Ireland must reconsider its policy of military neutrality

Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality seems outdated in a changing Europe. Here are five steps the country should take to strengthen its defence policy, argues Barry Andrews
Eire 80 sign painted during WWII to denote the country's neutrality. County Donegal, Ireland | Adobe stock

By Barry Andrews

Barry Andrews (IE, RE) is the leader of the Fianna Fáil delegation in the European Parliament

17 May 2022

Ireland’s membership of the European Union gives us many rights, freedoms and protections. It also comes with duties and obligations. During Ireland’s first attempt to join the then-European Economic Community in 1961, Seán Lemass, the Taoiseach at the time, said that if Europe was worth joining, it was worth defending.  As a mature, confident and prosperous member state in 2022, Ireland should raise its voice and make sure that its views are heard on how we defend and stand up for the Union that we helped build. 

The world has changed irreversibly in the last few weeks. Russia’s revisionist aggression and invasion in Ukraine as well as its posturing with other former satellite states are a huge concern for the peace and security of Europe and the world. Other major players are continuously seeking to undermine our European democratic process, and we face new hybrid threats.  

Ireland must adjust its thinking to this new world. We are no longer a small island on the western periphery of Europe: 75 per cent of transatlantic underwater internet cables flow through or near Ireland’s exclusive economic zone, and we host over 30 per cent of Europe’s data and the European headquarters of many of the largest tech companies. We are, therefore, a natural target for anyone who would wish to harm European and transatlantic economies.  

Our traditional policy of military neutrality seems outdated and confused. It is not enshrined in our constitution or laws, nor in any international treaty. It is a policy choice that we have made since the Second World War and one that should be constantly re-evaluated like any other policy. As we watch Russia’s multiple war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law in Ukraine, as we watch Ukrainians flee their homes and country, as we watch the humanitarian disasters in cities like Mariupol and Bucha, I believe it is necessary to have a conversation about the country that we want to be.  

Ireland should raise its voice and make sure that its views are heard on how we defend and stand up for the Union that we helped build

In a position paper that I recently published, ‘Irish Neutrality in a Changing Europe,’ I recommend five main changes that Ireland should make. 

First, I believe that Ireland should affirm its commitment to coming to the aid of any EU member state which is the victim of aggression on its territory. There are two points of clarification that I would like to make. Any EU common defence should be limited to conventional, hybrid and cyber defence; French nuclear weapons should not be included under any circumstances. And this should be limited to EU territory and would not extend beyond the 27 EU Member States. 

Secondly, I am calling for a citizens’ assembly to ensure a grounded debate, built on expert testimonies and experiences. Common defence is specifically outlawed in the Irish Constitution, so any changes here would benefit from a high degree of participative democracy. The subjects of defence and security have been taboo for too long in Ireland.

This partial neurosis on the subject has left us where we are today: unable to defend our island against any prolonged or meaningful attack, unable to monitor our skies or our seas and no longer able to fully commit to our peacekeeping efforts abroad. To combat these shortcomings, we need a concrete, fact-based debate on what our neutrality means. 

Thirdly, Ireland cannot currently deploy troops overseas without a UN Security Council resolution together with approval from the Irish government and the Irish Parliament, the so-called “triple lock” – in my view, this approach is no longer fit for purpose. Peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts are at the core of the international reputation of the Irish Defence Forces.

I do not see any circumstances in which Russia and China (as permanent members of the UN Security Council) should continue to enjoy a veto over our defence and foreign policy decisions. We must give ourselves the flexibility to deploy our peacekeepers wherever we want, whenever we want. In my paper, I call on the government to replace the triple lock system with a provision that requires a decision of the European Council. 

The current issue is that Ireland simply cannot defend itself in any meaningful way at this moment, and our current level of neglect for our Defence Forces endangers Irish citizens at home as well as our peacekeepers on their missions abroad

Fourthly, I firmly believe that we need to increase our involvement with the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). If Ireland wants to ensure that the men and women in our Defence Forces have access to the best training and equipment, we should become more involved. There are a range of projects that should be of interest for the Defence Forces, and I have concluded some suggestions in my paper. 

Finally, we must increase spending on our Defence Forces which, according to Eurostat, stood at a derisory 0.2 per cent of GDP (compared to 1.3 per cent in neutral Sweden or 2.3 per cent in Lithuania) in 2020. The recent ‘Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces’ outlined three possible levels of ambition.

The current issue is that Ireland simply cannot defend itself in any meaningful way at this moment, and our current level of neglect for our Defence Forces endangers Irish citizens at home as well as our peacekeepers on their missions abroad. The one area where this is particularly pertinent and urgent is cyber defence. Along with an increased involvement in PESCO projects dealing with cybersecurity, I feel we must absolutely increase spending here.  

Two final aspects that must be taken into account in any increase in defence spending are pay conditions and an increased emphasis on culture change within the Defence Forces. 

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Security & Defence
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