Is it time to review our neutrality? - Our position outdated by world in flux

Is it time to review our neutrality? - Our position outdated by world in flux
Stéphane Crouzat, Ambassador of France to Ireland, right, presenting the Exequatur to the newly appointed Honorary Consul of France in Cork, Josselin Le Gall, at Custom House in the Port of Cork. Picture: David Keane.

Earlier this week, the thousands of Irish citizens who died defending France were honoured at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.

French ambassador Stéphane Crouzat was joined by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who paid tribute to the Irish men and women who fought for France during both world wars and in the Franco-Prussian War.

These ceremonies of remembrance, ceremonies of thanks, too, have been normalised in a way unimaginable a few decades ago.

It is not so long since military remembrance here focussed on Ireland’s struggle to end British rule, or on the civil war that followed.

Yet, despite that singularity, that understandable prioritisation, many tens of thousands of Irish men and women enlisted in campaigns that, because of our matter-of-faith neutrality, we as an independent State did not join.

The State might have been neutral — in name at least — but by their actions, hundreds of thousands of people from this island felt no such constraint. Indeed, they recognised the validity of an entirely different position and acted accordingly.

Long-regarded as an unquestionably good thing, Irish neutrality has come under renewed and ever-more pressing focus. Several issues stir this hornets’ nest.

One is the discontent over poor pay and conditions in the Defence Forces, which is limiting capability because of manpower and equipment shortages.

Essentially, we can’t be anything other than neutral because we do not have the capacity to be anything else.

This debate has thrown up some suggestions that are more based on wishful thinking than an appreciation of today’s world and our place in it.

One is that we should scrap our Defence Forces, as it is hard to imagine a conflict in which they might prevail.

That might be the case, but that would create a vacuum, a vulnerability that might look like an invitation to those who would challenge this Republic.

As Brexit renews discussion on Northern Ireland’s future, and the possibility some never-never-never loyalists might oppose change with force, it seems essential to have an effective deterrent. Those concerns can be, albeit to a lesser extent, applied to our gardaí, too.

The suggestion to scrap the Defence Forcesalso imagines that in an ever-more connected world, we can stand alone, aloof from a challenge to the privileges and affluence we enjoy as a member of the European Union. EU plans to make the community a more effective bulwark in an increasingly illiberal continent will continue, with or without Ireland, and it might be unwise to choose to be left behind. How else could it be, in this tinder box world?

In a world where old alliances might not be as steadfast as they once were?

Not to be involved, with history’s lessons ringing loudly again, is reckless. Cyber war, a kind of conflict with no geographical boundaries, may leapfrog ideas about neutrality, too. The grim warnings on huge population displacement and climate change can hardly be ignored, either.

Neutrality is a high, admirable ideal that can only work if all countries are neutral and none are aggressors. As that never was the case and can never be, we are obliged to review our position to better fit our world.

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