A former senior diplomat has said Ireland “stretched the concept of neutrality to the limit” during the Iraq war by allowing US aircraft to use Shannon Airport.
The use of Shannon by the US military became a critical issue at the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 as the US and British-led invasion of the country had no Security Council mandate.
Fine Gael, then in opposition, was among the many parties and organisations opposed to allowing the US to use Shannon Airport, which had also been used during the first Gulf War in 1990.
The then political director of the Department of Foreign Affairs Rory Montgomery was tasked with helping the government explain how Ireland would claim to be neutral while helping a foreign military force fight a legally questionable war with no UN mandate.
“We developed this rather contorted logic that the essence of Irish neutrality was being able to make your own decisions and this was making our own decisions,” Mr Montgomery told The Irish Times crime and security correspondent Conor Gallagher in Is Ireland Neutral?
“I always thought, to be honest, we had stretched the concept of neutrality to the limit.”
Mr Gallagher said the decision to allow the continued use of Shannon Airport was “solely based on practical interests” as the government worried that a withdrawal of the stopover would affect US investment in Ireland.
The issue of Shannon being used for extraordinary rendition flights by the US military also concerned the Irish government at the time. Extraordinary rendition – the practice of transporting terrorist suspects to non-US territories for interrogation – was regarded as a form of torture and degradation. The Irish Human Rights Commission called on the government to inspect US military flights at Shannon.
“It was an endless debate which caused huge nervousness to Dermot Ahern [then Minister for Foreign Affairs] and others,” said Mr Montgomery.
Mr Gallagher said that the time following the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 marked a “low point of Irish pretences to neutrality”.
He noted that Sinn Féin has stated that it will end the use of Shannon by the US military once in power. “Whether this promise survives contact with the realities of government will likely be one of the first big test of its principles.”
Mr Gallagher launched his book at Books Upstairs in Dublin on Thursday evening.
Is Ireland Neutral? is published by Gill Books