Ireland is not a member of NATO, nor is membership likely. Yet few things can be calculated to raise blood pressure (and voices) more at the dinner table or over some drinks than the subject of Irish neutrality. In the campaign on the Lisbon referendum just ending the issue has again loomed large. No one can seriously get worked up over the proposed changes in qualified majority voting, or the alleged threat of legalised abortion, or even over the prospect of a future ukase from Brussels on our company taxation rate. But mention European Defence and the spectres conjured up include conscription into a European army, involvement in foreign wars and the loss of our international “nice guy” image. In vain have the “Yes” side pointed out that Lisbon threatens none of this. Debates on neutrality generate much heat without corresponding light!

The intellectual justification for Irish neutrality can be summarised briefly. Our history of centuries-long subjugation to English rule involved us, involuntarily, in British military and colonial ventures worldwide. Independence finally gave us an opportunity to gain distance and determine our own policy. Most famously we asserted our neutrality during World War Two (described in Ireland as “The Emergency”). We were fortunate in that we were not attacked or invaded, like the Netherlands or the Baltic States. Ireland’s geographical location and island status were vital factors in maintaining our neutrality, as was the fact that we were not in the way of the major belligerents or their war plans.

Whatever moral doubts we had about not fighting the Nazis could be assuaged by the presence, on the allied side, of the equally monstrous tyranny of Stalin’s regime. The response of De Valera to Churchill’s intemperate outburst over Irish neutrality in 1945 is recalled with pride (his signing the book of condolences for Hitler’s death generates embarrassed silence). Post 1945, staying out of NATO was justified, at first semantically, by the issue of Partition, and later, after Stalin’s death, by an expressed wish to stay outside the military alliances of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the case for joining a military alliance further diminished.

To avoid charges of isolationism, Ireland could point instead to a long standing support for collective security; starting with her involvement with the League of Nations and proceeding through to the United Nations. Ireland’s high-profile involvement in UN Peacekeeping operations – a source of national pride – could be cited. Irish soldiers have died in such operations from the Congo in 1960 onwards – the first Irish troops to die overseas for Ireland and in the cause of the UN. Ireland was seen as one of a small number of reliable UN members which could always be counted upon to step up to the plate when troops were needed. And being militarily neutral was felt to increase Ireland’s acceptability for involvement in sensitive UN peacekeeping operations.

Military neutrality enjoys wide popular support, at least according to opinion polls. This is perfectly understandable. No one likes or wants war. Avoiding the horrors of World War Two was a plus. Our UN peacekeeping record another plus. Not having a colonial past or the moral ambiguities of involvement in questionable military ventures are other positives, qualifying Ireland for a potential “honest broker” role. All in all, neutrality sits well with public self-perception of Ireland as non-aggressive, anti-colonialist, progressive and supportive of assisting the Third World. Brownie points are awardedsubjectively) for the moral superiority associated with being neutral.

Neutrality has again become a live issue as the world has proved to be less secure in the post Cold War era. There have been moves within the European Union (which contains three other non-NATO countries) to develop a common defence and security policy. These moves were given impetus and some degree of urgency by the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, where meddling by the EC as it then was, was accompanied by total impotence militarily when faced with the forces unleashed, and where peace was achieved eventually only through US intervention. The high watermark of these moves, as set out in the Lisbon Treaty, proposes mutual assistance (of whatever form) where a member state is attacked, and a vague commitment to improve national military capability.

These moves have galvanised Ireland’s neutrality lobby, which sees them, despite Government denials, as the first steps on a slippery slope. This against a background of daily television reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed the Iraq fiasco has focussed attention also on the use of Shannon Airport by the US military as a troop stopover. The government has held firm against demands that this use be ended as it contravenes “Irish neutrality”.

Any attempt at debate on neutrality rapidly turns into a dialogue of the deaf. The suggestion that Ireland should do its bit to cooperate, in the context of membership of a Union which has served Ireland well, has had a mixed reception. Ditto with the argument that, if we are seriously neutral we should develop our defence capabilities like other neutrals (Sweden, Finland, Switzerland) so that we could give our neutrality a practical status. Indeed this argument is neatly sidestepped by a variant of the “nice guy” theme – who would want to attack Ireland, so why spend money on defence?

Ireland’s get out of jail card, action by and through the UN, has lost much of its lustre in the face of the manifest failures of the UN in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990‘s. Whether sufficient force could have been marshalled by the UN in time to prevent the genocide in Rwanda is debateable. What is a fact is that the Srebrenica massacre took place within a so-called “UN Safe Haven” which proved anything but. While the UN “is all we have”, as a leading Irish left wing politician put it to me, its shortcomings have become more apparent with the end of the Cold War paralysis.

The fact that a veto-wielding Permanent Member of the Security Council can thwart international action when its interests or those of a client state are at risk has become more evident in recent years. So also the difficulty of organising effective action against a regime practicing internal repression. “Collective action” and sanctions are difficult to enforce and often the regime remains untouched while the ordinary populace suffers (consider the sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War). We have become sadder, if not wiser, at world events this decade.

The nature of the debate within the EU on defence, and the mixed enthusiasm for involvement in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan among those EU states involved, means that it is likely to be some time before EU policy in this area has developed. Ireland’s military neutrality, in all practical senses, is not under threat. Only an attack could change this. One is reminded of the story that in 1940 Queen Juliana telephoned Churchill to tell him that Holland (neutral during the First World War) was under attack from Germany and asked what he was going to do about it. What indeed!


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