Neutrality debates and the President: What is behind Michael D Higgins’s criticism?

President questions role of forum chairwoman, saying ‘there were a few candidates I could have come up with myself’

Political debate on neutrality has sharpened after President Michael D Higgins claimed Ireland was in a dangerous foreign policy “drift”. The President’s remarks come in advance of a Government forum on international security, starting this week.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, was quick to defend the forum, saying it would be wrong to shy away from assessing defence policy or to examine it only in private. But Mr Higgins’s remarks show neutrality is a heated question, with disagreement inevitable as the future of the policy comes under scrutiny.

What is the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy?

The forum is a series of public meetings taking place in Cork, Galway and Dublin with the aim of prompting national discussion on foreign, security and defence policy. Such questions have come to the fore in politics since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought war back to Europe, triggering huge western interventions to shore up Kyiv’s defence against Vladimir Putin’s forces. Although the Government insists there is no plan to change Ireland’s military neutrality, it says discussion is necessary on the future evolution of the policy because of the altered security environment.

What exactly will the forum examine?

The forum will assess triple-lock mechanism for Defence Forces deployments outside the State, with Government, Dáil and UN approval required for any large missions. Ireland’s engagement with EU security and defence policy will be examined. So too will be the State’s links with Nato via the Partnership for Peace, a programme that connects non-aligned countries such as Ireland with the alliance.


These are often contentious topics. Still, the Government says it does not aim to frame the discussion on the “binary issue” of neutrality or the question of Nato membership. There will be discussions also on cyber security, disinformation, threats to critical infrastructure and hybrid threats, which are actions to harm targets by combining overt and covert military and non-military groups.

Mr Higgins is not impressed?

Certainly not. Interviewed in the Business Post, the President said the State was “playing with fire” because of drift in foreign policy, saying leaders should avoid “burying ourselves in other people’s agendas” as policy is reviewed. Ireland should avoid the “strutting and chest-thumping” of people promoting a “hold-me-back version of Irish neutrality” who want the State to “march at the front of the band” into alliances such as Nato, the President said. “The most dangerous moment in the articulation and formulation of foreign policy and its practice, since the origin of diplomacy, has been when you’re drifting and not knowing what you’re doing,” he added. “I would describe our present position as one of drift.”

What else did the President say?

Mr Higgins questioned in blunt terms the role of forum chairwoman, Louise Richardson, the Irish academic who was previously vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. She is now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the $4.7 billion philanthropic foundation established in 1911. The President said Ms Richardson comes to the forum “with a very large DBE – Dame of the British Empire”. He added: “I think it’s grand but, you know, I think that there were a few candidates I could have come up with myself.” Asked for Ms Richardson’s response to such remarks, the Carnegie Corporation referred questions to the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Department provided a statement from Mr Martin which did not address the President’s comments about the chairwoman.

What did the President say about forum panels?

He said they were mostly made up of “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it” and “the formerly neutral countries who are now joining Nato”.

What did the Tánaiste say?

Defending the forum, Mr Martin said panellists were from “a wide range of backgrounds and with a variety of expertise and experience, including in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, arms control and disarmament and conflict resolution internationally”. He cited the Government’s “fundamental duty” to address the global situation as it is. “Political leadership means taking on the responsibility of putting in place policies and practices to keep this country, and its people, safe and secure.”

Previously, Mr Martin questioned whether the triple-lock was “fit for purpose” and said the UN Security Council veto should be assessed. The Security Council has not approved a new peacekeeping mission since 2014. “The increasing use of the veto is limiting the council’s ability to fulfil its mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security,” Mr Martin said. “The forum needs to examine what this means for Ireland’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy, including the implications for the triple lock.”

What has Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said?

Warning of heightened risks to subsea telecommunications cables and the electricity grid, Mr Varadkar has raised the prospect of the Government joining Nato or EU programmes to protect critical infrastructure from attack. “No matter how much we spent on our Defence Forces or our Navy, we wouldn’t be able to do this on our own. So, we do need to co-operate,” Mr Varadkar said this month. “That means co-operating potentially with Nato allies through the Partnership for Peace, which we’ve been members of for over 20 years now, or through the EU’s Pesco arrangement, which is the EU’s structured co-operation on defence and security.”

What has the Opposition said?

Sinn Féin has dismissed the forum as a “blatant attempt to undermine Irish neutrality”. The party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Matt Carthy, said the Government “handpicked group of European military experts and academics leading with a conversation to get the outcome that Fine Gael want which is an entire dismantling of neutrality”. People Before Profit TD Mick Barry said the objective was “to soften Irish public opinion for in­creased military spending, military co-operation with imperial powers and de facto associate membership of Nato”. In testy Dáil exchanges last week over the forum, Mr Martin withdrew claims that People Before Profit TDs would “put the jackboot on people” with different views to them if they were ever in authority.

What happens next?

Almost 900 people have registered to attend the meetings. The Government insists there are no predetermined or preconceived outcomes. Ms Richardson will produce a report after the discussions. The Tánaiste will consider that report and decide whether to bring recommendations to Government.