In December 2017, after a three-hour Dáil debate and almost no media coverage, the Irish government voted to join PESCO, or Permanent Structured Cooperation, a European Union framework introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, which aims to “deepen defence cooperation amongst EU Member States”.
Ireland’s military expenditure falls somewhere around 0.3% of GDP. Last year, that amounted to about €946 million. It is expected to rise by €48 million this year, 2019. An increase to the EU average of 1.3% would mean the country would be spending up to €4 billion a year on defence. For now though, it has been estimated that Ireland’s involvement with PESCO going forward could cost the country an extra €2 billion a year.
There has been next to no public debate surrounding this decision. In fact, the Fine Gael government tried to sign Ireland up to PESCO without even so much as a substantial Dáil debate on the issue.
In an Echo Chamber Podcast episode last year, President of the Connect Union Frank Keoghan, said that opposition parties in the Dáil had to negotiate to secure a three-hour debate instead of the one-hour proposed by Fine Gael.
Those who have spoken out against Ireland’s involvement in PESCO argue that it threatens Ireland’s neutrality. This would be true, if Irish neutrality was something that existed in the first place, which unfortunately it is not, despite what you might have heard.
In 1949, the United States approached the Irish government to suggest, informally, that the country could join NATO. A CIA report noted:
[Ireland’s] terrain and topography lend themselves to rapid construction of airfields which would be invaluable as bases for strategic bomber attacks as far east as the Ural Mountains.
It argued that “hostile forces” [translation: the Soviet Union] could use Ireland “as a base for bombing North America”.
The Irish government responded in an aide-mémoire to the informal invitation on February 8th, 1949, explaining that although Ireland agreed with the “general aim” of the proposed NATO treaty, it had to decline the informal offer.
The reason given? Partition and British occupation of the six counties in the north-east of the country. In the note, Sean MacBride, the Minister for External Affairs, wrote:
…any military alliance with, or commitment involving military action jointly with, the state that is responsible for the unnatural division of Ireland, which occupies a portion of our country with its armed forces, and which supports undemocratic institutions in the north-eastern corner of Ireland, would be entirely repugnant and unacceptable to the Irish people.
It also suggested finding a way to end partition and said that “a friendly and united Ireland on Britain’s western approaches is not merely in the interest of Britain but in the interest of all countries concerned with the security of the Atlantic area”.
What you might have noticed there is that “neutrality” was not given as Ireland’s reason to stay out of NATO — and yet, I can almost guarantee you that “neutrality” is the answer you’ll get if you picked an Irish person at random and asked them why we never joined the military alliance.
But the Americans weren’t exactly shocked by our lack of interest. State Department official Ted Achilles didn’t mince his words:
We did invite Ireland to join the [North Atlantic] pact as an important stepping stone in anti-submarine warfare. We doubted that they would accept. They replied that they would be delighted to join provided we could get the British to give them back the six Northern counties. We simply replied, in effect, that “it’s been nice knowing you” and that was that.
In 1960, Taoiseach Sean Lemass confirmed again that Ireland was not in fact neutral. He could not have been clearer when he said: “There is no neutrality and we are not neutral” and when he posed the question: If help from Ireland was crucial to Western victory in a war against the Soviet Union “could we in the last resort refuse it?”
He wasn’t the only Taoiseach to make such comments, either.
Jack Lynch, who served twice as Taoiseach in the 1960s and 70s, told the Dáil in 1969 that Ireland in fact had “no traditional policy of neutrality…like countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Austria.”
A 1970 White Paper on Ireland’s European Community (EC) membership recognised that countries participating in the new Europe “must be prepared to assist, if necessary, in its defence”. So the scene was set for us to begin participation in common European defence as far back as the 1970s.
Garret Fitzgerald, who served as Taoiseach twice in the 1980s, wrote in the Irish Times in 1996 that he “never had any enthusiasm for neutrality” but said he respected that there was “widespread public support” for such a policy.
If all that wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that a Dáil motion aiming to reaffirm “the principle of the neutrality of Ireland in international affairs” was rejected by Charlie Haughey’s Fianna Fáil government in 1981 based on the fact that “political neutrality or non alignment” is “incompatible” with not only membership of the European Community, but also Ireland’s “interests and ideals” (apparently).
People often talk about Ireland’s “longstanding policy of neutrality” (I’ve even said it myself) but as the comments above should make clear, there never really was such a thing.
Yet, Irish politicians (those in both government and opposition) today, frequently reference Ireland’s neutrality — and people seem to like the idea. A poll conducted by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) in 2013 found 78% support for Irish neutrality.
So, what does our strange version of “neutrality” mean in practice?
Article 2 of the Hague Convention states that:
“Belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys of either munitions of war or supplies across the territory of a neutral Power.”
In 2003, a retired Irish army officer Edward Horgan sued the Irish government for its decision to allow Shannon Airport to be used by US military aircraft involved in the Iraq war. Horgan claimed that the government had breached Article 28.3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland) which states: “War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann [parliament].”
The word “participation” became the focus of much debate and the judge ultimately ruled against Horgan, arguing that the definition of “participate” was best determined by the Dáil.
He also argued, however, that the Hague Convention was a declaration of customary international law and that even the nuanced version of neutrality the Irish government advocated for could not include “the notion that the granting of passage over its territory by a neutral state, for large numbers of troops and munitions from one belligerent state only en route to a theatre of war” was compatible with international law on neutrality.
He also said, according to an Irish Times report, that despite the “great historic value attached by Ireland to the concept of neutrality” it was nowhere reflected explicitly in the Irish constitution. But what “great historic value” was he talking about? It is a myth.
Earlier this year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a speech before the European Parliament in which he invoked the US constitution and urged the creation of “a more perfect union”. He argued that EU member states needed to “export our values and worldview” and that “a Europe worth building is a Europe worth defending”. He also said that Ireland was “pleased” to join PESCO.
He forgot to mention that the vast majority of Irish people don’t appear to have the foggiest notion of what PESCO actually is — due to the fact that it attracted a minimal amount of coverage from the Irish media, which has no interest in defending or promoting any notion of neutrality at all, as evidenced by their similar lack of interest in the US military use of Shannon Airport.
It seems that Irish neutrality, in its working definition, is just some vague notion we’ve adopted into the national psyche but which has no actionable meaning whatsoever.
Irish troops, in numbers over 12, can be deployed to war with a UN mandate, a decision by the government and a vote in the Dáil — that’s known as the ‘triple lock’.
If not neutral in the base sense of the word, what we are, then, is (supposedly) “non-aligned” or “militarily neutral” — yet, these descriptors are equally meaningless. We are quite clearly aligned with the United States and remain complicit in its illegal and deadly wars as long as we allow military planes to land and refuel at Shannon.
When Fine Gael and Fianna Fail politicians assure us that joining up to arrangements like PESCO won’t “erode” our neutrality, their assurances are as meaningless as the word itself. We know we are not truly neutral — and we know Fine Gael doesn’t even value our faux neutrality one bit. In fact, despite making public statements to the contrary, Varadkar and crew are itching to do away with the concept altogether.
We know they don’t really care how we feel, either. For all their talk about starting a “conversation” or public “debate” on the issue, they weren’t interested in talking when they shoved PESCO through the Dáil and forced the opposition to fight for a few hours of discussion time in the chamber, let alone a national debate.
It’s quite clear that part of this mad rush into PESCO is Brexit-related; a sense that we need to prove ourselves to our European friends; to say ‘don’t worry about us, we’re totally committed to this European project, we’re not a flight risk — and we really need you to be on our side when it comes to this whole hard-border issue.’ There’s that political calculation, and then there’s the fact that Varadkar likes to fit in with the cool boys, seeing himself as an Irish version of France’s Emmanuel Macron or Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But neutrality, as it exists in the national consciousness, does count for something. It is a positive and important thing that neutrality seems to be something Irish people value. Polls over the years have confirmed this time and again. Those who wish to see our army involved in more dangerous and unnecessary military conflicts are few and far between. When Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny tweeted last year that it was “a bit sad” that Irish soldiers “never actually do any fighting,” her comment was met with total disdain.
Ireland is among a group of countries vying for a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council, but what could set us apart? Ireland has a strong reputation when it comes to peace-keeping missions around the world. We also have a fairly recent history of peace-building on our own island. Surely, this experience could stand in our favour? Surely, we value our peace-keeping and peace-building efforts more than the notion of sending Irish soldiers off to die in foreign conflicts?
Rather than doing away with the last shreds, Ireland should be working to claw back some of the ‘neutrality’ we didn’t lose, but never really had at all. Our foreign policy should be entirely independent, free from interference or pressure — and certainly not predicated on some sense of duty to play our assigned role as part of a faceless superstate.
“We should then look to our own internal resources, and scorn to sue for protection to any foreign state; we should spurn the idea of moving as a humble satellite round any power, however great, and claim at once, and enforce, our rank among the primary nations of the earth. Then should we have what under the present system we never shall see, a national flag and the spirit to maintain it.”
– Theobald Wolfe Tone