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Irish neutrality means whatever the government of the day wants it to mean

The ground has shifted and Ireland’s approach to military defence will come under scrutiny like never before

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was roundly condemned in the Dáil last week, but the unanimity on that masked divides about Ireland's neutrality and its future in a world that has become a lot more dangerous, a lot more threatening.

Several Government TDs urged a change in what they view as Ireland's head-in-the-sand attitude to its own defence and the defence of Europe. Charlie Flanagan, who held the foreign affairs, defence and justice portfolios in previous governments, best summed up their arguments:

"We in Ireland also have been sheltered from external threats by the Nato umbrella. To a large extent we have enjoyed the luxury of being bystanders as regards security and defence. This approach is no longer a credible option. Now is the time for Ireland to look at where it stands on the issue of European security and defence."

Even Danny Healy-Rae wanted to send "guns, ammunition and artillery" from the Curragh to Kiev.


But Sinn Féin TDs, Independents and some Fianna Fáilers spoke in praise of Ireland’s role as a neutral country, which, they said, gave our voice in international affairs a special authority. TDs from the radical left espied a clear effort by the Government to nudge the country towards a less dovish approach to defence.

Paul Murphy saw "plans on display in this debate today to undermine Ireland's neutrality". For Mick Barry, the agenda of the Government is to "align its foreign policy more closely with Nato".

It was easy to see where they were coming from. Throughout the week the Government’s leaders have continued to raise the need for a “debate” about neutrality. When someone is looking for a debate, they mean a change.


On Monday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told RTÉ: "I think we'll need to think about deeper involvement in European defence."

The following day Micheál Martin counselled caution on that move, but observed: "Neutrality is a policy issue that can change at any time, subject to the Oireachtas or the government of the day."

And on Thursday, visiting Finland, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said that it was now "appropriate" to have a public debate about defence after the attack on Ukraine.

The comments of the Ministers presage a debate in the EU that is taking off at warp speed since the Russian attack. It is driven in part by the countries for whom the threat of aggression or invasion is very much more real than it is for Ireland. Even before the invasion Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian president who habitually obstructs EU initiatives and has been Putin's staunchest ally in the bloc, called for the "development of European military capabilities and a joint defence force". The sight of Russian tanks rolling into your neighbourhood tends to concentrate the mind.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, joined Orban, calling for the establishment of a "strong European army".

French president Emmanuel Macron has clearly indicated that he wants a closer European defence policy to be one of the products of the current French presidency, even before the invasion of Ukraine.

An informal summit of EU leaders at Versailles next week is likely to be dominated by the subject.

Abrupt shift

How Ireland will respond to this abrupt shift in EU priorities is not yet clear – officials and politicians who spoke this week were in wait-and-see mode. But it is clear to people on all sides of the debate that the ground has shifted, and that Ireland’s approach to military defence will come under scrutiny like never before.

But what exactly is “Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality”? What does it mean? The answer is surprisingly unclear.

According to senior officials and politicians, there is no “handbook” on neutrality that tells governments what they can and cannot do. There are only the decisions that a government makes on a day to day basis.

Irish governments are subject to the so-called “triple-lock”, which means that overseas troop deployments require a UN authorisation, a government decision and Dáil approval. But that has limited impact. For example, there is nothing to prevent the Government supplying arms to Ukraine if it decided that such an action did not contravene the policy of neutrality.

When the then government facilitated the US build-up for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many opponents claimed it was a violation of neutrality. The government just said it wasn't; the Dáil confirmed it with a vote. In other words: neutrality means whatever the government of the day wants it to mean..

In a 2019 paper on neutrality for the Institution of International and European Affairs think-tank, Prof Patrick Keatinge of Trinity College observed "there is bit a of something for everyone in this broad diplomatic tradition". Neutrality, he said, may have been a "core element in Ireland's foreign policy but it also makes for an ambiguous security and defence policy".


Ireland has maintained that ambiguity in the face of a steady push in Brussels for a more coherent foreign and security policy over the last two decades. The defeat of the Nice and Lisbon EU treaties – in which campaigns the spectre of a European army sending Irish boys to foreign wars loomed large –has reminded governments they cannot get too far ahead of public adherence to the idea of neutrality, whatever it means.

Since Lisbon the Constitution prohibits entering into “a common defence”, so a further constitutional change through a referendum would be necessary, something the Taoiseach referenced last week.

That has not, however, prevented extensive Irish military involvement in various international ventures. Though it is seldom publicised, Ireland’s military non-alignment has already been stretched, both through our EU membership and bilateral co-operation with Nato.

Under the EU Common’s Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), Ireland co-operates closely with other countries’ militaries towards shared goals such as developing anti-terrorism and cyber capabilities. This does not, the Government believes, violate the current constitutional ban on taking part in a common defence under article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Under the CSDP, the Defence Forces take part in the EU Battlegroup system, the purpose of which is to supply battalion-sized military units which remain on standby in order to intervene in emergency situations, such as humanitarian disasters or rescue operations.

Ireland joins with Sweden, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to form the 2,500-strong Nordic Battlegroup which has been on stand-by for deployment on two occasions since 2008. Battlegroups undertake extensive joint training exercises together, however they have yet to be deployed on a live operation.

EU banner

Outside the battlegroup system Ireland has taken part in many overseas operations under the CSDP banner, including in Chad, Somalia and the refugee rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

There are currently Irish troops deployed under the EU banner in Mali, where they are training that country's military to fight Islamic insurgents, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of the EU support mission there.

Ireland also contributes extensively to the EU’s Defence Fund which is designed to stimulate collaboration between European militaries in research and development. During its current six-year cycles Ireland will contributed €150 million to the €8 billion fund.

The most controversial aspect of increased EU military integration is undoubtedly the Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco) which Ireland joined in 2017 following extensive debate in the Dáil and opposition from Sinn Féin and other smaller parties.

During the 2017 debate on joining Pesco it was framed as the thin end of the wedge which would lead to the end of Ireland’s neutrality. The fears that Ireland would be sucked into an international arms race have so far proven unfounded. Of the 47 Pesco projects launched to date, Ireland is currently a participant in just one, a Greek-led initiative to upgrade maritime surveillance systems. It also has observer status on an additional nine projects.

Ireland has also forged close links with Nato, taking part in Nato-led peacekeeping operations as long as they receive UN approval. In 1999 the relationship between Ireland and Nato was formalised under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) system which sought to increase co-operation between the militaries of Nato and non-Nato countries. Since then Ireland has taken part in Nato-led missions in Kosovo (KFOR) and Afghanistan (ISAF). Irish troops frequently go overseas to train with Nato militaries and their troops come here.

Furthermore, Ireland recently joined the Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, an accredited Nato training centre in Tallin, Estonia. Several Irish officers are currently deployed to the centre.

PfP has been described as “waiting room” for potential Nato members. While this has been true for several former members who have gone on it join Nato, there is little evidence that it applies to Ireland’s situation. In fact many military experts believe Ireland’s relationship with Nato has weakened in recent years due to the Defence Forces not being able to maintain Nato military standards.

This view was reflected in the recent report from the Commission on the Defence Forces, which noted Defence Forces battalions “do not align to Nato standards, are under-staffed and under-resourced” .

Irish airspace

The least understood of Ireland's military alliances are those with our closest neighbour. While most of this relates to relatively mundane issues such as training exchanges and the sharing of information, there also exists an agreement, which the Irish government refuses to acknowledge, that the British RAF can enter Irish airspace to deal with threats from hijacked aircraft or foreign air forces. The agreement is considered necessary by Ireland due to Irish Air Corps' lack of interceptor jets or primary military radar.

Nato has traditionally been the bogeyman for defenders of Irish neutrality. But there appears little public appetite or political momentum towards joining the alliance.

What seems much more likely is that there will be a push for much greater EU defence capacity and co-operation between member states. The caution and incrementalism that has marked moves towards EU defence is being overtaken by the fears of eastern European member states, especially in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and the urgency of the moment.

And while Nato will remain the primary vehicle for European defence, the last 10 days have transformed the EU’s attitude towards defence.

The referendum that would be necessary for Ireland to join a meaningful EU defence policy – and the public debate on defence, neutrality and Ireland’s responsibilities to itself and others – now seems a likely prospect.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times