Rigid approach to neutrality could jeopardise role in EU

Irish neutrality is a long-standing policy, without juridical status in either national or international law

Irish neutrality is a long-standing policy, without juridical status in either national or international law. Most of the relevant international law pre-dates the first World War.

Faith in its protection has never fully recovered from the violation of Belgian neutrality by imperial Germany in 1914.

After Belgium was established in 1830, it was given guarantees of neutrality and of the inviolability of its territory, underwritten by international treaty in 1839. In August 1914, the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg protested at Britain making war "just for a word, neutrality, just for a scrap of paper". He insisted Germany was "in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no law".

In the second World War, the European neutrals were under considerable pressure from powers "in a state of necessity". During the Cold War, there was no certainty either that in a serious crisis even textbook neutrality would be respected.


Austria accepted the status of neutrality imposed under the State Treaty of 1955, to facilitate the evacuation of Soviet troops from eastern Austria. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the evaporation of the veto on Austrian EU membership, Austrian neutrality has become a policy rather than a status.

Post-first World War, the concept of international collective security binding member-states in the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations represented an important modification of neutrality. In the absence of functioning international governance, neutrality remained the fallback position.

Foreign policy principles have to be tempered by pragmatism, and by evaluation of circumstances in critical situations. Article 29 of the Constitution commits Ireland to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation, to the pacific settlement of international disputes, and acceptance of the generally recognised principles of international law in its relations with other states.

De Valera explained this to the Dáil on May 11th, 1937: "The idea of this Constitution is to put this matter of our external relations in its proper position relatively to the Constitution, and that is outside it, as a matter of foreign policy, to be determined from time to time."

The conduct of foreign policy is a matter for the government, subject to the Dáil, and ultimately the electorate. Where long-term contractual obligations of a constitutional character are entered into, as in European treaties, the Good Friday agreement, and hypothetically any future entry into a military alliance, these decisions have to be submitted to the electorate for ratification.

The implementation of foreign policy, including the policy of neutrality, was never intended to be a matter for the courts. Suggestions that neutrality, as opposed to approval for entering into a military alliance, should be written into the Constitution would be contrary to the sophisticated understanding of foreign policy expounded by de Valera. It would import into law inflexible, pre-first World War norms in a transformed world.

Independent Ireland has favoured positive international engagement, while trying to keep a distance from great power conflicts. An honourable tradition of peacekeeping has been built up. In the Lebanon, in an even-handed and neutral spirit. In East Timor, Irish troops were protecting the territory of a newly emerging state. Post-Cold War, commitment to the UN has potentially meant Irish support for far-reaching military enforcement, as de Valera foresaw in 1946.

In the 50s and 60s, Ireland at the UN balanced sympathy for Western values with support for decolonisation and nuclear non-proliferation.

Membership of the European Union entails political alignment. But we base our input into common positions and our use of the considerable room for manoeuvre left to member-states on the values of our independent foreign policy tradition. The EU treaties recognise the specific character of that tradition, which is partly described as neutrality, without according it juridical status. We do not have a problem of principle with the EU acting as a regional peace-keeping organisation on behalf of the UN, or in participating in such operations. This has not involved accepting or participating in pre-existing military alliances with mutual automatic obligations.

In the first Gulf War in 1991, or Afghanistan post-9/11, Ireland joined the vast majority of nations in passively supporting actions by the US and its allies acting with the sanction of the international community.

The recent US/British invasion of Iraq presented a more difficult case. The UN demanded clear action by Iraq, but there were subsequent differences of opinion on whether further extensions of time should be granted. Ireland wanted explicit UN sanction to support military action, but was faced with a dilemma over the continued use of Shannon for the transit of troops in its absence.

If one ignores the argument over whether the UN had already provided sufficient sanction, it can be argued that on any literal interpretation of neutrality, Shannon should have been denied.

This is where the difference between neutrality being a policy rather than a juridical status comes in. A policy takes account of both interests and ideals. If necessary, it can accommodate some derogation.

In the 1990s, the US gave up its long-standing neutrality with regard to Northern Ireland, and became heavily involved in supporting the peace process and pro-agreement forces. It is also one of the biggest influences on the Irish economy. Most of the Irish public, while opposing the Iraq war, were not prepared to sacrifice vital national interests in order de facto to side with Saddam Hussein against George Bush and Tony Blair.

Similarly, maintenance of our positive tradition of neutrality must not be pursued so inflexibly or enshrined in such a way as to jeopardise our overriding national priority of continued full EU participation, especially one that allows some exceptions. The alternative is a form of associate membership as a fall-back position that would diminish rather than enhance our sovereignty vis-à-vis the EU.