State’s brand of neutrality has become obsolete
World View: Irish ‘neutrality’ is intensely ideological, a luxury and a bit of a myth
Taoiseach of Ireland Enda Kenny signs the new Rome declaration during a summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding. Photograph: Tiziana Fabitiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
When EU leaders met in Rome last month to mark the union’s 60th birthday and respond to Brexit with an optimistic declaration on its future, among the dimensions addressed was defence: a “union committed to strengthening its common security and defence, also in co-operation and complementarity with Nato, taking into account national circumstances and legal commitments . . .”
The “taking into account” is diplomatic code for “none of the above refers to, or imposes any obligations on, Ireland or Austria, whose strange ‘neutrality’ we don’t understand – as club members you’d think they might be willing to defend us – but will respect . . . ”
Since the Nice Treaty in 2002, acknowledgement of Ireland’s “traditional policy of military neutrality”, the same has usually been referred to in EU treaties and declarations in similarly oblique language – just enough of a nod to cut across domestic claims that “neutrality is again being sold down the river”.
The discussion on neutrality has been frozen in a post-second World War time warp
And at home the discussion has largely been frozen in a post-second World War time warp, with just the occasional (usually Fine Gael) reference to “perhaps the time has come to think again about this sacred cow”.
In 2006, though not as taoiseach, Enda Kenny went as far as suggesting the almost sacrilegious “truth is, [that] Ireland is not neutral. We are merely unaligned.”
It’s an important distinction and an evolution in thinking that two of our once-fellow neutrals in the EU have already made without the sort of agonised soul-searching we might see here.
The Finnish line
Last week, Finnish political scientist Teija Tiilikainen spoke to the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin about her country’s evolving security doctrine and what she described as its enthusiastic embrace of EU security and defence co-operation.
Although not yet of Nato, Finland is increasingly engaged and informally aligned with it.
From accession to the EU in 1995, a consensus emerged in Finland, later to follow in Sweden, that membership was not logically compatible with the traditional notion of “neutrality”.
The national doctrine – often described as a “policy of neutrality” or “aimed at neutrality”, rather than pure neutrality – became one of “military nonalignment”, which has since been stripped of any ideological connotation and is adverted to now simply by the descriptive formula “does not belong to any military alliance”.
Virtuousness of neutrals
In Ireland, unlike Finland, “neutrality” is intensely ideological, and wrapped in the idea that there is a particular virtuousness in neutrals, a moral superiority and aloofness in our role among the “good guys” on the international stage. No imperialist bully boys here. ( “Nonalignment” also used to have such connotations in the days of the Non-Aligned Movement).
Finland’s nonaligned status is firmly rooted in a pragmatic understanding of strategic realities
But such aloofness is a luxury here, a function of the absence of direct security threats to this island.
The very real threats our partners see – Finland, has more than 1,300km of common border with Russia – do not impinge on our calculations.
Nor is there any acknowledgment of a well-understood reality – put most candidly in a joint Nato-Slovenia information website: “In actuality, during the Cold War period Ireland belonged to the West in the political sense, and it was also clear that Nato would protect Ireland in case of war between the great powers, and also because part of the island is ruled by Great Britain.”
Finland’s nonaligned status, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in a pragmatic understanding and a candid discussion of strategic realities – in part it’s even, quite openly, about not offending the Russians, whose strategic concerns are acknowledged (in the Baltic, for example, were Finland and Sweden to join Nato, the sea would almost become the internal sea of a military alliance).
As one Finnish writer on security, Antero Eerola, puts it: “In our country there is an understanding that great powers are either completely nonchalant or extremely quick to take offence at outside criticism. Russia is no exception . . . Finns have understood that a better way to turn Russia into an easier neighbour is to integrate it into European co-operation.”
“Clearly,” Eerola writes, “one cannot speak of the old ‘neutrality’, because Finland, Sweden, Austria and Ireland, as members of the EU, participate in the Union’s common security and defence policy.”
Well, sort of. “They, as is the case with any EU member, cannot be neutral in a conflict between EU and a third party. Moreover, these four countries, along with Switzerland, participate actively in Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme.”
But recognising the obsolescence of the old “neutrality” does not require an acceptance of the logic of full membership of the nuclear alliance that is Nato. Of which more another day.