Poll: Sands beginning to shift on Irish neutrality

An increasing percentage of the population is taking a hawkish line on Ireland altering its long-held policy

Ukrainian soldiers carry children to help a family fleeing on the outskirts of Kyiv yesterday. Picture by Emilio Morenatti/AP

Kevin Cunningham

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced us to consider where we stand when it comes to global affairs — and today’s Sunday Independent/Ireland Think poll today reveals very clearly the significant divisions in Irish society when it comes to foreign policy.

These are divisions that will need to be resolved if emerging splits in Europe become sharper.

There are broadly two camps: the hawks who would prefer Ireland to engage in military action in the current conflict; and the doves who would prefer the country to maintain its policy on neutrality (more on that later).

On the issue in which the Government is coming under considerable pressure — whether Ireland should remain militarily neutral in relation to the war — there is a majority in excess of two to one that agree with the current policy.

However, support for that policy is actually weaker among supporters of government parties.

Support for neutrality in the current conflict ranges from a low of 53pc among those who back Fianna Fáil, right up to the 90pc among those who support Solidarity-PBP.

The desire not to engage militarily is also far stronger among younger people: 80pc of those aged 18-24 do not want to engage militarily compared with 56pc of those aged 65 and over. The doves are clearly both younger and more left-wing than the hawks.

What is notable is that this hawkish minority is also robust on the consequences of military action.

This is evident from the question that asks about the threat of a nuclear war — ‘Would you agree with a deployment of Nato troops in Ukraine, even if that risked a war involving nuclear weapons?’ — for which 29pc said yes.

This urgency to send troops in spite of the threat rises to 35pc among supporters of Sinn Féin and falls to as low as 8pc again for supporters of Solidarity-PBP. In terms of demography, 39pc of men aged 45 to 54 are happy to send troops in, while this falls to as low as 18pc of women aged 18 to 24.

There are important distinctions between the two camps, and by asking a series of questions on the topic we are able to more clearly understand the nuanced preferences.

One key question asks respondents to pick from a range of options querying how Ireland should respond to the crisis.

The preferred option is the current position — 44pc wanting Ireland to supply funds, but not for military purposes. In contrast, just 10pc want us not to involve ourselves in any way.

So while Ireland prefers to be neutral from a specific military basis, there is no shortage of desire to help those in Ukraine. Indeed, even among those who want Ireland to engage with the conflict militarily, there is a preference for the ‘light’ version, with 27pc preferring Ireland to supply military equipment compared to a smaller 15pc preferring Ireland to join Nato and support military action.

Joining any military alliance would be in explicit contradiction with Ireland’s policy of neutrality.

At a European level, Ireland has maintained a level of ambiguity towards the trend in the EU to move towards a common foreign and security policy.

However, as the EU may seek to develop a consolidated position on defence, it may yet have considerable political ramifications. The European constitution developed in response to the Lisbon Treaty explicitly prohibits a common defence — so further integration on defence would require that we return to the polls.

Irish governments have been relatively cautious on the issue after it was successfully leveraged in the defeat of the first Nice Treaty referendum, and to a lesser extent in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum.

That said, the poll shows that a very narrow majority believes the original concept of Irish neutrality is now out of date. Indeed, there remains only a narrow majority for Ireland’s current form of quasi-neutrality.

Today, 37pc believe Ireland should join Nato. And while this is an increase from January when 34pc believed Ireland should join Nato, it is clear that the war in Ukraine has not caused a major change.

That said, a majority is in favour of Ireland’s participation in a common European defence arrangement. This reflects our more flexible approach to what is meant by being neutral.

While we might regard ourselves as neutral, Irish foreign policy is considerably more nuanced. And public opinion reflects those nuances.

If we were to rely on the equally dated 1907 Hague Convention, it is hard to argue that Ireland is a neutral country. Our movement of troops, munitions and war supplies across the territories, albeit under the UN banner, is not necessarily a neutral venture.

Even perhaps the architect of Irish neutrality, Éamon de Valera, supported the sanctions imposed on Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain in the late 1930s.

While Ireland is not the only neutral country (we note Finland, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Malta), discussions around neutrality often get stuck in the weeds of what that it means to be neutral, rather than what Irish foreign policy is.

Ireland is part of the European Union. It supports self-determination, and adopts liberal positions on democracy and on human rights. Arguably Ireland’s foreign policy is closer to what international relations scholars might refer to as ‘liberal institutionalism’ rather than neutrality.

There are clear and consistent preferences for certain forms of intervention over others, but Ireland is arguably not neutral when it comes to taking a position.

Irish foreign policy is relatively consistent: the peaceful resolution of disputes, human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, the rights of small nations and global socioeconomic development — and though while perhaps not neutral, Ireland might be described as being what Ben Tonra, of UCD, described as a “good citizen”.

The only question that remains then, is what should the good citizen do?

Kevin Cunningham is the managing director of Ireland Thinks and a lecturer in politics at TU Dublin