What do we really mean by Irish neutrality?

Irish neutrality is conceptual and subjective and needs to be clearly defined, so says John Minihan, a former Senator and Army Officer and a regular political commentator
What do we really mean by Irish neutrality?
Members of the Defence Forces 44th Infantry Group during a training exercise in the Glen of Imaal, Wicklow. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

I WAS delighted to read the recent Policy Document produced by our Fine Gael MEP’s “Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European Home” which calls on the Government to re-examine Ireland’s position as a neutral country and build stronger military ties with other EU states. MEP’s are ideally placed to lead such a debate, drawing on the experience of their interaction with European colleagues.

After republicanism, neutrality is possibly one of the most misinterpreted words in the Irish psychic. Do any of us really know how neutral we are? Neutrality is defined by the international community as ‘a non-participation in armed conflicts among states’. (That legal definition is based on the 1907 Hague Convention). The world of today is very different; we celebrate our Irish Diaspora as our citizens move freely throughout it. We are Europeans, we enjoy the benefits of that union, we invite foreign direct investment, we have significant trade interest throughout the world and we willingly contribute to international peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

Before we take up the lofty position on the high moral ground and profess our Neutrality as if it was a blood oath of some sort, we should ask ourselves the following question. Are we really neutral in the face of international terrorism, are we neutral when Irish citizens are victims of terrorist attacks, are we neutral when our country is subjected to terrorist attacks, are we neutral when the resulting jobs from foreign direct investment are in question simply because of our inability to take a stand and protect those working in our country?

No we are not, what we are is a non militarily aligned independent island and we should remain so but let that not be confused with the concept of pure neutrality.

I recall pressing a former Defence Minister – back in the day when we had a full Defence Minister sitting at the cabinet table – as to why he was unwilling to have a substantive debate on some of these issues. His reply; that he didn’t make a practice of ‘kicking sleeping dogs’ was both honest and depressing.

We are finally beginning, as a society, to face up to difficult issues.

We have seven referenda scheduled, over the next two years, on a variety of issues, some of which may very well define us as a people. Some Referenda pose difficult questions with few easy answers, but equally referenda can send a message to our European colleagues that we are ready to step out of our insular thinking and address issues not only on the international stage but more importantly at home which is rightly becoming more Europe centric.

In recent months we also heard rumblings around the question of our neutrality in the context of Ireland joining PESCO. Now our Fine Gael MEP’s are raising the issue, so maybe it is time, once and for all through open debate, clarify what we really mean by Irish Neutrality.

Confusion about Irish neutrality is deeply embedded in the Irish mind-set and in the Oireachtas. Eminent historian JJ Lee noted: Ireland has chosen to ignore study of international relations, including the study of neutrality, to an extent unparalleled in any other small Western European neutral. Another academic said: It was worth reminding ourselves that were the UN Charter to be fully developed, we would see quite clearly that the obligations of UN membership over rode neutrality.

It can, of course, be difficult to distinguish neutrality from other concepts such as neutralization, non-partisanship, non- alignment’, ‘military non-alignment’, ‘non-allied’ or as Frank Aiken once described it ‘a condition of limited warfare’.

In my time in politics I often attempted to get a clear understanding of the politics defining neutrality in the changing European political and legal landscape and in the context of shifting definitions, the evolution of national security, peacekeeping and even sovereignty.

The right to and definition of neutrality is enshrined in International law. In the Hague Convention (V) of 1907 the rights and obligations of neutrals were confirmed for the first time. There is a ubiquitous fallacy that Irish neutrality during the emergency was scrupulously even-handed and principled.

The secret co-operation between Ireland and the UK took many forms, including detailed joint planning for a German invasion. The Grand Hotel in Malahide was to be the British headquarters, and Fairyhouse, on the later-abandoned Meath railway line, was to be the railhead for the British forces coming from Northern Ireland, who were to be paid from a fund of £50,000 that was to be available in banks in Drogheda and Navan. We committed to supplying meteorological reports (one of which was vital for the D-Day invasion). de Valera, by means of the strictest censorship ever in the history of the state, kept these facts from the Irish public, who were led to believe that our neutrality was a reality.

Of course we all know that the State permitted as many as 43,000 Irish residents join the British forces and we allowed them return home on leave without any questions being asked.

Also during the war, a Limerick Man Dr Richard J Hayes broke one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious communication codes. His day-job was as director of the National Library of Ireland, but he secretly joined an elite small group of cryptanalysts, led by Col Dan Bryan, and they worked on the infamous ‘Görtz Cipher’, a Nazi code that baffled the great code breaking minds at Bletchley Park, the centre of British wartime cryptography. For his outstanding work Churchill, secretly honoured him in London.

Another significant myth of Irish neutrality relates to our decision not to join the North Atlantic Alliance in 1949. In the negotiations neutrality was never mentioned as a ground for non-participation. On the contrary, the government expressed itself as being in agreement “with the general aims of the proposed treaty” and, in our final response to the invitation to join NATO, they asserted that partition was “the sole obstacle to Ireland’s joining the Atlantic Pact.”

Probably the final fallacy about our supposed neutrality relates to the matter of European defence. Many believe that our neutrality led successive governments to refuse to consider involvement in European security. From the time we first contemplated EC membership, our government made it clear that we were willing to participate in European defence, and that our neutrality was not an obstacle to this.

As early as December 1960, six months before we first sought entry into the EC, the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass, stated: “There is no neutrality, and we are not neutral.”

And in 1962 he made it clear that “NATO is necessary for the defence of the countries of western Europe, including this country. Although we are not members of NATO, we are in full agreement with its aims.”

As head of the then Fianna Fáil Government, Jack Lynch said in 1969: “Being members of that Community, we would naturally be interested in the defence of the territories embraced by the Communities. There is no question of neutrality there”.

From the Opposition benches Liam Cosgrave said, “those participating in the new Europe must be prepared to assist, if necessary, in its defence”. In 1981 Charles Haughey, the successor to Jack Lynch, was equally emphatic in his negative view of neutrality. In March 1981 he rejected a proposal that the Dail reaffirm the principle of neutrality of Ireland in international affairs. He further said: Our economic interests also are tied in with the Western industrialised world. We are, therefore, neither ideologically neutral nor politically indifferent.

By elevating this unprincipled abstract concept of “neutrality” into a notion of it being a “bottom line” of our foreign policy, the two major parties have surrendered the rhetorical moral high ground in most debates to the populist ‘find us a bandwagon and we will jump on it’ parties. Our neutrality was ever practical, pragmatic, flexible and an Irish solution to an Irish problem, i.e. self- interest. A former Minister for Defence said: Neutrality and non- involvement are not assured or guaranteed by mere assertion alone. So our chronic underfunding of our Defence Forces throughout the years indicates an indifference to the accepted tenets of of Neutrality.

Our neutrality is a concept needing constant re-evaluation. Can we be really neutral against terrorism, hybrid aggression, natural disasters or cyber warfare? As mature committed members of the European community, we now have to think seriously and act, in our national interest about security beyond narrow, traditional, insular lines?

The recent decision of the Dail to ratify our membership of PESCO indicates that we have now come of age in terms of the security of our island and that we are ready, willing and able to play our part, however insignificant, in chosen alliances, that will ultimately help make Ireland a safer place to live in and a more secure Europe for our neighbours. For that reason alone I welcome the publication by our Fine Gael MEP’s of this discussion paper on defence and security. We should never fear a reflective and honest debate.

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