Should Ireland debate joining Nato and abandoning ‘neutrality’?

Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe approached a number of experts and politicians seeking answers to three pertinent questions
Should Ireland debate joining Nato and abandoning ‘neutrality’?

Oleksiy Polyakov, right, and Roman Voitko check the remains of a destroyed Russian helicopter lie in a field in the village of Malaya Rohan, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, last week. Picture: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

The decision by Finland and Sweden to end their long history of neutrality, or military non-alignment, and apply for Nato membership — and the speed at which that decision has been made — marks a seismic development in European security and foreign affairs.

Historical and geographic factors have driven that development, as well as alarm caused by the devastation Russia has wrought on Ukraine and its people and the threats Vladimir Putin has made to both Nordic countries.

Ireland, Austria, Malta, and Cyprus are now the four remaining EU member states maintaining their neutrality – or military neutrality as many, particularly in the Government, describe it.

Against the background of rapid developments in EU defence and security cooperation this year and the provision of military aid by EU states to Ukraine, the move by Finland and Sweden has sparked renewed interest in Ireland’s long-standing tradition of neutrality.

The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Foreign Affairs Minister all appear to be setting the ground for a debate on our neutrality.

Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe approached a number of experts and politicians seeking answers to three pertinent questions.

The Nato versus neutrality conundrum

A female soldier of the P18 Gotland Regiment covers her face with paint during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland.
A female soldier of the P18 Gotland Regiment covers her face with paint during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland.

'Joining Nato does not mean that Ireland will suddenly need to start behaving like the United States'

Scott Fitzsimmons: “In the wake of the recent announcements by Finland and Sweden that these historically neutral countries seek to join Nato as soon as possible, Ireland should hold a serious public debate about whether it should join the alliance.” 

He said that while Ireland has consistently claimed to be a neutral country, its behaviour often belied this.

“During the Second World War German aircrews and sailors discovered on Irish territory could spend months or years as involuntary "guests of the nation" while their British counterparts were readily repatriated,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

“Germany sent numerous spies to Ireland during the war since they recognised that, although Ireland stayed out of the fighting, it provided critical intelligence and logistical support, such as refuelling aircraft, to the Allies.

He said Ireland provided these services to Nato members throughout the Cold War and still does, at Shannon Airport.

An aerial view of a residential area destroyed by Russian shelling in Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine.
An aerial view of a residential area destroyed by Russian shelling in Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine.

“Moreover, as a country with relatively small armed forces, Ireland has always cooperated with a founding Nato member, the UK, to patrol its airspace and, if necessary, respond to an attack or invasion of Irish territory. 

"Nevertheless, the Irish government and much of Irish society maintain a belief that Ireland is a neutral country.

"Joining Nato does not mean that Ireland will suddenly need to start behaving like the United States or slavishly support every foreign policy decision made by other Nato members. While Germany has been a Nato member since 1955, it rarely deploys its combat units beyond its borders. Iceland, a founding Nato member, does not maintain a standing army."

He said Nato member states frequently disagree and criticise each other on international security, migration, trade and the environment.

"With this in mind, Ireland should debate how, if at all, it wants to alter its approach to foreign policy after joining the alliance," he said.

Besides agreeing to adhere to the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty, including Article V — in which members will assist another member state that is attacked and take "such action as it deems necessary" — Ireland would remain free to chart its own diplomatic course.

"This means that Ireland could choose to maintain friendly relations with governments that some other Nato members are hostile toward, such as the Government of Iran, and decline to take part in any Nato military operations other than those launched in response to an armed attack on one of its members," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

"Therefore, even if Ireland chooses to become militarily aligned with Nato, it can largely maintain its traditional non-aligned approach to the outside world."

'We will need to try and walk before we can run'

Cathal Berry: “We are so far behind that we will need to try and walk before we can run. Rather than immediately discussing the merits of membership of a common security arrangement our first step should be to upgrade our own independent, sovereign defence capability.” 

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland.

He said the recently published report of the Commission on the Defence Forces provides a solid basis for this.

“I’m concerned that a memo for government is currently being prepared for June. Surely the entire commission’s report should be the memo for government?” 

He said the country assembled a panel of 15 national and international experts to forensically scrutinise Ireland’s Defence apparatus over a 14-month period and then Government officials want to “cherrypick” what they recommend.

“It makes little sense to me. So my first priority would be to improve Ireland’s own capability and focus our energies on getting that right. We can then consider other options in time. Once we have improved our own capability we can then begin a serious debate on whether or not we should join a regional security arrangement.” 

'Ireland has never concealed its support for justice, individual liberty, democracy and human rights'

Mervyn O’Driscoll: “My view is that a hasty decision would be gravely imprudent. Let’s have a full public and political debate about Ireland’s interests and its place in European security first. Rule no options in or out.” 

Mr O’Driscoll said “a focused and informed” national discussion about Irish neutrality and security needs is long overdue, adding: “It has never occurred.” 

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto signs a petition for NATO membership in front of members of the media in Helsinki.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto signs a petition for NATO membership in front of members of the media in Helsinki.

He said claims and counterclaims about Ireland’s neutrality ‘myths’ offer sensational headlines and said: “Ireland was fundamentally anti-war and pro-disarmament in the League of Nations and United Nations. It has never concealed its support for justice, individual liberty, democracy and human rights.

“They called out all states, including friends and neighbours, who failed to adhere to their international obligations. Ireland is and remains listened to in global institutions and is a member of the United Nations Security Council at present (again) because of that.” 

He said all Ireland’s foreign policy statements, defence strategies and White Papers are founded on a “non-aligned” globalist and humanitarian vision.

“Ireland is not a decisive or major international actor,” Mr O’Driscoll said. “It will not strengthen the NATO alliance in this conflict.” 

He said Ireland does not face “a clear and imminent” military or state security threat.

“It is not proximate to the conflict zone. It remains geographically peripheral and benefits from a relatively benign security environment. Emotionalism, lack of public information, and apocalyptical prognostications are not a sound basis for decisions."

He said each country must “make up its own mind” but a proper process determining that is required.

'I don’t think the right response is to join Nato'

Richard Boyd Barrett: "Obviously the world is appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a brutal, unjustifiable, imperialist assault on the people of Ukraine, so it is understandable there are concerns in places like Sweden and Finland, but I don’t think the right response is to join Nato."

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said: "If Russia represents an imperialist power that is willing to commit terrible crimes in Ukraine it is also the case that the Nato alliance is dominated by powers like the United States, the UK and France who themselves are imperial powers and have carried out equally atrocious actions in other parts of the world."

He said the US, UK and France have armed the Saudi dictatorship and facilitated its horrendous war in Yemen which has killed in excess of 300,000 and displaced millions.

“Surely this is the time to reassert Ireland’s military neutrality – not to question it, or to abandon it.” He said neutrality “does not mean indifference” to what is happening in Ukraine, or in Yemen or Palestine or Iraq. It means precisely being a vote on the international stage that argues for peaceful resolution to conflict and will speak out against all forms of imperialism or military aggression.”

How should Ireland conduct such a sensitive discussion?

Scott Fitzsimmons: “A special multi-party committee to examine Nato membership, inviting submissions and making recommendations for the Dáil,” he said. 

“If the Dáil votes to join, legislation would be required to clarify overseas deployment of the Defence Forces. This could include removing or modifying the first provision of the ‘triple lock’ — which stipulates that any overseas deployment must be authorised by the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly. Given that the primary threat to Nato, and one of the main reasons for its continued existence, is to defend European countries against Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and great power with considerable influence over many members of the UN General Assembly, maintaining this provision would hamper Ireland’s ability to respond to an attack by Russia against an alliance member.” 

'A precipitous response to the war in Ukraine is not good policymaking'

Cathal Berry: “Once we have improved our own capability, we can then begin a serious debate on whether or not we should join a regional security arrangement. The debate could take place in multiple forums and formats — Dáil debates, Oireachtas Committee meetings, expert panels, seminars, and media debates.” Mervyn O’Driscoll He suggests a “focussed political and popular consultation”, with a full exploration of the benefits and costs of the alternatives — from neutrality to alignment.

Local residents stand at a bus stop in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine.
Local residents stand at a bus stop in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine.

“A precipitous response to the war in Ukraine is not good policymaking,” said Mr O’Driscoll.

Options include an Oireachtas debate, Citizens’ Assembly, and referendum.

On a referendum, he said: “Neutrality has become part of the national identity and the national narrative or self-image impacting Irish votes on EU referendums.

“National post-mortems after the failed first Nice and Lisbon treaties concluded that neutrality was a key explanation.” He said a protocol affirming respect for Ireland’s neutrality was needed to pass the Lisbon Treaty at the second attempt.

“This underscores that the mood of the people must be carefully gauged and respected,” he said.

'The majority of people want to maintain the traditional policy of neutrality'

Richard Boyd Barrett: “People Before Profit has actively sought this debate because the government has responded to the Ukrainian crisis by intimating that we should move away from neutrality.” He said they put forward a bill to hold a referendum enshrining neutrality in the constitution — which the government voted against.

“I think there is little doubt when you look at opinion polls, the majority of people want to maintain the traditional policy of neutrality,” he said.

What are the key factors we need to consider?

Scott Fitzsimmons: Mr Fitzsimmons said any debate on possible Nato membership should include consideration of the current and possible future security context in Europe and the world.

“Joining Nato does not need to fundamentally alter Irish foreign policy in this respect,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

“Longstanding Nato members have always decided which, if any, foreign conflicts to participate in.” He said that when the UK went to war with Argentina in 1982, it did so alone and that no other Nato member played an active role in the conflict.

Mr Fitzsimmons said that when the Iraq war began in 2003, the only Nato members that took part in the initial invasion were the US, Britain, and Poland.

An aerial view of a residential area ruined by the Russian shelling in Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine.
An aerial view of a residential area ruined by the Russian shelling in Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine.

“France and Germany publicly criticised the Bush administration’s case for going to war, while the rest of the alliance’s members quietly declined to participate,” he said.

“Even when the alliance has made a collective decision to take part in an armed conflict, such as in Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, each member country had complete control over what, if any, military assets it would contribute.

“If Ireland were to join the alliance, its government would have the same authority to decide how its soldiers and equipment will be used during Nato operations.” He said the capabilities of Ireland’s defence forces have to be discussed.

“Enhancing Ireland’s military capabilities does not have to involve drastic or expensive changes,” he said.

Mr Fitzsimmons pointed out that Iceland, a long-standing and valued Nato member, does not maintain a standing army and that its primary contribution is to allow other alliance members to establish radar stations and refuelling facilities for ships and aircraft on its territory to help them, for example, monitor the movements of Russian aircraft, ships, and submarines in the North Atlantic.

“These facilities were largely paid for by wealthier allies, like the US.” He said Ireland could leverage its existing role “as the North Atlantic bridge” by entering into an agreement with the US to expand its presence in the Shannon region by establishing an airbase that could be jointly operated with the Irish Defence Forces.

“Ireland could, likewise, expand refuelling and resupply facilities at some of its ports to assist allied navies,” he said.

Two national guard soldiers drink a shot to honor the memory of two late soldiers in Kharkiv cemetery, eastern Ukraine.
Two national guard soldiers drink a shot to honor the memory of two late soldiers in Kharkiv cemetery, eastern Ukraine.

He said membership would allow Ireland to take greater responsibility for its own air defences rather than relying on Britain to intercept unidentified or hostile aircraft on its behalf.

Mr Fitzsimmons said Ireland should discuss how much it intends to spend on defence after joining the alliance. He said Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney’s recently announced 50% increase in defence spending would see the defence budget rise to around €1.6bn by 2025.

He said Nato currently asks each member to spend the equivalent of at least 2% of its GDP on defence, but only a minority of existing members currently meet that target.

Denmark, Canada, Belgium, and Spain spend much closer to 1% of their GDP on defence and Luxembourg spends just over 0.5%.

Ireland “will always maintain full control over how much it spends”, Mr Fitzsimmons added.

He said Ireland would also need to discuss how joining Nato would influence its ability to participate in UN peacekeeping operations.

However, Mr Fitzsimmons believes joining the alliance “would not undermine” Ireland’s ability to take part in these operations, where the soldiers of contributing countries are expected to adopt an impartial approach.

He said Canada was a founding member of Nato, but was also one of the most active participants in UN peacekeeping operations.

“The Irish Defence Forces’ considerable experience with peacekeeping operations would be viewed as an asset by other Nato members because stabilisation is an essential part of any conflict,” he said.

'The main focus should be how best do we provide for the defence and security of our country'

Cathal Berry: “The main focus should be how best do we provide for the defence and security of our country. Are we willing to stand and fight alone [and resource ourselves accordingly], or do we wish to take a more multi-lateral approach to collective security?

“Either approach has its merits which can be teased out if the debate is held in a respectful, courteous and informative way.” 

'If Ireland was willing to join Nato it is not in a strong military position to do so'

Mervyn O’Driscoll: He said there are a number of questions to be considered:

  • Is there any value to retaining Ireland’s world-recognised humanitarian and peacekeeping tradition?
  • Would alliance membership have any impact on Ireland’s reputation and tradition?
  • Would it augment or undermine national security?
  • What about the costs associated with membership of a military alliance?
  • Are we prepared to participate in military conflicts in the collective interest?
  • What impact would Nato have on Ireland’s role as an honest broker and its ability to mediate and seek pacific solutions?
  • Is Ireland prepared to divert funds from housing, healthcare, education, and so on?

Mr O’Driscoll said “a sizeable increase” in defence expenditure and “a complete overhaul” of the Defence Forces would be required over a protracted period “whether Ireland joined or chose not to join Nato”.

He said the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces made for “depressing reading” after decades of dangerously low investment and a lack of clear national thinking.

“The surprise is that in spite of this negligence Irish peacekeepers are renowned internationally and the Defence Forces have performed so well in general,” he said.

A woman stands next to a destroyed house in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine.
A woman stands next to a destroyed house in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine.

“If Ireland was willing to join Nato it is not in a strong military position to do so. Finland and Sweden have formidable militaries and they have avoided the label ‘neutrality’ post-1990 preferring non-alignment which is now ending on their path into Nato.” He said joining Nato now would make Ireland “a very weak flank” should any actor choose or have the capability to exploit it.

“Frankly, Ireland has taken its security and its defence for granted. But aligning with Nato is not an answer to this or the Ukrainian-Russian war.” 

'The fact that we won a position on the UN security council is to a very large extent determined by the fact that we are neutral'

Richard Boyd Barrett: “Ireland’s reputation internationally is very good among ordinary people. People like Ireland and the reason they like Ireland is because we have a history of freeing ourselves from empire and colonialism and arising out of that a tradition of being militarily neutral, not being involved in military alliances, so our international reputation and indeed the safety of our peacekeeping troops, their physical safety, is very significantly dependant on that reputation.

“The fact that we won a position on the UN security council is to a very large extent determined by the fact that we are neutral.

“So we would abandon neutrality and get more deeply involved in Nato or any military alliance at our peril.

“The best form of security for this country, for its reputation and for its physical security, is to stay neutral and be a voice, an objective voice against all forms of war, imperialism and colonialism.”

  • Scott Fitzsimmons, lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick;
  • Cathal Berry, former solider in the Defence Forces and now independent TD for Kildare South;
  • Mervyn O’Driscoll, editor of Irish Studies in International Affairs and Head of School of History, University College Cork 
  • Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown

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