Russia does not respect Irish neutrality, says French ambassador

Ireland’s stance must ‘evolve’ in the face of new international threats

Russia has no respect for Irish neutrality and Ireland and the EU must focus more on defence, the French ambassador has said.

Vincent Guérend, who was appointed to Dublin in 2020 by president Emmanuel Macron, said neutrality failed to save countries such as Belgium during the first World War.

“Certainly, it was not the case a hundred years ago. It will certainly not be the case this time,” he said in an interview.

Mr Guérend said that Russia had committed so many breaches of international law recently that it was clear it would ignore the concept of Irish neutrality if it wished to harm the country.

He said Russia's invasion of Ukraine poses "an existential threat" to the EU, particularly EU states near the Russian border. Other threats, he said, include China, which can be a rival and a co-operator, and climate change.

The ambassador said France respects Ireland's neutrality and its defence policy but that this "doesn't mean that this policy cannot evolve…or should not be adapted to a new environment".

Irish neutrality has evolved between independence and today, including during the second World War, Mr Guérend said. It is up to the Irish people and the Government to determine how that policy should evolve further and at what pace, he said, “but like everything, it has to adapt”.

Neutrality does not mean countries cannot cooperate with their neighbours, the ambassador said, pointing to the newly agreed EU Security Compass agreement, of which Ireland is a member.

The Security Compass, agreed in March, will see increased cooperation between EU militaries and increased investment in defence across the bloc. It also establishes a 5,000 strong "rapid deployment capacity" to allow the EU to response quickly to crises. It also calls for greater cooperation between the EU and bodies such as the UN, Nato and the African Union.

‘Beef up capacity’

France has taken a leading role in promoting the agreement which has taken several years to negotiate.

Mr Guérend said the agreement does not compromise the neutrality of EU member states but it does oblige countries to raise their guard. He said Ireland has a different type of engagement with the EU security apparatus but signing up to the Security Compass will not present any legal difficulties.

The ambassador said France has great respect for the Irish military and its history of peacekeeping. The Defence Forces and the French military cooperate in "modest" ways, such as through language courses and officer exchanges, Mr Guérend said, adding that he was due to meet Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lt Gen Seán Clancy.

“At the same time, it’s true that we strongly believe, based on this Strategic Compass, that all EU member states, including France and Ireland, should probably beef up capacity in the face of a much worse international environment.”

Asked if France would like to see Ireland join Nato, the ambassador replied: “That’s not at all for any of us, and certainly not for France, to decide or encourage or discourage.” Such matters are sovereign decisions, he added.