The Taoiseach’s presence at a “EuroAtlantic” dinner, held on the margins of a Nato summit, is undoubtedly a significant step for Irish foreign policy.
Future historians might decide last night could mark the moment when Ireland finally put both feet firmly in the Western camp.
For decades through the latter half of the last century, emerging from a world war in which it remained neutral, Ireland pursued a policy of determined non-alignment.
Frank Aiken, the stand-out figure of Irish foreign affairs, hoped to chart a “third way” through the Cold War poles of East and West, America and Russia.
He also clearly saw that China was neither, but a power unto itself, even if it was communist. Despite the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, the State always trod a careful path in Asia. To this day we recognise China and tacitly other territories as coming within the Chinese sphere – without sharing Western insistence on Taiwanese independence, for example.
But the world has changed, and such niceties are parked. The Ukraine crisis is driving Ireland unmistakably in the direction of full participation in European co-security – whether that is ultimately defined in solely EU terms, or extends as far as membership of a Nato brandishing nukes.
At the moment we are members of a Nordic battlegroup, which means we mildly contribute to non-confrontational manoeuvres and limited exercises of little or no threat. Our major military commitment has always been to peacekeeping around the world.
Indeed, our only concerted shots fired in anger were in the Congo – and then we became somehow ashamed of the courage shown in Jadotville. But there may be future Jadotvilles, where not only is there the subtle change from peacekeeping to peace-enforcing, but Irish contribution in support of an assertive EU power.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin emphasised his meetings with “little countries” yesterday – but both Norway and Iceland are Nato members, and the head of Nato, the widely praised Jens Stoltenberg, is Norwegian. He also met Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who is leading another neutral country within Europe. But this is a shrinking club.
There are 30 members of Nato, and only five neutral countries now in Europe – Ireland, Austria, Malta, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden, hitherto neutral, have peeled off and will soon be members of Nato. In that sense alone, Ireland is now more isolated internationally.
Mr Martin emphasises the positives to Ireland’s neutrality, adding that we are not politically or morally neutral, but it increasingly sounds like a cop-out – with his own Tánaiste Leo Varadkar warning in recent months that Ireland can no longer rely on either the UK or US to bail us out if faced with disaster.
His view, widely shared in Fine Gael, especially after Russian media mock-ups of the nuclear destruction of the UK and Ireland, is that it is time for us to stand on our own two feet – which means vastly more spending on the military. This country currently commits 0.5pc of GDP to defence, whereas Nato requires member states to commit 2pc of GDP, although Irish defence spending is due to increase in the coming years.
Meanwhile, it is true that our membership of the UN Security Council reflects our commitment to the universal values of the United Nations, but we’ll soon be rotated off it and back into the General Assembly.
So what of the future? Is it becoming thinkable that Ireland might ultimately join Nato?
Mr Martin says that will be a matter ultimately for the people. But he also talks about closer engagement on issues like cyber security and hybrid attacks, referring to the attack on the HSE last year which came from elements in St Petersburg, Russia. “We can’t be neutral on that either,” he said. “We have to work with like-minded states.”
But while the Taoiseach talks of a need to increase our capacity, he also mentions “interoperability with other member states” – suggesting uniform equipment and military systems, as if part of a jigsaw that looks very much like a European Army.
Referenda were lost on such points before, but a greater hard-headedness now seems to have emerged – and we seem to be distinctly drifting in that direction.