Is the shift in strategy really in the national interest?
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 that “we 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.