Stephen Collins: What price Irish neutrality in today's world?

Polls show majority of voters in favour of closer EU defence and security arrangements

The cyberattack on our health system is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world and cannot afford to be without allies. File photograph: The Irish Times

The cyberattack on our health system is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world and cannot afford to be without allies. File photograph: The Irish Times

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The cyberattack on the Irish health service and the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Belarus should prompt a fundamental reassessment about the relevance of neutrality to the challenges of today’s world. The role and under funding of the Defence Forces over many years has to be part of that assessment.

Irish neutrality, as commonly understood, is a long-outdated concept which suggests that this State not only doesn’t take part in military alliance but has no particular view on the course of international relations. It dates from the second World War when Ireland was neutral as between the fascist powers and the Allies.

That concept continued to hold sway in the cold war when the country declined to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). The actual reason for opting out of Nato was the refusal by the then government to recognise United Kingdom sovereignty over Northern Ireland rather than any objection to defending western democratic values.

Close defence co-operation with our fellow EU member states is an important statement of the nation’s values and is also vital for its future security

There was never any doubt that successive Irish governments were politically on the side of the West. When Ireland first applied to join the European Economic Community in 1961 the State’s top negotiator, TK Whitaker, made it clear that we would be prepared to join Nato if that was a requirement. The then taoiseach Seán Lemass said bluntly that if Europe was worth joining it was worth defending. But when we actually joined a decade later the government managed to avoid a firm commitment and retained a notional neutrality for fear of sparking opposition from the strong political lobby wedded to the concept.

The Irish version of neutrality was only possible because of our geographical location in the western Atlantic between the United States and UK. They provided a security blanket behind which we could shelter without the cost of spending a significant amount of scarce resources on defence. And it is hard to fault successive governments for taking the soft option.

That world has long since gone and so, to be fair, has the complacent view of neutrality to which it gave rise. In 1999 Ireland joined the Nato partnership for peace and more recently we have engaged with moves towards closer European defence arrangements. Just two weeks ago Defence Forces chief of staff Mark Mellett held routine talks with the European Defence Agency.

These moves were essential if only to enable the Defence Forces to continue to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations which have generated a considerable level of public pride over the past 60 years. Nowadays UN peacekeeping operations are often subcontracted out to Nato or the EU. So it is essential that Irish personnel participate in exercises with other countries and have comparable equipment to ensure that they are properly prepared for serious peacekeeping operations when they arise.

Leaving aside purely operational factors there is the deeper question of being clear which side this country is on and how it can best protect itself in the future. The answer to both is that close defence co-operation with our fellow EU member states is an important statement of the nation’s values and is also vital for its future security. An end to the shameful underfunding of the Defence Forces is also long overdue.

The cyberattack on our health system is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world and cannot afford to be without allies

It is worth remembering that during the protracted negotiations over Brexit, when this country’s interests were at stake, we received full support from all our EU partners. Many of them – particularly the Baltic states and countries in eastern Europe like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary – had no vested interest in backing the Irish case, but they did so out of solidarity with a fellow EU member in the far west.

Those countries feel threatened by incessant Russian pressure on their borders and meddling in their internal affairs. Many Irish people appear oblivious about what is happening on the eastern border of the EU and seem to care less, but it is time that they started to pay close attention now that the threat is coming closer to home.

The cyberattack on our health system – which most experts believe originated in Russia, with or without the connivance of the Russian state – is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world and cannot afford to be without allies. Forcing the Ryanair flight down was another reminder of the growing threat to our security.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in its submission to the Commission on Defence has stressed that closer co-operation with the European Defence Agency and Nato is increasingly important. The need for a full public discussion about these issues is long overdue so that the debate is not hijacked by small vocal groups who oppose any form of defence co-operation with our neighbours. Previously, governments have shied away from such discussion and the evolution of defence policy has been conducted in a semi-secret fashion.

The public is far more ready to move on these issues than political leaders seem to appreciate. A number of recent opinion polls have shown a clear majority of voters in favour of closer EU defence and security arrangements. It is time for a full discussion about what this process and the resources required to sustain it should entail.

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