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Stephen Collins: Notion that our neutrality is widely respected abroad is an Irish self-delusion

Invasion of Ukraine brought an end to any indulgence by our European allies and highlights ridiculousness of giving China and Russia a veto over Irish actions

Cadets form a guard of honour for Tánaiste and Minister for Defence Micheál Martin. Photograph: Alan Betson

The long overdue reappraisal of Irish neutrality at the consultative forum due to meet next month will give the Government an opportunity to put forward a clear position on how the country’s defence needs should be met in a changing world. Hopefully it will bring a sense of reality to public discussion of the issue.

For far too long, a free rein has been allowed to vocal groups who claim to be defending neutrality when in fact many of them are bitter critics of Western democracy and support some of the most repressive regimes on the planet.

The mainstream parties have shirked a full and open debate on neutrality for decades for fear of stirring up opposition from these groups, inside and outside the Dáil. The result has been a warped definition of neutrality that has confused the public and left the country almost defenceless.

Nothing illustrates this more than the so-called triple lock, which prevents the deployment of more than 12 members of the Defence Forces on missions abroad without the consent of Russia and China and the rest of the United Nations Security Council.

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The triple lock meant that the elite Army Ranger Wing could send only 12 of its special forces to protect consular staff and Irish citizens escaping the violence [in Sudan]

Voters were given a glimpse of the limiting effect of this restriction during the recent humanitarian mission to bring more than 120 endangered Irish citizens out of Sudan. The triple lock meant that the elite Army Ranger Wing could send only 12 of its special forces to protect consular staff and Irish citizens escaping the violence.

It was the same story last July when Micheál Martin, then taoiseach, travelled to Ukraine to meet President Zelenskiy. The size of his protection unit was limited to 12, which may well have been appropriate for the operation, but it is extraordinary that the Irish leader could have been exposed to danger by such a ridiculous rule.

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The triple lock had its origins in the rules devised to cover the deployment of Irish troops to the Congo in 1960 as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. It was subsequently updated in 2002 after the Irish people rejected the Nice Treaty following spurious claims that it involved the creation of a European Army.

To counter these claims, the Fianna Fáil government persuaded the European Council to agree a declaration reaffirming Irish neutrality. The Seville declaration was subsequently interpreted to mean that no more than 12 Defence Forces personnel could be deployed without UN authorisation.

EU battle groups

Bizarrely, more than 12 have taken part in specific tasks as members of EU battle groups, which do not come under the triple-lock formula as they are regarded as training exercises rather than deployment.

Opposition parties, primarily Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, have opposed the battle groups, which are designed for humanitarian missions, arguing they are part of a slippery slope towards a pan-European army and membership of Nato. Before the invasion of Ukraine, these same political groups often seemed slow to criticise Vladimir Putin’s Russia and happy to denounce Nato.

That invasion galvanised Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael finally to confront the absurdity of the triple lock and examine the wider issue of neutrality. At its ardfheis last November, Fine Gael voted to change it while Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has publicly said it is morally wrong that an authoritarian power has a de facto veto on how Ireland reacts to international situations.

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Kildare South TD and former Army officer Cathal Berry believes that while the triple lock is appropriate for UN peacekeeping operations, it should not apply in any other context. “We must be the only country in the world that does not trust itself to decide when it is appropriate to deploy our own defence personnel,” he said.

The triple lock is not part of the Constitution, and was updated by legislation in 2006, so there is nothing to prevent it being refined again to allow the deployment of a significant number of troops or, better again, to abolish it altogether.

A further refinement of neutrality emerged after the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and was contained in a protocol agreed with our EU partners. This protocol, which does have constitutional standing, restates that Ireland cannot be part of any EU mutual defence arrangement. That would not prevent Ireland giving military aid to an EU neighbour if the triple lock was removed and such action was approved by the government and the Dáil.

The very least our neighbours, who showed such solidarity with us over Brexit, expect is that we will face up to the need to defend ourselves

In the Dáil last week TDs from different sides of the argument claimed there was serious respect at international level for this country’s neutrality. This was Irish self-delusion at its worst.

Speaking privately, diplomats from other European countries are scathing about our definition of neutrality. In the past it may have been accepted as a quirky affectation which had the benefit for us of avoiding having to spend much on defence while getting others, the UK in particular, to do it for us.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought an end to that indulgence and the very least our neighbours, who showed such solidarity with us over Brexit, expect is that we will face up to the need to defend ourselves and maybe even make some contribution to European security, given that our economic prosperity depends on it.