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Will ditching the triple lock damage our neutrality or vindicate our sovereignty?

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has announced plans to scrap the mechanism which prevents Ireland deploying troops overseas without UN approval. Should the triple lock go?

Prof Ben Tonra: Yes. Decisions about international security and peacekeeping will continue to be decided by the Irish people

The triple lock has no impact on Ireland’s traditional military neutrality – and never had. It was a phrase cooked up in the 2001 Nice referendum debate by the FF/PD coalition to underline the fact that under existing legislation the Defence Forces could not be deployed overseas without a “UN mandate”. It was defined in March 2002 by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who said that the deployment of troops was determined by it being “. . . part of an operation endorsed by the United Nations, it must be approved by a clear government decision, and it must be approved by Dáil Éireann. These three conditions provide a triple lock on it.” The phrase itself appears nowhere in legislation but it is rooted in the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960.

The 1960 legislation provided for the deployment of armed contingents of 12 or more military personnel to “an international force or body established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations for the performance of duties of a police character”. Subsequently, the legislation was amended by the Defence (Amendment) Act 1993 which redefined the scope of Irish deployment to “an international force or body established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations”. This enabled deployment to operations requiring a more robust military engagement and was designed to facilitate Ireland’s contribution to the 1993 UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II).

As peacekeeping needs changed, the legislation was further amended by the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 which now defines deployment as “. . . an international force or body established, mandated, authorised, endorsed, supported, approved or otherwise sanctioned by a resolution of the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations”. This amendment was designed to address the specific challenge of the “Chinese veto” in the security council.

In 1992, the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) was dispatched to Macedonia at the request of the Macedonian government to prevent the spread of the ethnic conflict. However, because Macedonia later established diplomatic relations with Taiwan – whose democratic independence the Chinese government in Beijing refuses to recognise – the Chinese vetoed the renewal of the peacekeeping operation. Not for any principled reason – simply to punish Macedonia. The Chinese had form here, having vetoed a 1997 UN mission to Guatemala in retaliation for the visit there of a high-ranking political delegation from Taiwan.


In the event, Nato stepped into the breach. When, however, it was agreed that the Nato force would be replaced by an EU force in 2003, Ireland faced a quandary. The relevant UN Security Council Resolution did not itself “establish” a peacekeeping force. It simply welcomed and endorsed an EU one. The government judged that a legal basis did not exist for Irish participation in the associated EU Concordia peacekeeping mission. The 2006 Act remedied his gap by allowing for the overseas deployment of troops to an operation “. . . established, mandated, authorised, endorsed, supported, approved or otherwise sanctioned” by the UN, designed to cover as many eventualities as possible.

So what we are looking at today is the third time that the Defence Acts have been proposed to be amended to take account of changing international realities. With Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and its efforts to wipe that country from the map of Europe, there is now effectively a rogue state in the security council with control over the deployment of Irish troops on international peacekeeping missions. The Government proposes legislating so that only the Dáil will ultimately decide on the overseas deployment of troops – removing the security council veto of three Nato members and two dictatorships over the Defence Forces’s peacekeeping options. Ireland’s traditional military neutrality existed before the 1960 Defence Act. It existed after the 1993 amendment to that Act, and it continued after the 2006 amendment of the same Act. Ireland’s traditional military neutrality will similarly be unaffected by the proposed amendment. Ireland’s contribution to international security and peacekeeping will be in the hands of the Irish people – and no one else.

Ben Tonra is Full Professor of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations

Prof Ray Murphy: No. Long-term implications of scrapping the triple lock have not been properly considered

Participation in UN peacekeeping is one of the most successful examples of Ireland’s contribution to multilateralism. While a key responsibility of peacekeepers today is the protection of civilians, there is a broader international responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from atrocities, as acknowledged in the 2005 World Summit document. However, this reiterated that any response under this doctrine should be within the framework of the UN.

In recent years there has been increased tension among the major powers which has spilled over into all UN activities, in particular the work of the security council. This has been reflected in the paralysis when responding to international crises.

In the current debate about Russia’s use of its veto in the security council, it seems to be forgotten that this privilege is extended to all five permanent members – United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. Furthermore, when the council is unable to act, the issue can be transferred to the General Assembly for approval, an organ with far greater representation and legitimacy within the UN system.

Part of Ireland’s military neutrality stance, the triple lock means that a mandate from the UN, a Government decision and Dáil approval are required to send more than 12 troops overseas on peacekeeping missions. Most of the current discussion is focused on Russia or China’s ability to veto UN operations. A quick review of the use of the veto shows how the US has most often exercised it. In fact, in 2002 the US threatened to use its veto in the security council to prevent the renewal of all UN operations in its efforts to evade the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

The UN is often ineffectual, but it remains the most important international organisation with responsibility for peace and security. If Ireland is really committed to the UN Charter and international law, then it cannot be part of any decision that goes outside this framework. There may appear to be a short-term gain in changing this policy, but the long-term implications have not been properly considered.

Ireland played a significant role while a member of the security council. This success owed much to our participation in UN peacekeeping and perceived independence, especially on a range of issues including disarmament, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. Ireland has also advocated for reform of the UN in order to strengthen its mechanisms. This will not be helped by participating in missions that do not have prior UN approval. It would also set a precedent for bypassing the UN in the future.

While the sustainability of Defence Forces’s overseas commitments is a challenge due to shortages of personnel, it is reasonable to ask why Ireland is withdrawing from an important UN operation on the Golan Heights (UNDOF) to give priority to participation in an EU rapid-deployment capacity that most likely will never be deployed?

The 2015 Defence White Paper confirmed Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. This is a fundamental tenet of Irish foreign policy that underpins engagement in all peacekeeping operations. Deployment of Defence Forces personnel on peacekeeping missions should continue to be in accordance with the commitment to the triple lock process made before the second referendum on the Nice Treaty. Many peacekeeping operations are delegated by the UN to regional organisations such as the African Union, the EU and Nato. The triple lock does not preclude our participation in regional-led peacekeeping missions once UN approval is agreed. Any operation outside the UN framework would lack international legitimacy.

Unfortunately, the combination of political and security challenges confronting peacekeeping missions may damage the priority given to human rights, rule of law and good governance. Ireland can still play a role in promoting these principles and supporting political processes ahead of military solutions. Ireland’s real strength lies in its capacity to utilise its soft power to forge alliances with a wide range of global actors, including our EU partners, while still maintaining an independent foreign policy based on support for the UN.

Dr Ray Murphy is a professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in the School of Law, University of Galway