Irish credibility under pressure on European defence and security


THE forthcoming publication of the much delayed White Paper on Irish foreign policy is bound toe revive the debate on Irish neutrality; even though it does seem that this document is most unlikely to propose that we accept the obligations of mutual defence contained in the Western Europe Treaty.

Honesty requires that I say at the outset that I have never had any enthusiasm for neutrality although as Taoiseach I believed that because of the widespread public support for this policy I had a duty to ensure that we entered into no engagement that could prejudice this policy until and unless such an engagement was publicly posed and the policy formally altered.

I am not the only Taoiseach who has taken a negative view off Irish neutrality; a succession of Fianna Fail Taoisigh have challenged it in the most explicit terms. Thus in December 1960 - before we applied for EC membership - Sean Lemass said "there is no neutrality and we are not neutral", going on to pose the rhetorical question: if help from Ireland were crucial to a Western victory in a war with the Soviet Union, "could we in the last resort refuse it?"

In the 1970 White Paper on EC membership, published by Jack Lynch's government, which provided the basis for our negotiation on membership, our acceptance of an eventual system of European defence was spelled out in these words:

"It is recognised that, as the Community evolves towards its political objectives, those participating in the new Europe must be prepared to assist, if necessary, in its defence."

Jack Lynch had already tackled the neutrality issue frontally when he told the Dail in 1969 that Ireland "had no traditional policy of neutrality . . . like countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Austria".

Finally, in March 1981, Charles Haughey's Fianna Fail government successfully opposed a motion that the Dail reaffirm "the principle of the neutrality of Ireland in international affairs and declare that our foreign and defence policies will continue to be based on this principle".

The formal rejection of neutrality as a principle by the Dail at the end of that debate was based on the grounds that "political neutrality or non alignment is incompatible with membership of the European Community and with our interests and our ideals". And so far as I am aware that unambiguous principle has never been reversed either by the Dail or by Fianna Fail.

IT IS fair to add, however, that in that debate Charles Haughey made Irish involvement in European defence conditional; first, on the raising of Irish per capita income from 61 per cent of the EU level to over 80 per cent (a target already attained, because last year Irish net disposable income per head was 82.5 per cent of the EU figure); and, second, on the achievement of EMU, for which the target date is three years hence.

A neutrality policy thus linked to economic considerations can hardly be described as "principled"; it is in fact highly pragmatic.

That said, there has been general agreement that any involvement in European defence involving a mutual defence commitment would be preceded, by a referendum; something that in any event appears to be required by our Constitution.

I feel it is important that these past statements of government policy on neutrality and European defence be placed once again on the record, because there has been a persistent attempt to present a quite different picture.

There is clearly a danger that the picture thus presented could mislead people who may be took young to remember, or who may have forgotten, the positions actually adopted on these issues by a succession of Irish governments.

It may well be that the issue of European defence will not be pressed at the forthcoming InterGovernmental Conference, or that in the absence of agreement among other EU states, it will be substantially postponed to another occasion.

We may thus be able for the time being to continue to enjoy all the advantages of memberships of a Community in whose security and defence we play no part. But when and if the conditions laid down by our government in March 1981 are fulfilled, we may no longer be able painlessly to enjoy this luxury.

Some have questioned the need for any European defence arrangement in the post Cold War period. But few in Europe would accept the idea of leaving a European security vacuum in a world where there is a clear threat of nuclear proliferation. For we know that a nuclear capacity is currently being sought by irresponsible dictatorships as well as by other countries with unstable governments.

Moreover, Europe also contains such potentially explosive elements as a disintegrated Yugoslavia, where the current peace is the product of exhaustion rather than of reconciliation. On the margins of Europe lies a Russia in which people such as Zhirinovsky are seeking power, and where a vast reservoir of nuclear weapons is under the uncertain control of demoralised armed forces.

Against such a background there is little prospect of convincing our Community partners that defence and security provisions are no longer necessary in Europe: an Irish government that attempted to sell such a thesis to its EU partners would thereby simply destroy its own credibility.

THE choice for Europe ultimately lies between European defence and a humiliating degree of in definite dependence on American military resources; not just for strategic nuclear protection - but even, it would seem, for the means to provide a modest level of security for people within our own continent.

Can we easily forget the recent episode where the population of Tuzla, one of the "safe areas" for Bosnian Muslims, required the airlifting of some 1,000 European troops over a distance of 100 miles or so?

And the fact that Europe, including Ireland, had to renege on its guarantee to the people of this town, apparently because it did not have the necessary airlift capability even for such a modest exercise - and because the Americans, who had such a capacity, were not prepared to risk their airmen's lives?

How can such an incapacity to provide security for a European people be justified?

A European defence capability that can be deployed independently of US support is clearly necessary. Such a capacity will never match or replace the US logistic capability, but it is needed to enable Europe to look after its own interests and to offer the necessary protection to Europe's peoples against the kind of human rights violations and genocide that we have seen in Yugoslavia, simply because of the inadequacy and incoherence of our current European defence capacity. We have to face the fact that Europe's view of human rights issues, and of its interests, will not always coincide with those of the US.

For the moment we in Ireland may be willing and able to contribute to European security only by providing some peacekeeping forces to or in conjunction with our partners. But the last few years have shown that peacekeeping alone can be quite ineffective in protecting both Europeans and Africans from genocide.

A peace enforcing capacity is also needed, and while an Irish contribution to peace enforcement would necessarily be very limited, I do not see how we can take up a "principled" stand against any participation in, or co operation with, peace enforcement activities.

These are issues that we should be prepared to face honestly if we are to be able to respect ourselves or to hold the respect of our partners. For we cannot expect them to accept the view put forward by some of our advocates of neutrality that opting out of the security and defence of our Community and continent is a virtuous act that in some way leaves us with cleaner hands than the great majority of our partners.