This will make Europe more secure and bring 96 per cent of the EU’s population under the Nato umbrella, he said.
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If Ireland applies for membership, Mr Stoltenberg said he believes it would be welcome to the alliance. But he pointed out this would ultimately be a decision for the other 30 members. “And again, it’s a sovereign Irish decision. Nato will never put any pressure on any country to join the alliance.”
Irish public support for remaining outside Nato has remained strong, despite the invasion of Ukraine. An Irish Times poll in April found just 24 per cent of people favour a change to Ireland’s neutrality.
Nato respects Irish neutrality just as it did the neutrality of Finland and Sweden before they applied for full membership, the secretary general said.
Mr Stoltenberg strongly rejected assertions by some Irish politicians that Nato bears some responsibility for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to the alliance’s eastward expansion.
“They are absolutely wrong. And it’s a little bit scary that people believe that the sovereign decisions of countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Poland to join Nato is the reason for Russia’s brutal use of force against Ukraine.”
Nato did not move aggressively eastward, he said. Eastern European countries, “through democratic free political processes, decided to join Nato”.
He said the idea Russia can object to sovereign nations joining a military alliance is “dangerous thinking. In a way it allows big powers to control what small neighbours can do or not do.”
This would be “turning the clock back”, Mr Stoltenberg said. “We want to respect countries to make their own decisions.”
He noted when Nato was established in 1949 Moscow strongly objected to Norway becoming a member, due to the fact Norway and Russia shared a border.
“I’m glad that at that time Washington, London, Paris, the other major powers said ‘no, it’s for Norway to decide’.”
Since 1999, Ireland has been a member of the Partnership for Peace programme which provides for increased co-operation with Nato without committing to its collective defence clause.
Mr Stoltenberg said the programme remains valuable but that Nato will always look for ways to strengthen its partnerships “including the partnership we have with Ireland”.
“We strongly believe that working closely with partners, especially those partners who share the same values, support democracy and the rule of law, and actually share the same neighbourhood as Nato is important for all of us.
“And therefore we should continue to look into how we can further strengthen the partnership with Ireland and the Irish people.”
He praised Ireland’s contribution to international security, including its peacekeeping work and its contribution to Nato-run missions such as KFOR, the peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Mr Stoltenberg said he believes the war in Ukraine will end at the negotiating table. “That’s the case for almost all wars.”
But the result on the battlefield will have a direct impact on these negotiations and Nato must support Ukraine to ensure it has the strongest negotiating position possible, he said
“At the end of the day it will be up to Ukraine to decide what kind of terms are acceptable. They are paying the highest price. They are paying with their lives,” he said. “Our responsibility is to help them protect them help and support.”
Mr Stoltenberg welcomed the recent increase in defence co-operation at EU level, including through the Strategic Compass initiative. This will strengthen the competitiveness of the European defence industry, he said. “That’s good for all of us.”
But he said it is important EU efforts do not duplicate or compete with Nato. “Nato has a tried and tested command structure” and has “demonstrated for years it is the foundation for European security”.