The Irish Times view on Ireland’s military neutrality: a new definition for a new era

A questioning of the current posture does not have to imply abandoning the aspiration to an independent, moral foreign policy that might be called “neutral”

Ukraine should be a "catalyst" for an "honest rethink" about Ireland's security and defence policies, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has argued. President Michael D Higgins has made his own call for an "informed, respectful" debate on neutrality.

When Nato foreign ministers met yesterday to discuss further aid to Ukraine, they were joined by "traditional neutrals" Sweden and Finland where, polls show, there are now majorities for joining the security organisation. Both have in recent years eschewed the description "neutral" in favour of "militarily non-aligned", while Austria, still clinging to what it sees as neutrality, is fully committed to engaging in the further development of EU common defence and security policy.

The Constitution affirms the State’s devotion to “peace and friendly co-operation... international justice and morality” but does not mention neutrality. The Dáil 10 days ago defeated a motion calling for a referendum to enshrine it in the Constitution, although Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken of a citizens’ assembly on the issue.

Both Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch spoke candidly in the Dáil over 50 years ago of the loss of neutrality as the inevitable result of joining the EU and our willing obligation to defend fellow members, but it has since become a sacred cow in our political culture that most politicians find too hot to question. The invasion of Ukraine and the threat posed by Russia to fellow EU members seem to have has changed that reality.

But we are far from being able even to agree a common definition of "military neutrality". At one end of the spectrum is the limited official definition, rarely articulated, requiring the State not to sign up to any alliance based on automatic mutual defence. That necessitated an explicit Irish opt-out from the EU treaty's provisions for mutual assistance if a member is attacked, although enhanced EU military co-operation is seen as being fine. Ireland professes to be willing to assist on a case by case basis and subject to UN approval.

At the other end of the spectrum are definitions which veer towards outright pacifism and rejection of any form of international military engagement, or which embrace the nebulous concept of “positive neutrality”. That appears to be an enthusiastic willingness to engage in UN multilateral peacekeeping, avoiding great-power alliances, and the articulation of a “good guy”, moral, peace-loving foreign policy.

None of the definitions are completely mutually exclusive, and a questioning of current posture does not have to imply abandoning either the aspiration to an independent, moral foreign policy that might be called "neutral", or membership of Nato. In opening a debate on the Commission on Defence's finding that the Defence Forces are not fit for purpose, we need to ask, at the most basic level, what purpose we want the policy to serve.

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