Sunday 24 February 2019

Why it's past time for Ireland to finally join Nato

Daniel Keohane

IRELAND is no longer a "neutral" country. The response of the Irish people to the atrocities in the US shows that Ireland is completely opposed to international terrorism. The Government's offer of airspace to the US is the right one.

The response is right, not only because the US is an important friend, but also because those attacks were attacks on our common human and democratic values.

However, official Irish policy is still "neutrality". But Irish governments are prepared to support the use of force, if necessary, for dealing with threats to international security.

This suggests that Ireland is not as "neutral" as official policy states. Neutrality today amounts to nothing more than non-membership of defence alliances such as Nato. In other words, Ireland is not neutral but remains non-aligned. But if Ireland is no longer neutral, should Ireland remain non-aligned? The short answer is "no", and Ireland should join Nato.

Nato is a common defence organisation of 19 independent states, and more states are applying for membership. Is Ireland willing to support our European or American friends if they were attacked, including militarily if necessary?

It is difficult to imagine why not, considering the close relationship Ireland has with its European and American partners. Ireland may not have much to offer militarily, but if needed Ireland should be prepared to contribute.

And if Nato needs to respond to an attack in Europe or America, why should Ireland not be involved in framing that response? Remaining outside Nato would deny Ireland any such influence. If neutral Ireland were attacked, European and American support would be expected and needed.

Nato membership would not mean Ireland would have to use Nato to respond, but it would give the Irish government many more options.

Would Nato membership make Ireland a more likely target of attack? Nato is no longer confronting Soviet Russia, but instead threats like the terrorists who attacked the US. For such terrorists, Ireland's membership of "the West" is enough of a motivation, and they are unlikely to respect our neutrality. Ireland is a low-risk location, not because of neutrality, but because of geographic location on the edge of Europe.

Being a smaller country also helps, terrorists are unlikely to attack Nato members such as Iceland, Portugal, or Luxembourg, over attacking the US.

In addition, Nato membership does not mean the introduction of widespread conscription to the Irish Army.

Such decisions would remain solely with the Irish government. Ireland has an all-volunteer force, and it should remain so. Furthermore France, Italy, and Spain are all scrapping conscription, as conscript armies are expensive and not suitable for the types of missions undertaken today.

Ireland has always been willing to contribute to the pursuit of international peace and security. Irish development aid and participation in UN peacekeeping missions for over 40 years are a testament to that.

Nato is not just a defence organisation; it is also a security institution supporting the global role of the UN. The UN deals with increasing numbers and types of crises, and often calls on regional organisations to help run its peace missions. For example, the UN has mandated the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to assist its conflict resolution efforts in Sierra Leone.

In Europe, the UN has mandated some of its missions to Nato, and Ireland is participating in the Nato-run missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Nato membership would increase Irish influence over how the UN's work is carried out in Europe.

Another reason is the value Ireland gives to relations with both Europe and the US.

Ireland manages to be both pro-European and pro-American at the same time, something that the British for example would like to be able to do as well as Ireland does.

Since Nato is the most important European-American institution, membership would enhance the two most important relationships in Irish foreign policy.

But perhaps the most important reason is what Nato membership can add to Irish foreign policy aims. Ireland has always been prepared to stand up for a reasoned and principled approach to international security. That voice should be heard loud and clear in Nato, as it already is in the EU and the UN, and Nato would welcome our contribution.

For example, Nato's response to the terrorist attacks was not just a show of solidarity; it is also a means of ensuring the US takes in the opinions of its allies before making decisions. Increasing our ability to influence events would also enhance our role in the UN.

Ireland should not join Nato without a referendum, but perhaps it is time for the government to hold such a referendum.

Nato is an alliance of states that are willing to defend and protect common democratic values. Ireland is not neutral. Joining Nato would be further expression of Ireland's desire to contribute to international peace and security.

* Daniel Keohane is a research fellow with the Centre for European Reform.

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