Ireland takes a free ride on the back of Nato as it protects us
Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30
Neutrality has been the subject of debate recently, both at home and abroad. It was claimed earlier this week that an agreement is in place which allows Britain's Royal Air Force to shoot down a passenger plane in Irish airspace in the event of a 9/11-type hijacking.
Further afield, Russia's recent aggression towards its neighbours has caused Ireland's fellow European neutrals - Finland and Sweden - to rethink their non-membership of Nato.
Because Ireland is located in what is probably the safest place on the planet, far from warzones and countries that might threaten us militarily, there has been no debate here about joining Nato, either in the context of security co-operation on terrorism or on Russia.
Few people advocate such a course and most are quite attached to the State's long-held position of military neutrality.
This is curious in a number of ways, not least because of the reason why Ireland remained neutral in the late 1940s when Europe split between Nato countries, which were almost all democracies, and the Soviet Union and its satellites, which were all dictatorships.
That reason was not a matter of principle, but a grand miscalculation. When Nato was being established in the years after World War II, governments of the time believed that Ireland's strategic position in the north Atlantic would make it an indispensable member.
Ireland effectively told the US, which was and always has been the leading Nato member, that membership would only happen if Washington pressured London on Irish reunification.
This was both an overestimation of the strategic importance of Ireland's geography and an underestimation of the importance to the US of its British ally.
The Americans said they had no intention of getting involved in the border issue in exchange for Ireland signing up to Nato.
When a one-to-one security arrangement with the US was proposed, that was also refused. Washington said it was Nato or nothing. Ireland chose nothing and so began the post-1945 phase of neutrality which exists to this day.
Despite Irish neutrality over the past 70 years coming about largely as a result of an error of judgment, that has not stopped a myth growing up. That myth overlooks the miscalculations of the late 1940s and instead attributes non-involvement in Nato to some unique virtue. Ireland, in this made-up view of history, took a principled stand against militarism and in favour of peace by not joining the alliance.
This view is strange because a State's first duty is to provide for the security of its citizens. If Ireland had done what neutrals, such as Sweden and Switzerland, had done and developed its armed forces so that they could protect citizens, that would have been one thing. But no government ever did that. Ireland has long had one of the lowest defence budgets in Europe. Today, only Luxembourg among the 28 members of the EU spends less of its national income on defending itself.
That has happened because we have had the luxury of knowing that our natural allies - most particularly the US - would intervene if, say, the Soviets had attempted to pick off a small, undefended island. (Iceland, another small island in the north Atlantic, has been a Nato member since the organisation was founded in 1949).
In effect, Ireland has been free-riding on transatlantic security structures paid for by American and European taxpayers since 1949. It is not a position of which anyone should be proud and it is certainly not a position from which we Irish are in a position to lecture others about their security arrangements.
But despite this, there has never been any shortage of people in this country who do exactly that.
In a letter to the editor of this newspaper recently, an academic, Ray Kinsella, claimed that Nato had recently put in place the "infrastructure of war" in response to worsening relations with Russia, a country which Kinsella claims threatens nobody.
Among the positive contributions that immigrants from central and eastern Europe have made to this country is a reality check on the bizarre 'Nato-bad, Russia-good' claims of Kinsella and his ilk. In a reply in this newspaper last week, Grzegorz Kolodziej, who, judging by his name, has Polish origins, but now lives in Wicklow, pointed out that Nato countries are responding to a series of recent acts of Russian hostility towards other countries.
These include Russian bombers flying just off the Irish coast, with their signalling equipment turned off. This is a long-established means of testing air defences, but it puts civilian planes in grave danger because their radars are blinded to the presence of planes that are not signalling.
Many Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians have made their homes in Ireland. Their countries all clamoured to join Nato as soon as they were freed from Moscow's control a quarter of a century ago. If you have friends or colleagues from those countries, ask them for their views on who is the threat in eastern Europe. You will rarely hear the myth of a peace-loving Russia that is being put upon by Nato warmongers.
Ireland should have joined our natural allies in Nato when the alliance was founded. With other neutrals moving closer to Nato, Ireland risks becoming more isolated on security issues in Europe. With Britain on its way out of the EU, Irish membership of Nato would go some way to replacing the institutional ties that will disappear when Brexit happens.
The suggestion that Ireland join the Atlantic alliance will no doubt have the anti-Nato brigade up in arms. But they can relax.
Very few politicians think much about Ireland's security in any depth and even fewer believe we should join Nato. None is likely to provide grown-up leadership on national security. Decades of free-riding are set to continue.