Neutrality: adapting to new threats

Every policy, no matter how dearly cherished, benefits from renewal and occasional interrogation

Members of the Defence Forces pass the GPO during the ceremony commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising 1916 on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 2016.Photograph: Alan Betson

Ireland is justly proud of its military neutrality. It is a principle that enhances our ability to pursue key foreign policy goals and amplifies our voice on issues we care about, including human rights, international development and disarmament. But every policy, no matter how dearly cherished, benefits from renewal and occasional interrogation.

The latest bout of reflection has been prompted by a European Union scheme to increase defence coordination among member states. Known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco), the initiative will allow for a multi-billion euro weapons fund, shared financing for battlegroups and a coalition of the willing to conduct more missions abroad. Ireland has signed up for five of 17 Pesco projects, including those related to training and maritime surveillance. The move has drawn criticism from the neutrality lobby, however, who see Pesco as the prelude to common defence, which would entail a mutual defence pact along the lines of Nato's article 5.

Those concerns will hardly have been allayed by a recent policy paper from Fine Gael's MEPs, who call for a "redefinition" of neutrality and greater Irish engagement in the emerging European Defence Union.

Neutrality has always been a contested, slippery term. What to some has always meant simply military non-alignment is to others an expression of Ireland’s world view – one that implies pacifism, a rejection of great-power competition and opposition to neo-imperialist adventures.


But the discussion must concern practice as well as principle. The security landscape today is unrecognisable from that of the postwar years. Global terrorism and hybrid warfare, including disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, are transnational threats that pose new questions for every country, Ireland included. In that context, the Fine Gael document makes useful recommendations. It suggests the creation of a central intelligence unit to centralise information gathered by An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, and a National Security Council that would assess and report on security threats. Other ideas, such as a remark by MEP Brian Hayes that Ireland should consider joining an EU Defence Union if it ever arises, will be far more controversial.

Those who fear Pesco will threaten Irish policy should be reassured, however, that the red linesremain intact. While it’s true that some of Pesco’s champions see it as a stepping stone to common defence, that’s far from inevitable. Pesco itself is far from a European army, and it does not alter the fact that the deployment of Irish troops is subject to the triple-lock – a government decision, Dáil endorsement and UN authorisation. In any case, common defence would require treaty change and, for Ireland, a referendum. It will only happen if the Irish people approve.