by Conor Fitzgerald
Monday, 14
March 2022
Debate
10:02

Abandoning neutrality is Ireland’s gift to the EU

Is the shift in strategy really in the national interest?
by Conor Fitzgerald
Credit: Getty

In an instant, the invasion of Ukraine has changed the shape of politics across the European continent; not least in Ireland, where it has prompted a reassessment of our near 100-year-old policy of neutrality. But this reassessment is as much a top-down attempt to align Ireland with elite EU consensus as it is a reconsideration of national priorities on the part of the public.

What is the EU consensus? There is a long-standing and explicit desire on the part of those who run the bloc for far greater military cooperation across member countries. Successive presidents of the EU Commission have stated that “the EU must acquire the political will to build its own military” and thatwe need a new approach to building a European security union with the end goal of establishing a European army.”


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Irish people have historically had a completely different view. We have an understanding of our military needs based on our history as a colonial subject rather than colonial power, our position on the furthest western edge of Europe, and our relationship with the UK. The position created by those factors is not neutrality in the true sense of the word but that of a non-belligerent, de-mililtarised and reluctant satellite of more powerful western liberal democracies.

The disconnect between the Irish view and the European one means we have been a persistent irritant to the EU on the subject. Sometimes this has been to the great embarrassment of our politicians: in 2001 Ireland voted down the Nice Treaty at a referendum over concerns it would lead to the creation of an EU army. The Treaty was eventually ratified but our reputation as the most pro-European nation was stained.

That is the context in which Irish people and politicians view recent events. Indeed, Russian “live fire” military exercises off the Irish coast and a mysterious cyber-attack on the Irish Health Services have disturbed the Irish public’s dream of security. The country no longer feels as safe in the way it once did, and it is dawning on Irish people that we may now need to protect ourselves. But that doesn’t mean our feelings about military alliances or military action have changed.

Nevertheless, politicians have lunged at the opportunity to bring us more into alignment with the EU. In the last two weeks, both Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney have stated that we need a “fundamental re-think” about Ireland’s security and “getting more involved in European defence”. But perhaps a more suitable position for Ireland would be that of Finland’s — armed neutrality. That would require a massive change in cultural outlook and in military spending; though that seems to be inevitable in any case, in light of the damning reports on Irish military preparedness and the condition our armed forces live in.

What the debate about neutrality needs most is the one thing Irish public life is most keenly missing; explicit conversation about the ultimate end-point of EU integration, and a willingness to critically assess the difference between what the Irish people want and what the EU wants. The alternative to that conversation is that we will drift reluctantly into a pan-European arrangement that Irish people have a proven track record of rejecting, and which is at odds with our conception of ourselves — but which allows our politicians to feel like good corporate citizens of the EU.

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R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago

…NATO is an idea about mutual defence, but by the looks of it, possibly no more than an idea. What keeps Ireland safe is that the UK wish them no harm…and for our own reasons are willing to deploy the RN and the RAF in ways that they benefit considerably from…we’ve no expectation of any thanks from “the most oppressed people ever”…but a modicum of good manners might be welcome from time to time…

Last edited 8 months ago by R S Foster
Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

What won Ireland it’s independence is that fact that the USA emerged as the global superpower post WW1 and the quick movement of information. The Brits couldn’t just bludgeon the country into submission as they had in the past, as the USA was finding out about what was going on. As a country with a big Irish diaspora they felt they had a stake, independence also appeals to American ideals. It is still the USA that ultimately protects Ireland and for that matter the UK. I’ve no doubt if we were invaded by Portugal the UK would come to our aid but not invading somewhere is not the same as keeping that place safe. The UK invading Ireland right now is unthinkable because the USA wouldn’t have it.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

…the USA became a global superpower after WW2…it was a more serious power after the Great War, but by no means ready to take on the British Empire. The Royal Navy was at the time several times larger (with three times the number of modern battleships)…and already had Aircraft Carriers and a Naval Air Service…as well as three times the number of submarines with four years warfighting experience. In addition we had the world’s first airforce…and an Army in the European Theatre about 50% bigger.
If we had been ruthless enough, we could have sailed the Grand Fleet round Ireland for a month and levelled everything within twenty miles of the coast…and there would have been little or nothing they could have done to prevent it…but we didn’t…despite our undoubted brutality on some occasions, we had no stomach and indeed no desire to go beyond a police action against a people we had more often seen as our friends and comrades in arms…than as our enemies. Bear in mind that as three or four thousand men (and some women) took part in the Easter Rising against Britain…two hundred thousand were fighting alongside us in France…

Last edited 8 months ago by R S Foster
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

The Easter Rising is often mentioned out of context, and the context was that it was 1916. The best officers and soldiers would have been in France, preparing to go, recuperating, or dead. Th senior officers were probably the least able or most stupid (I’m guessing), while the soldiers sent against the PO were lambs to slaughter. The executions were unwise, but pale in comparison beside the harsh rule of Germany over Belgium. A quick look online states between 5,500 and 6,500 French and Belgians were executed between August and November 1914.
I’m sorry Sir Roger Casement was executed, and wish that he hadn’t been, because he was clearly a good and sincere man, but if one lands from a German submarine during a war, it’s to be expected.
Another unfortunate circumstance was that during the insurrection, irregular soldiers were recruited from men who had experienced the Western Front, and Lloyd George was perhaps impatient following such a terrible war, but thankfully, sense prevailed and it didn’t last long. Few died in comparison to many other insurrections and civil wars in history.
.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

…indeed so. I believe the numbers are contested, but casualties in the War of Independence against the British…might have been less than those in the all-Irish Civil War that followed…and the British definitely executed less Irishmen before independence, than the Irish on both sides of the Civil War did after they had achieved it…
…often summarily and by quite horrible methods. At Ballyseedy, for example…the Free State forces tied nine men to a landmine and exploded it, killing eight of them…
…hence the uncertainty about casualties. With both parties committing what were effectively war-crimes against one another…numbers of people simply disappeared into unmarked graves, or were otherwise disposed of in secret.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Im surprised no one has asked this – are you the historian R S Foster?

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

No, although I read History at university back in the seventies…and I have continued to read quite a lot of it since! I also wonder if you are thinking about one R F Foster, who was a Professor of Irish History at Hertford College? Although, I do, somewhere about, have a book on church (?) history by an R S Foster…found in a remaindered bookshop by an old friend, and sent as a leg-pull…

Last edited 8 months ago by R S Foster
Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

I think the writing was on the wall with regard to the British Empire post WW1, USA was a key ally for Britain maybe not that militarily important but definitely in terms of funding the war through loans to Britain. The USA objecting to Britain being more ruthless in Ireland would definitely have been a factor and as a result much of the Irish publicity and fundraising was done in the states.
I’ll take your point that Britain had no stomach for a larger assault on the Irish people and that’s not just the presence of the USA, it’s something deeper and cultural. As to your last point my Great Grandfather fought in for Britain in WW1 and joined the IRA a few years after – complicated world.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

…true up to a point, although the Bank of England was the key broker for these activities, and our debt to the US was matched by the debts owed to us by other co-belligerents, so we were much less encumbered than, say, France. Clearly the financial and military partnership we forged with the US was a factor…but by far and away the biggest factor was that we simply didn’t want to do the Irish People serious harm…so whatever the excesses of the Black and Tans, that was as far as we were ever going to go…and not just in Ireland. The Amritsar Massacre is rightly notorious…but the man responsible was disgraced, rightly so…and to the resounding cheers of most of us.
We did bad stuff, certainly…but not very bad and not very often by comparison with most Empires in history, including the ones running alongside our own. Bear in mind the plan as early as the 1920’s was for India to become a Dominion along CANZUK lines by the 1980’s, with most African Colonies following twenty or so years after…and as I believe we hoped Ireland would…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

This is a slightly ridiculous debate. The UK has had absolutely no intention of invading the Republic of Ireland since 1922. The only thing which would have changed this would have been the latter actively colluding with Nazi Germany.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

“…explicit conversation about the ultimate end-point of EU integration, and a willingness to critically assess the difference between what the Irish people want and what the EU wants.”
Ireland seems like a drunk waking up in a strange house and staggering about looking for the bathroom these days.
The sinister genius of the phrase *Ever closer union” is that it is commonly taken to mean ‘Union will never actually happen, but there is just an infinite, benevolent and harmonious process of like minded countries moving closer endlessly, but remaining independent.’
When in fact, with the Euro, Union became a fact and from here on in it will only become ever tighter for countries.
Like the insect in the Venus flytrap they’re enmeshed and the process they’re involved in is sitting powerlessly, watching the plant’s jaws slowly close around them.

Ana Cronin
Ana Cronin
8 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Well this Irish person says Thank You to the UK for he deployments. Don’t hold your breath for any modicum of gratitude from my fellow countrymen on the above or any of the other issues the UK have assisted with in the last 100 year e.g. right to live. work and votes in UK. I was struck the other day when reading about the death of detective garda Ben O’Sullivan, who survived an IRA gun attack in Co Limerick in 1996. His colleague detective garda Jerry McCabe died but only after he was flown to Belfast for care that was not available in the republic. So he was cared for by the NHS as many who lived in the south were and still are even post Brexit. So yes thank you.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Ana Cronin

…that’s very civil of you, and much appreciated…

John Riordan
John Riordan
8 months ago

“The Treaty was eventually ratified but our reputation as the most pro-European nation was stained.”

The Treaty was eventually ratified because Brussels told you to vote again and get it right this time, and like a bunch of eejits you went ahead and did what you were told.

And then you did the same over the Euro a few years later because, presumably, you needed a harsher lesson in democracy having failed to learn it the first time.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
8 months ago

Ireland was never truly neutral. We were only admitted to the UN in the mid 1950s as part of a deal between the US and USSR which also saw the admission of a block of Warsaw Pact regimes. Neutrality just meant hiding behind the NATO defensive wall, without contributing to the cost. Turns out over the past 30 years most European countries were copying Ireland in that regard. Time now to pay up: it’ll be a lot cheaper than the cost of taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from wars Europe was unwilling to fight, and unable to convincingly deter militarily. But armed neutrality without military alliances would be the worst of all worlds and a complete waste of money.

Last edited 8 months ago by Stephen Walshe
Ian nclfuzzy
Ian nclfuzzy
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Indeed. Sooooooo many chickens coming home to roost.
Perhaps one day, the RAF will cease to patrol and protect the skies above Irish waters and some kind of Irish Air Force could do it instead ?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

RAF aircraft enter Irish airspace with the consent of the Irish government because it’s mutually beneficial. There’s no favours being done here. Fast moving military aircraft need to be intercepted outside a country’s airspace. Once they enter, it’s too late to do anything about them. The UK is just taking care of its own business, so maybe lose the martyr ‘tude?

Last edited 8 months ago by Francis MacGabhann
John Riordan
John Riordan
8 months ago

“There’s no favours being done here”.

Yeah, right.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
8 months ago

As a Brit, I am grateful Ireland allows our boys across as it does make intercepting the Russians much easier. Thankyou for that.

Of course, all the downvoters don’t understand the nature of air interception. Intercept it as quickly and far-away as possible, to save time and reduce risk.

John Harrison
John Harrison
8 months ago

Maybe not, but you did no favours to the thousands of merchant seamen (of many different nationalities but mostly British) who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1940/41 when the UK could not provide cover far enough westward because Republic ports were out of bounds to our navy because you decided to remain ‘neutral’.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
8 months ago

Shame Ireland isn’t able to intercept them outside its own airspace then, isn’t it?

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
8 months ago

No favours would be true if Ireland chipped in for the cost. Then it would be mutual interest and mutual costs. We currently have a mutual interest and the cost born solely by the UK. Ireland is a free-rider in this case. And again, that wouldn’t be so bad if they had some manners about it.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago

Irish neutrality is a myth. The policy is driven by their visceral hatred of Britain – if it hurts the British then good.
Will we see queues of Irish wanting to sign the book of condolence for Putin when he cops it? He’s not as bad as Hitler.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

I agree with MacG. It would be plain stupid for the UK not to seek an amicable agreement for this.
The fact of the matter is that it is very difficult for a small non-industrial nation to have effective armed forces for a modern war, although it should never forget that neighbours which are both powerful and aggressive have no respect for neutrality, and only recognise it if a benefit is perceived.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

…perfectly true, but we are not getting a benefit so much as consistent self-righteous rudeness…how does that work?

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian nclfuzzy

At least if it kicks off with Russia Ireland may let planes use some airfields in their country.
In WW2 they scrupulously observed neutrality by not allowing German ships to use their ports…which was completely pointless as there were non that could.
And not allowing Allied ships to use them either…which added greatly to the difficulties of fighting the U Boat menace in 1942/43 as many could, and would have used them.
AS you say chickens coming home to roost on defence…and soon enough on corporate tax harmonisation and US reshoring of the tax on Europe wide payments that’s been washed through Dublin offices of US multinationals for the last few decades.

R Wright
R Wright
8 months ago

The Irish should worry more about what happens when the tax haven gravy train comes to an end. With Britain no longer in the leave transition Germany and France will soon lose interest in an enabling a few million freeloaders on the edge of the continent.

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

What the debate about neutrality needs most is the one thing Irish public life is most keenly missing; explicit conversation about the ultimate end-point of EU integration…

Quite. It’s almost as if the echoes of “taking back sovereignly” have not died down after the UK left the EU. You can make a good argument for a politically, financially and militarily integrated European Super State – but perhaps the current EU is not the best starting place.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
8 months ago

It feels to me the Irish have sold the soul of the nation to American multinationals and the globalist narrative on every issue of any importance.
I would not be surprised to hear the drumbeats of war on the streets of Dublin, and the vilification of peace advocates as ‘Putin apologists’, just as is being done elsewhere in the EU.
Of course, subscribing to an ideology as shallow and soulless as globalism will not imbue the Irish with very much fighting spirit – the soldiers they might send will be very different to the brave men who stood up to an Empire, one hundred years ago.

John Private
John Private
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

My father left his small farm in the West of Ireland during WW2 to join the Royal Airforce. This was not unusual.

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  John Private

I think he is referring to the ones that fought against us in the Civil War…not those who joined our fight against the Third Reich twenty years later…

Last edited 8 months ago by R S Foster
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
8 months ago
Reply to  John Private

Indeed. My cousin (from Dublin) was an officer in the British army, and that was from the 1990s onwards.
One should never forget that Ireland was also a part of the UK. Many Irish people ‘believed’ in the union, and were willing to fight for it (many didn’t, of course). I don’t believe the same is true of their affiliation to the globalist corporate empire.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

When did the British armed forces stop recruiting in Ireland?

R S Foster
R S Foster
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

…we haven’t stopped them joining, although I think people do so by crossing the border into the North…as numbers do…

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Agree with your analysis but is the UK any different ?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
8 months ago

Without wishing to sound like a backwoods American patriot, I have a suspicion that to really achieve a United States of Europe the Brussels regime will eventually need a way of disciplining the awkward squad. And although I am sure the EC Commissioners would never ever ever send troops against a misbehaving member, (UK, Italy, Hungary, fill in your own choice) it could do no harm if they had an army loyal to the Commission to back up threats.
So a European army is likely before long; and if you want to construct the plot of a really scary novel, that’s a reason for any member state to beef up its own forces.

William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

An army directed by an essentially headless bureaucracy isn’t going to be much of an army. That, together with the colossal democratic deficit inherent in the EU doesn’t make an effective military force very likely.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
8 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

How on earth would an EU (not European) army be commanded, now or in the near future? I can imagine Macron may fancy Commander-in-Chief, but if Germany totally changes the way it treats its armed forces, I suspect there would be competition from one other country.
Or would they rotate it at 6 monthly intervals, to give Irish (and Maltese, and Luxembourger) generals a fair crack?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
8 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

I am sure that Ursula Van der Leyden would be in charge and equip every man – person, sorry – with a broomstick and herself with a fast jet and a safe bunker

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Could be quite funny, and tragic.

Peter LR
Peter LR
8 months ago

Could you afford it though? You are now a net contributor the the EU, defence is 2% of GDP and you will probably lose tax take when Corporation Tax has to go up and tech goes elsewhere (although that is less sure and would take some time).

Ana Cronin
Ana Cronin
8 months ago
Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
8 months ago

I would consider Ireland signing up to European defence as a hostile action towards the UK. The counter policy should be an Irish alliance with the UK, covering security of land, sea, air and space.