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Pat Leahy: Whatever we do on neutrality will come at a price

If we decline to join an enhanced EU security and defence pact Coalition Ministers fear isolation

Debate has been focused on Ireland's military neutrality since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Video: Enda O'Dowd

Sometimes politics is about trying to find a middle way. And sometimes it’s about picking a side: with or against us.

As the bombs rain down on Ukrainian civilians, the world is being reordered in primary colours, presenting the binary choices that wars, by their nature, demand. Ireland cannot remain insulated from this. Whether we like it or not, the world is changed, and stark choices about our place in it will soon confront us.

European Union leaders meeting in Versailles danced around the question of a future common defence and a quantum leap in military spending across the EU, to be paid for by €200 billion in joint borrowing, proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron. However it is organised and paid for, there is little dispute that the EU needs to rearm and prepare to defend itself against the threat that Russia now poses to its neighbours.

If you don’t think those fears are realistic, speak to someone from the Baltic republics, Poland, the Czech Republic. And while Germany might cavil at how enhanced defence capability is paid for, it is certainly insisting that it is necessary. Chancellor Olaf Scholz put his money where his mouth is, saying Germany would spend an additional €100 billion on defence and send weapons to Ukraine.


It is a truism that the bloc tends to make giant leaps in response to a crisis: we are now witnessing just that

Nato will remain the principal bulwark of European defence, but it is hard to overstate the extent to which the mood has changed in the EU on the subject. It is a truism that the bloc tends to make giant leaps in response to a crisis: we are now witnessing just that. Whatever your views on the position Ireland should take on EU defence, it is simply a reality that the environment has changed drastically.

“Defence and security are about to become one of the basic pillars of the EU,” says a person with a comprehensive knowledge of EU politics at the highest level. The EU is relearning one of the central lessons of the cold war: the way to avoid a war is to prepare thoroughly for it.

The Government can of course decide it doesn’t want to join any efforts to enhance EU security and defence. But Ministers are acutely conscious of how isolated this would leave us. Central and eastern European countries, says one Irish diplomat, would point to the solidarity extended to Ireland during Brexit and wonder at the lack of reciprocity when they feel threatened. Good wishes and fine words are not a currency that is trading strongly on international markets just now.

Failure to join a new common defence effort would be seen by other countries as “very odd and a lack of solidarity”, says a senior diplomat from another (neutral) EU country. “Why would we support your Northern Ireland policy – which we do – when you cannot contribute to European security?” asks this person. Another EU diplomat from a different country says that failure to join an EU defence would be seen “a kind of Brexit”.

Any significant move towards a more coherent and robust EU defence may well require a constitutional referendum, in the light of the guarantees inserted at the time of the Lisbon Treaty, though I have heard arguments either way. It may depend on the exact structure proposed. But I think the Government will have to win a political argument about EU defence anyway.

If the Government decides to run a referendum, expect it to be fronted by the Taoiseach. He would present himself as a lifelong supporter of military neutrality who has been convinced by events that Ireland must play its part in defending the EU: not an abandonment of neutrality, but a commitment to self-defence. It would strongly reject the idea of equivalence between the EU-Nato side and Russia, as proposed by Mick Wallace and Clare Daly and others. It would say: time to pick a side.

It would be hard for the Greens, many of whose activists would recoil from the idea of joining anything that looks like a military alliance, even a defensive one. The broader opposition to joining a new European defence effort would be significant; neutrality has been a touchstone for many on the left, and beyond it, for a long time.

The mobilisation of opposition to any change was also evident in the Dáil

In an interview with the Inside Politics podcast during the week, Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said that his party would “very clearly” campaign against any involvement in a common EU defence. The mobilisation of opposition to any change was also evident in the Dáil, where Independent Galway TD Catherine Connolly – inheritor of the seat once occupied by Michael D Higgins, an old warrior in the cause of neutrality himself – seemed offended that the issue should even be raised. It was, she said, “not helpful to democracy”.

Reviewing the historic debates on the subject would suggest that neutrality is not like virginity: it seems possible to lose it more than once. But it’s also fair to say that the current environment presents a challenge to neutrality that is real and not – like before – imagined.

Sometimes referendums in Ireland have tended to be about anything except the actual question on the ballot paper. Those were in less threatening times. The war on the European continent, the awful spectre of its escalation into a broader conflict, the threat of Russian aggression towards her neighbours – these have changed everything. “This is just a whole new world,” says a senior member of the Government.

It will soon be time for Ireland to make up its mind. We are entitled to make whatever choice we like mindful that there will be significant consequences either way. But there will be no dodging the question. As Trotsky said: You may not be interested in war. But war is interested in you.