Do we know what we mean by Ireland’s ‘traditional neutrality’?

Time has come for greater clarity and a higher level of debate on this contentious issue

Many years ago, as a Department of Foreign Affairs official, I heard our minister, Garret Fitzgerald, through an interpreter, explain Ireland’s neutrality to veteran Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

The cold war was at its height and the non-aligned movement active at the United Nations. Gromyko suddenly stretched his hand and stopped the interpreter. “I don’t understand Ireland,” he said, in good but accented English, “you are not aligned, and you are not aligned with the non-aligned”.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has evoked strong public emotion in Ireland and a desire to help. This, along with the commission on defence report, may well open up a debate here on the question which puzzled Gromyko – just what do we mean by “Ireland’s traditional neutrality”; and, can we, and should we, maintain it in this new, changed world?

In every referendum here on a new European Union treaty public debate has focused on whether a particular provision threatens Irish neutrality. “Oh yes it does”, goes the argument; “oh no it doesn’t”, comes the response. We then secure a formal declaration, or even insert a constitutional amendment, to protect our position further. We now need greater clarity and a higher level of debate than that.


What is neutrality? It could mean a state stays out of a particular war, as we did in 1939; or that it is committed to stay aloof from all war.

The concept developed largely in 19th century Europe. It was codified in a convention by the Hague Peace Conference of 1907. But seven years later the first World War overturned the international system. The older balance of power politics, maintained by occasional European wars, was discredited. Instead, then US president Woodrow Wilson, argued for a “community of power” to maintain peace through a “League of Nations”. The league faltered badly in the 1930s but the idea of a universal “collective security” organisation persisted and was embodied in the United Nations in 1945.

Collective security means a willingness to join in forceful action to maintain peace

Our State committed itself to collective security from the start. In April 1919, before the league was set up, the first Dáil expressed Ireland’s readiness to join and “to accept all the duties, responsibilities and burdens” that followed. Ireland has a strong record of support for the UN as it had for the league. But collective security means a willingness to join in forceful action to maintain peace – antithesis of the impassive aloofness of neutrality. So the 1907 definition has to be understood in a new light.

We know the inadequacy of the UN Security Council as an instrument to maintain peace. All five permanent members fought wars with scant regard for the charter. But it remains that Ireland, like all UN members, agreed to “accept and carry out” the council’s decisions which could include coercive sanctions and even military force. De Valera understood this. He told the Dáil in 1946 that membership would commit Ireland to “collective action” which could entail “a war of enforcement” – “war . . . to prevent war”; and he said that if the league had decided on “military action” against Italy when it invaded Abyssinia in 1935, it would have been “our duty to play our part”.

The Irish Constitution strongly affirms the State’s devotion to “peace and friendly co-operation . . . international justice and morality” (article 29). It does not mention neutrality. Indeed article 28.3.1 envisages that the State could declare war with the assent of Dáil Éireann.

Our traditional neutrality goes back to de Valera’s decision to keep Ireland out of the war unless we were attacked: a pragmatic rather than an ideological decision, and prudent too, since participation might have rekindled the flames of Civil War. But not obviously a more moral position than that of other small – neutral – European states who suffered four years of occupation, later joined Nato for protection and, like Norway for example, fully share our values and commitments to international peace today.

At times Irish ministers have differed in their approach. Seán MacBride, seeing partition as an obstacle to joining Nato, proposed a bilateral alliance with the United States instead. Seán Lemass said in 1962 that we were not neutral in the cold war and recognised “that a military commitment will be an inevitable consequence of our joining the common market”. Jack Lynch told the Dáil in July 1969 that “we have no traditional policy of neutrality in this country” and that, once in the EEC, we would naturally be interested in the defence of the territories embraced by the communities”.

That was then and this is now. Today, at Ireland’s request, the EU treaties explicitly provide that EU policies “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states” (language, with colleagues, I had some share in drafting). Enigmatic perhaps but specifically intended to safeguard our “traditional neutrality”. A protocol to the Lisbon Treaty says that the treaty “does not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality”. And, in 2002, we added to our Constitution article 29.4.9 prohibiting Ireland from joining in a common EU defence.

So where do we stand today in relation to Ukraine?

The consequences are still incalculable – for the peace of all of Europe, for the global economy, for world order

There are other dreadful wars – in Yemen and elsewhere. And future historians may think that rather than extend Nato to the Russian border it just might have been possible in the 1990s to construct a comprehensive European security system. But none of that lessens the enormity of the decision by Russia – a permanent member of the Security Council – for confused motives and, contrary to the UN charter and the 1975 Helsinki Accords, to invade another European country whose independence it previously recognised; and, then, by implication, to threaten others with nuclear weapons. The consequences are still incalculable – for the peace of all of Europe, for the global economy, for world order and, may I say, for us.

Today, to wide popular approval, we and our EU partners are imposing tough sanctions on Russia, which older concepts of impartial neutrality would never permit. So, in a sense, we are defining for ourselves what “our traditional neutrality” means. (Better, perhaps, say “independence from alliances” as we once did). But we need a wider debate on the future.

Convening a “citizens’ assembly” to consider relevant issues, as the Taoiseach suggests, would help.

My personal belief is that joining Nato does not, and should not, arise. But the assembly could, for example, consider our 2002 constitutional ban on ever joining in EU defence. Should we retain it? Or, since we share part of our sovereignty and national interests with our partners, should we rethink it so that if the issue arises then we would at least be free to consider for ourselves what best to do? The assembly could also consider relevant aspects of the commission on defence proposals about fitting our Defence Forces for what we want them to do.

We may be facing a dangerously changed world order. There is much to debate.