Where now for Irish neutrality? Must it gradually disappear into European Union security structures dominated increasingly by the United States and Nato? Or can neutrality survive in a more multipolar world beyond Western hegemony and in continuity with Ireland’s anti-imperial history?
These questions arise pressingly from contemporary responses to Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine, Ireland’s changing economic and political geography, and the urgent need to modernise the defence forces.
The Government’s four-day Consultative Forum on International Security Policy later this month provides an opportunity to debate the issues. Criticised by Opposition parties for not calling the Citizens’ Assembly on the subject as he originally suggested, and opting instead for this more potentially manipulable forum, Tánaiste Micheál Martin told the Dáil an assembly would take longer and would be in an already crowded field, with two others running on drugs and education. The live-streamed forum will have 1,000 attendees and is open for public registration and submissions. Most Opposition parties say they will participate.
Will the forum raise the generally poor level of contemporary Irish political and public conversation on changing security needs with fresh evidence and perspectives? Or will it be mainly another occasion for doctrinaire accusations and denials of betrayal and abandonment of traditional policy?
“Neutrality is inherently ambiguous and contested, as Conor Gallagher’s new book, Is Ireland Neutral?, enlighteningly explores. Members of the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces, which reported last year, and those organising this forum, hope the use of the term “security” will allow for less strident exchanges.
The commission proposed three levels of ambition: current capability bringing existing defence commitments to €1.03 billion or 0.5 per cent of gross national income (GNI); enhanced capability bringing re-equipment and expenditure to €1.5 billion annually, or 0.72 per cent of GNI; or conventional capability in which Ireland has “full spectrum defence capabilities to protect Ireland and its people to an extent comparable to similar sized countries in Europe”, costed at just under €3 billion or 1.5 per cent of GNI. The Government has decided to reach the second option by 2028, increasing spending by 50 per cent.
I don’t understand Ireland, you are not aligned, and you are not aligned with the non-aligned— Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko
The forum’s agenda covers topics including global to cyber and maritime security; Ireland’s United Nations role; the EU’s common foreign and security and defence policies; NATO’s partnership for peace; research and development policies; Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Swiss comparisons; and how Ireland’s military neutrality is defined historically and optionally. The cyber and maritime aspects arise from Ireland’s highly developed globalisation as a transatlantic digital hub.
Noel Dorr, the veteran diplomat, recalls the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s exasperated interruption of his Irish counterpart Garret FitzGerald’s effort to explain Irish neutrality during the Cold War in the 1970s: “I don’t understand Ireland, you are not aligned, and you are not aligned with the non-aligned.”
Customary, not constitutional
Irish traditional neutrality is customary, not constitutionally entrenched and arises mainly from this State’s non-participation in the second World War. As Dorr explained, Ireland’s long-standing commitment to collective security, enunciated by Éamon de Valera about the League of Nations and the United Nations, “means a willingness to join in forceful action to maintain peace – antithesis of the impassive aloofness of neutrality”.
Unlike the 15 or so European states that went into the 1939 war neutral and came out occupied or defeated, Ireland’s neutrality was one of the few to survive. That was, arguably, largely to do with Northern Ireland’s availability as a base for up to half a million US and British troops and air power. The Independent TD Cathal Berry was the only one to ask in the Dáil debate why the forum is not asking whether a united Ireland would be neutral.
Irish public opinion favours continuing neutrality by a proportion of two to one. Surveys by the European Council on Foreign Relations this week show 74 per cent of Europeans believe Europe should develop its own security and not rely on the US
Interesting alternative perspectives raised by the organisation Afri on neutrality as a potential force for peace in Ukraine using Frank Aiken’s ideas from the 1960s – and critical of assumptions built into the defence commission – deserve a hearing at the forum. So do proposals that Ireland either join or associate with the more active Non-Aligned Movement now that the world is moving towards a greater number of more equal poles of power beyond US hegemony, published by the Irish Political Review group.
Irish public opinion favours continuing neutrality by a proportion of two to one. Surveys by the European Council on Foreign Relations this week show 74 per cent of Europeans believe Europe should develop its own security and not rely on the US.
The real challenge for Irish neutrality policy is to reconcile these two orientations in line with our own historical and contemporary political experience.