Monday 27 January 2020

Declan Power: What does Irish 'neutrality' mean in the realm of international relations in 2018

STOCK IMAGE Photo: Frank McGrath
STOCK IMAGE Photo: Frank McGrath

Declan Power

So let’s get to grips with ‘Neutrality’, as it’s probably the most misunderstood and distorted word ever used in Hiberno-English.

The truth is, there is an awful lot of fudge and mythology about our much vaunted ‘neutrality’. A lot of this has been harmless and has allowed our state plot a safe course through the choppy waters of history.

However, as a policy it has a lot contradictions and where it becomes unhelpful or even unsafe, is where public representatives and/or members of the public interpret it in absolutist terms.

Originally in the early days of our state-hood there was no possibility of appearing to remain neutral in a conflict as the UK was still responsible for our external security, particularly that of our air and seas.

The handing back to Irish control of the last British military bases in the southern Irish state, the treaty ports in the late 30s, allowed, Eamon De Valera, to exercise meaningful control of Irish foreign and security policy.

This meant we could declare ‘neutrality’ in World War Two. However, this was primarily a stance taken to show the world we were finally independent of the UK. It did nothing to actually prepare the state to effectively defend itself.

In fact all of Ireland’s defence plans for WW2 were predicated on the fact that the British would have to come to our aid. If you read any of Prof Eunan O’Halpin’s books, ‘Defending Ireland’ or ‘MI5 and Ireland’, you will learn how there were plans in place for a joint British-Irish defence of Ireland should a German invasion occur. There were no such plans or cooperation with the Germans.

The evidence is there to argue, that had the level of defence and intelligence cooperation that took place, primarily under the stewardship of Col Dan Bryan of G2 Irish Military Intelligence, Ireland would not have been able to present to the world the veneer of neutrality.

Our assistance to the allies and the quiet but strong relationships we developed allowed us say one thing and do another. This practice largely persisted throughout the Cold War with deepening relations with the US intelligence community, right through to today.

We never joined the non-aligned voting bloc in the UN or signed up to the Hague Convention on neutrality

So, where are we now?

First off, if you’re somebody who has paid close attention down through the years to the ‘neutrality’ debate, you’ll notice that politicians and civil servants will always refer to our ‘…traditional policy of military neutrality’.

There are some in the international arena who openly scoff at this and deride it as the same as being ‘a little bit pregnant’. The Swiss for example always interpreted neutrality in a scrupulous fashion, putting plenty of financial resources into maintaining an effective defence and security system for their country and staying aloof from any form of international engagement that could be recognised as them being in partnership or supporting another state.

This included trade arrangements and not even joining the UN. However, this has now changed utterly with them joining the UN and PfP, as well as sending senior officers for training in the US.

So in Ireland we admit, we have never been politically ‘neutral’ but are militarily ‘neutral’. What does this mean?

It means we have picked a side, but we stop short of signing up to any defence and security arrangements that require us to sign a mutual defence pact.

That is why we are not full members of NATO, but are members of its sister organisation, the PfP or Partnership for Peace, which allow us take part in the ‘St Petersburg Tasks’, crisis management and peacekeeping/enforcement operations

Being members of NATO would bind us into Article 5 which states that ‘…an attack against one ally, shall be regarded as an attack on all’. This is really the crux of how official Ireland interprets our ‘military neutrality’, we are not bound by the terms of a military alliance like NATO.

However, this does not stop us supporting political resolutions in either the UN or EU that may lead to closer security arrangements or even military deployments

However, as members of PfP, our troops and gardai and other civilian specialists like myself, have regularly taken part in NATO-led missions.  Small numbers of specialist Irish troops have taken part in the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for instance.

Serving and former army and garda specialists have taken part in a number of NATO-led roles. How does this square with our ‘military neutrality’ then?

The bottom line is to do with the ‘Triple Lock’. This requires the Irish state to have a UN resolution, a government decision and the assent of the Dail before deploying troops of a number above 12 on an overseas operation.  If a scenario met those requirements we could technically and legally go to war.

The fact of the matter is, we are pursuing the same policy as always, but with a few additions. We have always been a small nation with a strong multi-lateral focus when it comes to trade and international relations. The relationships we have developed within the EU, with the US and UK are strategically vital to us from an economic and security point view.

We have never shown any interest in investing and developing a serious independent security or defence apparatus of our own. Our defence planning is still predicated on assistance from external partners.

Actually, Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty, which Ireland has signed up to in 2007 probably sums up our stance on our international security oblications. ‘ If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.’

We should retain our rights to independent courses of action, but not at the expense of maintaining bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships which keep us all safe in extreme times.

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