The Irish people owe themselves a mature debate about this country's place and role in the world, taking full account of Ireland's interests and values. They are well served in this respect by the Government's White Paper on Foreign Policy, "Challenges and Opportunities Abroad", published yesterday. The document combines realism and idealism in presenting a comprehensive picture of its subject. It will be up to political leaders and interested citizens to use it to raise the level of debate on issues that bear as much on domestic as on foreign policy.

The White Paper has been much anticipated and foreshadowed in a valuable exercise of publicity and discussion initiated by the Tanaiste, Mr Spring and the two Ministers of State, Ms Joan Burton and Mr Gay Mitchell. Foreign policy is not an obscure or arcane matter for a State such as this which depends so much on open access to the world economy to make its living and to the international political system to protect its interests.

The White Paper shows how economic and trade policy, agriculture and structural fund transfers within the European Union, are related to wider considerations of politics and security policy and to the distribution of wealth in the world today. It provides an account of how such policies relate to each other and indicates the evidence required to choose between different visions of Ireland's role. It also describes accurately the constraints imposed by historical, geographical and policy realities.

Unfortunately the delay in publishing the White paper has meant that the public discussion it was designed to stimulate has remained dormant, especially among the politicians who should be most responsible for it. Political preparation for Ireland's forthcoming presidency of the European Union may suffer as a result. To ensure that this is not the case an informed debate is now overdue. There will be considerable consensus on core values of foreign policy expressed in this document. It could not have been written so comprehensively and coherently if this were not the case this is one of the real strengths of Ireland's international profile.

As these core values and interests are brought to bear on the forthcoming intensive discussion of Ireland's policies within the European Union, the consensus will tend to fragment. There are real and important disagreements about whether this State should be among the first group to form a monetary union and to develop common security and defence policies. A mature debate on whether Ireland should join Nato's Partnership for Peace organisation or become involved in the Western European Union's humanitarian, rescue and peacekeeping tasks, should be conducted on the facts set out accurately in this document rather than on false assumptions that such associations must lead inexorably to membership of either military alliance. It is clear from any careful examination of the legal and political issues at stake that they don't.

The choice is rather more complex, and subject to negotiation. It may well be necessary to reinforce solidarity in the field of security if it is to be maintained in the areas that have up to now suited Ireland's interests. The merit of the White Paper is that the issues are presented sufficiently clearly to allow this debate to proceed on a higher plane than heretofore.