Tánaiste strongly defends neutrality debates following criticism by President

Ireland in dangerous foreign policy ‘drift’, says Higgins ahead of Government neutrality debates

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s forthcoming neutrality debates and said it would be a “fundamental mistake” to shy away from a re-examination of Ireland’s defence policy.

It comes after claims by President Michael D Higgins that Ireland is undergoing a dangerous “drift” in terms of foreign policy. The comments have drawn the President into fresh political controversy, with a number of Government representatives criticising him on Sunday.

Fine Gael Minister of State Neale Richmond said the President had gone “close” to stepping over the line in terms of his authority to make such comments, while Fine Gael TD and former minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan accused him of trying to “shape Government policy against a background of a strong tradition that presidents don’t challenge Government policy.”

In a lengthy statement on Sunday, Mr Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the Government does not intend to change Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.


“Since Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which blatantly violated the UN Charter and international law and fundamentally altered the European security environment, every country in Europe has examined and re-examined its foreign, security and defence policies.

“Ireland is no different. To shy away from doing so – or to do so behind closed doors – would have been a fundamental mistake and an abrogation of responsibility.

“Ireland has consistently taken multilateralism seriously, and wants to see a strong and effective United Nations. In that context we have a responsibility to hold Russia to account, and to address the implications of its actions for the rules based international system.

“It is a fundamental duty of government to address the challenging global situation as it is today,” Mr Martin said.

The Fianna Fáil leader also said that the upcoming consultative forum is not “a binary discussion on neutrality and was never intended to be”.

“The Government have made clear that we do not intend to change Ireland’s policy of military neutrality.”

In an interview with the Business Post, ahead of the opening of a series public consultations announced by the Government on defence policy and neutrality, Mr Higgins said “the crawl away from the self-esteem of our foreign policy bothers me”.

Ireland’s foreign policy was one of “positive neutrality, and it can be defined very simply as Ireland’s right to belong to any group that it chooses in relation to non-militaristic international policy… If you interfere with that, there’s no difference between you and Lithuania and Latvia.”

Both those countries were Nato members. “That’s the fire that people are playing with,” Mr Higgins told the newspaper.

The former Labour Party TD, who for decades was a staunch critic of American foreign policy, said the “most dangerous moment” in the formulation of foreign policy was “when you’re drifting and not knowing what you’re doing… I would describe our present position as one of drift”.

There is a long-standing tradition among presidents not to comment on Government policy nor to publicly criticise the Government.

In the interview, Mr Higgins also highlighted the composition of the panels at the forum saying they include “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it” as well as “the formerly neutral countries who are now joining Nato”.

He also referred to the chair of the Forum - Louise Richardson - as a person “with a very large DBE - Dame of the British Empire”, adding that it was grand but he could have come up with a few speakers himself.

In his statement, Mr Martin defended the panellists and said they are “from a wide range of backgrounds and with a variety of expertise and experience, including in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, arms control and disarmament and conflict resolution internationally, as well as in the fields of cyber security, disinformation, maritime security and critical infrastructure.”

Mr Higgins comments about Louise Richardson have drew sharp criticism.

Fine Gael TD and former minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan described them as an “unnecessary and gratuitous attack” which was “unfair and uncalled.

The forum will meet in Cork, Galway and Dublin from next Thursday.

There has been concern in Government circles at the highest levels for a number of days ahead of the publication of the interview.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Flanagan was heavily critical of Mr Higgins.

“I’m an admirer of President Higgins and have been. I campaigned strongly for him in the last presidential election, but I disagree with him. I believe he is attempting to shape Government policy against a background of a strong tradition that presidents don’t challenge Government policy.”

“Secondly, the timing of his statements appear to me to challenge the Government’s planned series of public consultative forums starting next week. Thirdly, he creates something of a straw man in Nato insofar as no political party that I am aware of is urging Ireland to join Nato. He appears to breach solidarity or run counter to solidarity with Ukraine. The 24th of February 2022 was the day of the invasion by Russia of Ukraine. It was Europe’s 9/11. The continued war of aggression is a wake up call for all who cherish democratic values on rule of law.

“We cannot be silent in word or deed on the daily war crimes perpetrated by Russia in Europe. It is not a fact of life that defence across Europe is top of the political agenda. In that regard, Ireland can not remain silent.”

Fine Gael Minister of State for Business Neale Richmond said Mr Higgins “certainly goes close to the line” in overstepping his authority with the comments. “When I read the reports initially this morning I was a little bit disappointed but I have now come full circle, we want people to engage in this consultative forum. Let’s have that debate, let’s have that discussion.”

Asked on RTÉ's The Week in Politics if he “crossed the line”, Mr Richmond said: “I don’t think so, but he went right up there.”

Irish Times/Ipsos poll quesion on Irish neutrality. Graphic: Paul Scott

Barry Cowen TD, deputy chair of the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs and defence has said Mr Higgins did “not necessarily” cross a line with his comments.

Speaking on RTÉ radio on Sunday Mr Cowen said the president had “shown on many occasions to be most adept at being in tune with the pulse of the nation”.

Asked whether the President had “crossed a line” in making the comments Mr Cowen said: “No, I don’t necessarily believe so. He has found a way of making comments in the past.”

Referencing Article 29 of the constitution, Mr Cowen said the Article “may him allow him comment in this sphere”. Article 29 states: “Ireland affirms its devotion to ideal of peace and friendly co-operation among nations founded on international justice and morality.

“Ireland affirms it adherence to the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.”

Mr Cowen continued: “But, you know, we are at a crossroads in relation to security. We are at a crossroads in relation to how the EU responds, and we have found a way of a nuanced position of ours being accepted by our partners in Europe in relation to [what] our commitment is to training, is to funding, is to humanitarian funding, is to accommodating in great numbers many Ukrainian refugees in this country and that is a huge contribution we are making.

“But obviously there are other challenges. There are other discussions that need to take place. We do that in a wide-ranging manner. We do that.. the Tanaiste’s responsibility and the Government’s is in relation to the Defence forces and what role it can play , and it should play and how it should be resourced to ensure its morale is one that makes it makes its contribution in a way that we would expect.”

Socialist Party TD Mick Barry said the credibility of the forum was now “hanging by a thread”.

A spokesman for President Higgins said on Sunday he had no further comment.

Independent Senator Gerry Craughwell, a former member of the Defence Forces, said Mr Higgins had “gone far outside his permissible role” in making the comments.

Mr Craughwell also criticised Mr Higgins for raising the issue of whether to invest in the Defence Forces prior to putting in “guarantees” on reform.

“It really is something when the [President of Ireland] expresses reservations about investment in [the Defence Forces]. It seems he is happy as commander in chief to put those who serve lives at risk. His comments are outrageous,” Mr Craughwell said.

Speaking about abuse within the organisation exposed by the Women of Honour group, Mr Higgins said he was “absolutely heartbroken at the fact that people have had to wait for justice”.

The Government is currently facing criticism from Women of Honour over the nature of a planned commission of inquiry into the abuse, and whether the inquiry will have the status of a full public tribunal.

An Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll published on Saturday shows there is clear majority support for the retention of Ireland’s current model of neutrality but voters also want to see the State “significantly increase its military capacity” to defend airspace and territorial waters.

Asked if they support the State’s current model of military neutrality or if they would like to see it change, 61 per cent of voters said they favoured the current model, while just more than a quarter (26 per cent) said they would like to see it change. Thirteen per cent of respondents expressed no opinion.

Among voters who favour a change in the policy of neutrality, there is majority support for joining Nato and closer EU defence co-operation. Among these voters 71 per cent are in favour of joining a closer EU defence co-operation, while 56 per cent support joining Nato.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times