Political parties divided over definition of Irish neutrality


There are conflicting views within the Coalition and Opposition parties over legislation on sending Irish troops abroad, writes Stephen Collins, Political Correspondent

Sharp divisions are beginning to emerge across the political system about the interpretation of Irish neutrality in the future. Legislation designed to make it easier for Irish troops to participate in humanitarian missions abroad, which is expected to become law next Wednesday, has brought the whole issue and the so called triple-lock mechanism back to the forefront of political debate.

The allied issue of Irish participation in EU battlegroups adds another ingredient.

Since the collapse of communism, the traditional concept of Irish neutrality has become dated but the Government has struggled to come up with a more relevant interpretation that can command popular support.

Some of the wilder claims about a secret plan to construct a European army undoubtedly helped the NO campaign in the first Nice referendum and that has made Fianna Fáil extremely wary.

The response of the Government to the first Nice defeat was to come up with the triple-lock, which means that Irish troops can only be deployed abroad if the Government, the Dáil and the United Nations all approve an operation.

The triple-lock was designed to defuse the issue in the second Nice referendum campaign and it succeeded.

The problem is that the triple-lock is cumbersome and not all Irish politicians are happy to have effectively handed over Irish sovereignty on this matter to the Security Council of the UN.

Ireland is the only European country to have adopted this position. Interesting divisions have begun to open up between the Government parties and also between all of the Opposition parties on the relevance of the triple-lock and the question of Irish involvement in EU battlegroups.

Fianna Fáil wants to persist with the triple-lock in a slightly relaxed and more workable form but the Progressive Democrats have serious doubts about the principle of the concept.

Fine Gael wants to abolish it altogether and free the Irish Government and Dáil from the UN veto, Labour favours the Fianna Fáil slightly improved version, while the Green Party is totally opposed to any relaxation of the measure, as is Sinn Féin.

On this issue current political alliances go out the window. Fianna Fáil and Labour are in agreement as are Fine Gael and the PDs. The Greens are much closer to the Fianna Fáil position than they are to that of Fine Gael, with whom they hope to be in Government after the election. The only party with whom they are fully in tune is Sinn Féin.

The Defence (Amendment) Bill, 2006, which was debated in the Seanad during the week and which now goes into the Dáil on Wednesday is a short piece of legislation designed to clarify the operation of the triple- lock. Section One defines an "International United Nations Force" with which members of the Defence Forces may be deployed, to include regional organisations providing peace support.

Section Four of the Bill provides that all members of the Defence Forces shall be liable for overseas service, while Section Eight enables members or contingents to be assembled and embarked before the triple-lock has clicked into place.

During the debate on the Bill in the Seanad last Tuesday, Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea pointed out that one of the reasons for the Bill was that at present there was no UN Security Council resolution for humanitarian operations in response to disasters, as they did not usually represent a threat to international peace and security.

"Under the current arrangements, the Government has no authority in this area and Defence Forces' personnel must volunteer for service with a civil undertaking, such as an NGO, in the same manner as any ordinary citizen, where upon the NGO would then deploy them to the disaster area. The provision in this Bill provides the requisite authority for the Government to despatch members or contingents of the permanent Defence Force on humanitarian operations," he said.

Fine Gael leader in the Seanad Brian Hayes backed the view that the legislation was needed, particularly because of the question mark over the legality of sending Irish troops abroad on humanitarian missions. He pointed out that Ireland was unable to commit troops to peacekeeping in Macedonia because of a dispute in the UN Security Council.

"We were left in a cul-de-sac because of our position on the triple-lock," he maintained. Senator John Minihan of the PDs, a former Army officer, also expressed his reservations about the triple-lock referring to Chinese opposition at the UN that prevented Irish troops going to Macedonia.

"The triple-lock mechanism does not serve the Irish people in the way I believe they seek, and it does not serve Ireland well," he said.

The Greens, who are not represented in the Seanad, called a press conference to express outright opposition to the Bill, claiming that Irish lives would be put at risk as a result of the relaxation of the triple- lock. Party leader Trevor Sargent also complained bitterly that all stages of the Bill were being rushed through the Dáil in one day. Mr O'Dea described the Green claims of lives being put at risk as outrageous and the issue will be thrashed out between them on Wednesday.

In the Seanad, Mr O'Dea also provided an update on the battlegroups, although he described the term as misleading. He said it was a standard technical military term to describe a force capable of stand-alone operations, with full transport and logistics support capabilities to carry out its tasks, comprising approximately 1,500 personnel.

"What is actually meant by battle- groups, in this respect, is a core of troops which could respond quickly to a crisis situation." Irish officials are currently negotiating with Swedish authorities regarding Ireland's possible participation in the Nordic battlegroup, which is planned to be on standby during the first half of 2008. Apart from Sweden the other countries in the Nordic group are Finland, Norway and Estonia.

The Minister maintained that Ireland's participation in EU military operations, which are undertaken within the framework of the EU's European security and defence policy, would represent a continuation of our long and honourable tradition of support for multilateral arrangements in the maintenance of international peace and security.