Neutrality referendum not the ‘immediate challenge’ for Government - Coveney

Minister for Foreign Affairs says he is in discussion with EU counterparts in relation to Russia’s diplomatic presence

Neutrality in the future will have to be redefined if Ireland wants to remain a neutral state, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney said the Government have to be open to making changes to the Constitution but that it was not the “immediate challenge”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s News at One on Sunday, Mr Coveney said Ireland was finalising a new policy on common defence and security though the European Union.

Asked whether there would be a referendum on Ireland’s neutrality and defence policy, he said there had not been discussions in Government on the issue with Ireland’s focus currently on its response to the war in Ukraine.


“Of course though we’ll address the issue, if there needs to be a referendum, and we have to plan for that, well then of course we will plan for that, but that isn’t the issue that’s on the table right now,” he said.

Mr Coveney said Ireland, like many other countries, was “vulnerable”.

“We might not be vulnerable to a conventional military attack, but we’re certainly vulnerable to cyber attacks which we know come from both non-state and state actors,” he said.

“We’ve just experienced one of those in the middle of Covid, on the HSE, which put lives at risk and significantly disrupted our health systems.

“So no country is safe and being so called neutral doesn’t mean that you’re safe, and so neutrality in the future, I think will need to be redefined if Ireland wants to remain a neutral state.”


On the question of expelling Russian diplomats from Ireland, Mr Coveney said “we are trying to do these things as a collective across the European Union because by doing it that way it’s much more powerful”.

“I’m in discussion with a number of other EU colleagues in relation to this issue and when we’re ready to make a decision, we will,” he said.

Mr Coveney said he was “very familiar” with Russia’s diplomatic presence in Ireland and had previously prevented the Russian Government’s plans to “expand their presence here physically with much bigger buildings”.

“I can assure you the Government is more than aware of Russia’s presence here and the individuals who are here and we are talking to EU colleagues about how best to approach that and we’ll look to take collective action with other EU countries,” he added.

“I think that is the most appropriate way to do this and when we’re ready to make a decision on that we will.”

The minister also said the Taoiseach had been speaking to other EU leaders about providing more flexibility within EU rules, regulations and directives to allow governments provide more “supports” in areas that are feeling pressure, such as fuel and food prices.

He said there would likely be continued inflation in the months ahead due to the war and sanctions and the Government “will be and needs to be flexible enough to be able to support people through that”.

“But I think we need to be honest with people too, Government intervention isn’t going to be able to mitigate entirely the consequences of war,” he added.

“Certainly we will do what we can to support vulnerable families in particular and of course, to try to reduce the volatility in prices given the impact of both sanctions and Russia’s war.”

Patrol vessels

Meanwhile, it was announced that two second hand inshore patrol vessels have been bought by the Government from New Zealand, and are due to be delivered in 2023.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney confirmed the purchase of the vessels, at a cost of €26 million, on Sunday.

Mr Coveney said the Government acknowledged there are “ongoing challenges” in the Naval Service and these are being addressed “as part of a planned approach to regeneration of the Naval Service”.

“This will see, amongst a range of other actions, the withdrawal of three ships from service - LÉ Orla, LÉ Ciara and LÉ Eithne and their replacement on a phased basis,” he said in a statement.

Two Russian warships which entered Irish-controlled waters in early February were monitored by the Naval Service alongside the UK and US navy.

Russian naval exercises were relocated outside of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after Mr Coveney wrote a letter to his Russian counterpart.

The patrol vessels will provide replacements for LÉ Orla and LÉ Ciara and will have “a lesser crewing requirement” as enhancing the Naval Service’s capacity to operate and undertake patrols in the Irish Sea on the east and south east coast.

“This will allow the remaining fleet to focus on operations elsewhere,” the department of defence said.

“It is the intention that the two ships will be transported to Ireland in 2023 after a programme of works to restore them to Lloyd’s Classification has been carried out in New Zealand.

“The project to provide for the replacement of the flagship LÉ Eithne with a new more modern and capable Multi Role Vessel is underway, with consultants having been engaged with a view to initiating a tender competition in due course.”

Irish interests

Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said the changing face of maritime security in the Irish Sea has highlighted a requirement for “a specialist inshore capability in order to protect Irish interests”.

"The procurement of these vessels strengthens the ability of the Naval Service to fulfil its role in protecting our national sovereignty and constitutes a strong vote of confidence in the Defence Forces by the Minister and Government," he said.

Flag Officer Commanding the Naval Service Commodore Michael Malone said the acquisition of the vessels will allow the Naval Service to continue to modernise and tackle "the dynamic and ever changing maritime environment that we operate in 365 days a year".

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times