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Military neutrality in a changing world

We need to grow up and pay for Defence Forces that are fit for a strong, small, neutral state

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott
The Irish Times - Letters to the Editor.

Sir, – Fintan Lane (Letters, June 20th) is probably correct in asserting that Irish public opinion would be unlikely to support a significant increase in the defence budget.

However, he avoids mentioning the effect of current levels of expenditure. Ireland does not currently have the capacity to patrol its airspace and has only the capacity to deploy one ship to patrol its extensive maritime economic zone. The capacity of land forces to undertake peacekeeping missions has also been impacted and the commitment to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights has had to be terminated.

The RAF currently guards our airspace.

In the event of a wider conflict between Russia and Nato, we will have no choice but to accept Nato protection, at sea and in the air, where we are most likely to be initially impacted.


Our current policy of so-called military neutrality is‚ in effect, one of non-membership of Nato, while availing of the protective umbrella of that organisation.

Pragmatically, however, we do co-operate with that organisation and have participated in Nato-led missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. We also have participated EU Battle Groups and are due to do so again.

The Defence Forces also, as far as possible, adopt Nato standards and procedures. We also provide some very limited military assistance to Ukraine. At the same time the Defence Forces contribute to UN-mandated peacekeeping missions, as indeed do some Nato members. Given our geographical location in the North Atlantic, our patterns of trade, investment, labour mobility, and EU membership, this can be regarded as a sensible and pragmatic policy. It is not neutrality in any meaningful sense, however, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

In this context, our open support for Ukraine is a step in the right direction.

Being neutral is not a prerequisite for advocating and working for peace. Norway is a Nato member, widely respected for its peace building efforts. French, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian British, Canadian, and Danish troops have participated, alongside Irish Defence Forces troops, as well as troops from then-neutral Sweden and Finland in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. There is, therefore, nothing in our current pragmatic, if under-resourced, policy which prevents us from continuing to exercise whatever influence we have, in the interests of peace, including continued participation in peacekeeping or peace enforcing operations. – Yours, etc,




A chara, – Fintan Lane believes that our ill-defined version of neutrality puts us in a strong position to influence world affairs and prevent the rise of militarism. Because of this, he suggests that any increase in military spending to give us the normal capabilities of a neutral European state would be a waste of money.

In reality, the fact that we have no meaningful military capability and are utterly dependent on a foreign, nuclear-armed Nato power to provide basic air and sea security to this State essentially eliminates our credibility. Rather than a strong, neutral, and independent voice, we are seen as a nation of smug and self-regarding freeloaders. On the international level, we function as a Nato protectorate, if not a de facto Nato member.

Why does Mr Lane think Russian ships massed over key strategic cables in our (supposedly neutral) waters shortly before it invaded Ukraine?

Mr Lane also implies that any increase in military spending would require us to reach Nato levels of spending (2 per cent of GDP, about €10 billion).

In reality, even the most ambitious vision for our military set out in the recent report from the Commission on the Defence Forces suggested a total spend of slightly under €3 billion.

Even then, this would only give us the bare capacity to secure our seas and airspace without relying completely on Nato, a basic requirement for any state that claims to be neutral.

Like Mr Lane, I believe in a neutral Ireland that is a genuine force for peace and justice, but unlike Mr Lane, I realise that this is simply not possible until we grow up and pay for Defence Forces fit for a strong, small, neutral state. – Is mise,