Bolstering defence policy in Ireland does not have to come at the expense of neutrality

Ireland’s long-standing policy of being neutral does not have to mean being vulnerable. The country can take its defence much more seriously within the confines of neutrality, explains Seán Kelly
Irish Army Soldiers at the launch of the Defence Forces Annual Report 2005 in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Ireland | Alamy

By Seán Kelly

Seán Kelly (IE, EPP) is the leader of the Fine Gael delegation in the European Parliament

18 May 2022

The atrocities in Ukraine at the hands of a brutal tyrant have not happened in isolation. The world is shocked, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record of devastation should not invoke surprise. As in Grozny and Aleppo, Putin has continued his modus operandi in Mariupol and Bucha. This is to the dismay of every decent human being not wrapped up in a bubble of neo-Soviet propaganda.

Hindsight can make the pages of history a difficult read, and Europe’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its annexation of Crimea may tell a particular tale on which we should rightly look back with shame. 

Ireland’s neutrality is not enshrined in our constitution nor in any law; it is a policy choice, as is our current interpretation of it. However, it is a long-standing policy and should not be changed overnight amid a crisis

In Ireland, the horrific images of war from Ukraine have put a fresh focus on the country’s defence policy, namely our coveted military neutrality and what that means practically in a changing world.

The basis of our policy of neutrality lies in our history as a colonised nation. Various unsuccessful and bloody rebellions against an oppressor, culminating in hard-fought independence in the early 1920s as well as a subsequent civil war, left little appetite for joining a military alliance alongside the UK.

One could hardly imagine it was in the supposedly ever-calculating Putin’s plans to have a stronger Nato at his doorstep, with Sweden and Finland set to join. Finland shares a 1,340 km border with Russia and its neutrality status dates back to the end of the Second World War.

However, Ireland is not Finland; we have the luxury of being one of the European countries furthest from the fighting, insulated by our geographic position. Nonetheless, it is time to ask the question of what is meant by Ireland’s traditional neutrality and whether it can fit into the current global dynamic. 

Being neutral does not have to mean being vulnerable, and while there has always been strong support, and indeed pride, in Ireland’s role in UN multilateral peacekeeping, this does not have to come at the expense of our ability to defend ourselves

The Irish government is working closely with EU partners to impose tough sanctions on Russia, which older concepts of impartial neutrality would never permit. Ireland is also part of EU security initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) training missions, but spends the least on defence as a proportion of GDP of all the 27 EU member states by some margin.

There is growing support from the public to increase defence spending, and I fully support this, particularly in the area of cybersecurity. Being neutral does not have to mean being vulnerable, and while there has always been strong support, and indeed pride, in Ireland’s role in UN multilateral peacekeeping, this does not have to come at the expense of our ability to defend ourselves. 

Ireland’s neutrality is not enshrined in our constitution nor in any law; it is a policy choice, as is our current interpretation of it. However, it is a long-standing policy and should not be changed overnight amid a crisis.

Ireland can take its defence much more seriously within the confines of neutrality, but as a proud member of the EU with strong ties to the US one could legitimately argue that we have already chosen a side.

Any change in defence policy will require an informed and frank debate; this, in my view, should be conducted in a dedicated citizens’ assembly, a forum that has proven successful for other contentious debates.
The next steps on this front remain to be seen, but one thing is for sure: it will not be business as usual. 

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