Poll shows a symbolic support for neutrality

THE evidence of the Irish Times/ MRBI poll indicates that the traditional commitment to neutrality is still there, large as life…

THE evidence of the Irish Times/ MRBI poll indicates that the traditional commitment to neutrality is still there, large as life. Asked "do you think that Ireland should maintain its policy of neutrality or should it be changed?", 99 per cent of respondents said "maintain" (figure 1).

This appears to confirm what we have always known about public opinion on neutrality and to effectively nobble any political leaders who might be harbouring the thought that today's discussions in Dublin Castle and the proceedings in the Inter Governmental Conference may require flexibility and some give and take on Ireland's part.

The appearance is deceptive. Almost every other piece of evidence in the poll relating to foreign and security policy leads to a qualification of the traditional view of Irish public opinion on the question of neutrality.

The contrary evidence begins with the 57 per cent in favour of the proposal that all member states commit themselves to come to the defence of another member state in the event of an attack on that state. But does the juxtaposition of this with the 69 per cent support for neutrality not simply show either that public opinion is irrational or that polling is irrational? Neither; it shows that public opinion is complex.


Take the 69 per cent who are in favour of maintaining the policy of neutrality. These were then asked whether, while staying out of military alliances, Ireland should agree a common foreign and defence policy with the other EU states or should Ireland decide on its own policy without reference to the other member states. Sixty two per cent of those committed to maintaining neutrality were in favour of pursuing a totally independent policy and 26 per cent were in favour of agreeing a common foreign and defence policy.

Similar probing of the attitudes of those who wished to change the policy of neutrality show a two thirds majority among them in favour of joining NATO and a slightly smaller majority in favour of joining the Western European Union (the difference in the size of these groups is due to the lower recognition factor for WEU).

In order to obtain an overall picture of attitudes in this area it is essential to combine the responses to these two separate questions. Table 1 does this and shows a considerably greater diversity of opinion than that suggested by the bald figure of 69 per cent in favour of maintaining neutrality: 43 per cent of the Irish public would maintain neutrality and pursue an entirely independent foreign policy, 18 per cent would adhere to neutrality but be willing to agree a common foreign and defence policy, 13 per cent would go as far as joining NATO and a further 4 per cent would change neutrality but not join NATO.

Again, there will be those who say that the attitudes of the one in five who want to maintain neutrality but are willing to agree a common foreign and defence policy are confused and contradictory. The question is whether the individuals are confused or the prevailing concept of neutrality is ambiguous.

In Irish public opinion, neutrality is a good thing. One can guess at why this is so: it is tradition; it is independence; it is anti militarism it is anti big power politics; it is pro-Third World; it was anti the new Cold War in the early 1980s and was and is against the spread of nuclear weapons. It is symbolic of a lot of aspirations that ordinary people have. It is not, at least not as it exists in public opinion, a policy or even a principle that prescribes a definite policy.

Further evidence of the aspirational and symbolic quality of the notion of neutrality as it exists in Irish public opinion and of its compatibility with quite diverse courses of action in foreign affairs comes from questions asked in the survey on attitudes to NATO led peace keeping and peace enforcement efforts.

Having been reminded of the fact that there are various ways in which both neutral and non neutral states in Europe co operate together in the military field, respondents were asked first about joining in NATO led peace keeping exercises and, secondly, about joining NATO led peace enforcement efforts "in such places as Bosnia". The peace keeping exercise question specifically mentioned NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, participation in which is currently under consideration by the Government.

Seventy seven per cent support the proposition that Ireland should "be prepared to join the NATO led Partnership for Peace programme for the purpose of engaging in joint peace keeping exercises".

The willingness to be involved is not confined to the traditional kind of peace keeping in which Ireland has played such a significant role. Seventy one per cent would be prepared to see Ireland serve in "a NATO led peace enforcement effort" (Figure 4). And 80 per cent of Fianna Fail supporters would favour joining PFP with only 10 per cent against.

It is quite clear from this that NATO as such is not the bogeyman it has often been assumed to be. Given that 69 per cent support the maintenance of neutrality and 77 per cent support joining NATO's Partnership for Peace (PEP), it is also clear that very many Irish people see no conflict between neutrality and involvement in PFP. In fact we can be quite precise about this: cross tabulation of the responses shows that 75 per cent of those who are committed to maintaining neutrality are in favour of joining Partnership for Peace.

Furthermore, if we focus on the 40 per cent of the population who seem to adhere most closely to traditional conceptions of neutrality (i.e. those who wish both to maintain neutrality and to pursue an independent foreign policy without reference to other member states of the EU) the evidence shows that 73 per cent of what we might call these traditional neutralists are prepared to join NATO's Partnership for Peace. Sixty eight per cent of them are prepared to see Ireland serve in such areas as Bosnia in NATO led peace enforcement.

The above results are surprising only in the context of the bogeyman/thin end of the- wedge theory of NATO and its peacekeeping/peace enforcement efforts. It is quite unsurprising in the light of the fact that the only other European country not involved in PFP is Switzerland. There is a cogent argument which says that willingness to be involved in PFP and in a NATO led force in Bosnia is compatible with traditional neutrality, the presence of other neutral states reinforces this view.

The real test of the meaning of the public's commitment to neutrality comes when we return to the proposal to "come to the defence of another member-state of the EU in the event of an attack" with which this article began. It is true that this is not neutrality. So, how do those who wish to maintain neutrality view this proposal?

The answer is that half of them are in favour of the proposal and one-third are against it. Not only that but half of those who want to maintain neutrality and pursue an independent foreign policy (the group referred to above as traditional neutralists) are in favour of a commitment to come to the defence of a member state under attack. This is the most definitive indication that neutrality as seen by public opinion as a vague "good" that does not impose narrow limits on political decisions.

There is no doubt but that part of the alleged contradictions in public opinion derive from incomplete information and understanding of the issues.

What public opinion in this area amounts to then is a desire, perhaps at times an inchoate desire, of the people of a small independent state for the foreign policy of that state to be based on independent judgment, while allowing that such judgment may lead to forms of international cooperation and even of military involvement that would be anathema to neutrality purists.

What it also amounts to, therefore, is considerable scope for and a formidable challenge to political leadership. Potentially, that leadership could come from any quarter, as the poll also shows that no party's supporters have a monopoly on, or even much of an edge in, sentiments of neutrality.

Richard Sinnott is director of CEEFA (Centre for European Economic and Public Affairs) at UCD and co editor of Public Opinion and Internationalised Governance, Oxford University Press, 1995.