Triple lock: why only 12 Defence Forces members can be sent on evacuation missions

In wake of Sudan crisis, strong political consensus exists for upper threshold to be increased

Members of the Irish Army Ranger Wing during a deployment in Chad. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The “triple lock” sets out the conditions under which the Defence Forces may participate in overseas peace support operations.

Three conditions must be satisfied. The operation must be mandated by the United Nations; it must be approved by the Government: and thirdly it must be approved by Dáil Éireann, by means of a resolution.

The idea of a triple lock first came to the fore in debates on the two Nice referendums over 20 years ago. If Nice was ratified, the argument went, it would allow Irish Defence Forces to be involved with EU rapid reaction forces.

It became the basis of a conspiracy theory that had a lot of traction with a large number of voters in the Nice Treaty referendums and, indeed, in the Lisbon Treaty referendum seven years later in 2008. The theory went that the treaty would lead to the establishment of a European army with compulsory subscription.


The triple lock was the Fianna Fáil-led government’s response in an effort to allay such fears among the population.

On one viewing, the triple lock is little more than window dressing. Since the Defence (Amendment) Act 1960, overseas deployment by members of the Defence Forces could only come about with UN approval and with a resolution of the Dáil. The only change in the triple lock, enshrined in law in 2006, was the additional need for a decision by the Government which, until recently at least, was basically the same thing as a majority of the Dáil.

For defenders of the triple lock, it is the main mechanism that preserves the existence of Irish military neutrality. For those who oppose it, it is a clumsy and inappropriate tool that restricts Ireland’s ability to exercise its own sovereignty in choosing where to deploy troops in a peacekeeping capacity. Any deployment can be stymied by the veto powers of autocratic states on the UN Security Council; namely Russia and China.

The limits of the triple lock have been tested by the recent situation in Sudan. The violence there has necessitated the urgent evacuation of more than 120 Irish citizens from there. Twelve members of the elite Army Ranger Wing, which conducts special operations, were deployed to the nearby country of Djibouti, to protect consular staff and Irish citizens escaping the violence.

In this instance, logistical constraints confined the number of personnel to 12. But as it happens, under the Defence Act, no more than 12 members of the Defence Forces could have been deployed in any instance, unless they were unarmed.

Separately, for over a decade, Irish Army personnel have been members of EU battlegroups where they have performed specified tasks, known as the Petersburg Tasks. The reason they have not come under the triple-lock formula is that they have been involved in training exercises rather than deployment.

Opposition parties, primarily Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, have opposed the battlegroups consistently over the years, arguing they are part of a “slippery slope” towards a pan-European army and membership of Nato.

The Government has rejected those arguments. However, until quite recently there was no real momentum in the Government parties for a change in the triple lock. That situation has changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At its ardfheis last November, Fine Gael voted to change the triple lock. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has also signalled a change in his party’s policy, saying it is “morally wrong” that an authoritarian power has a “de facto veto” on how Ireland reacts to international situations.

Kildare TD and former head of the Army Ranger Wing Cathal Berry would like to see wholesale changes to the triple lock

There are two former Army officers in the Oireachtas, Kildare TD Cathal Berry, who was head of the Army Ranger Wing, and Senator Tom Clonan. They are not ad idem on the triple lock. Berry believes it hands Ireland’s sovereignty over to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. “The root of the triple lock is that people in Ireland do not trust us to make decisions, that we have to be held by the hand by the adults of the planet. I do not subscribe to that view at all,” he argues.

“It was brought in on false pretences with a Brexit-type lie that we would be conscripted into a European army.”

Clonan, on the other hand, believes for the “big ticket” operations, the triple lock, by and large, has served Ireland well, in operations like Congo, Lebanon, Liberia and Chad.

Both however, think it is worth debating the merits of the triple lock, although Berry would like to see wholesale changes.

Where there is general agreement - and this is shared by Sinn Féin’s foreign affairs spokesman Matt Carthy - is that the upper limit of 12 Defence Forces personnel being deployed is much too low.

Clonan points to Ireland’s soon-to-be investment in heavy airlift capacity which will need large teams. He says a total of 12 people for operations such as evacuating Irish citizens from Sudan is completely inadequate. He says that at least a platoon (30 personnel) would be needed to secure staff and citizens.

Berry agrees and believes the Defence Act should be amended to raise the upper limit to 50 or to 100. He also believes, given the veto power of China and Russia, that the UN mandate aspect of the triple lock should be changed, becoming “desirable” rather than mandatory.

The latter suggestion is likely to be the subject of intense public debate in the coming months. Sinn Féin would likely oppose it. But Matt Carthy told The Irish Times that the upper limit of 12 personnel should never “provide a barrier to evacuation”.

“Sinn Féin will work with the Government to ensure the necessary supports can be deployed quickly to safely evacuate Irish citizens, and to ensure that the Defence Forces have the right equipment, including Air Corps capacity, for such operations,” he said.

The small left-wing parties and left-wing Independents in the Dáil would be less likely to support such change.

But it does seem, at least, there is a strong consensus, politically, for that upper threshold of 12 personnel (before the triple lock kicks in) to be increased.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times