Coalition backs chair of defence policy forum following President’s comments

Historian and Irish Times columnist Prof Diarmaid Ferriter declined invitation to take part as he believed the format would not provide a sufficiently wide consultation

The Government has reassured the chair of its defence policy forum Prof Louise Richardson of its support, emphasising its desire for her to lead the discussions and write the subsequent report, further distancing itself from the criticisms of President Michael D Higgins.

The meetings of the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy begin in Cork on Thursday, continuing in Galway on Friday before moving to Dublin to conclude next week.

They will be addressed by a number of academics and military and diplomatic experts over the coming days.

President Michael D Higgins questioned the format of the forum, claiming the speaking panels were stocked with “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it” as well as “the formerly neutral countries who are now joining Nato”. His comments were part of an interview where he referred to a “dangerous drift” in Ireland’s established policy of military neutrality.


Tánaiste Micheál Martin confirmed yesterday that a number of foreign embassies have been in contact with the Government over the President’s interview last weekend, in which he made a number of comments about specific European countries and more generally about “previous empires within the European Union”.

Criticism of the structure of the forum continued yesterday, with some neutrality campaigners accusing the Government of stacking the events with speakers in favour of abandoning, or watering down, Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. The Government strongly denies the claims, and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, as well as other ministers, have insisted they will not propose an abandonment of Irish neutrality.

Nevertheless, pro-neutrality campaigners say they will stage protests at the meetings, beginning in Cork this morning.

Last night the People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the forum was “totally biased” and “stacked to the rafters with pro-Nato speakers and people associated with the military-industrial complex”.

“The public will not be fooled by these blatant efforts of the Government to do away with neutrality and move us closer to the Nato military alliance and the project of EU militarisation. In poll after poll, the public have consistently shown their overwhelming commitment to neutrality and opposition to involvement with Nato or the warmongering of other states,” he said.

There are some representatives of NGOs speaking at some of the sessions, though they are in a minority.

Meanwhile, the historian and Irish Times columnist Prof Diarmaid Ferriter said he had declined an invitation to take part in the forum as he believed the format would not provide a sufficiently wide consultation. He said he believed the consultation should have been carried out through a citizens’ assembly. He also said he had an issue with the chairwoman carrying the title of Dame of the British Empire, given Ireland’s history with Empire and the relevance of that history to the discussion. His comments echoed the concerns of the President in a controversial weekend interview in the Sunday Business Post.

Speaking as he entered the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London on Wednesday, the Tánaiste said he did not expect to discuss the President’s comments with other politicians at the event, such as France’s foreign minister, Catherine Colonna.

Did the President go too far?

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Columnist and former Fianna Fáil advisor Gerard Howlin joins Hugh Linehan, Pat Leahy and Jennifer Bray to talk about two controversial topics: recent comments by President Michael D Higgins and the Hate Speech bill that is making its way through the Oireachtas.

When he was asked if he was aware of upset at Mr Higgins’s remarks among other European countries, Mr Martin confirmed that “a few embassies” had contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

It is understood that the ambassadors of all EU countries, as well as some friendly countries such as the US and UK, have been invited to attend the forum. But the Russian embassy confirmed that it not received an invitation.

Government sources said there was never a question of Prof Richardson stepping down from the role in response to the President’s criticisms. Last night, in a video message posted on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, Prof Richardson said it was “so unusual for a Government to want to involve the whole country in a discussion on its role in the world”. She described the debates as “critically important national conversation” and urged people to submit their views to the forum.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times