Neutrality has been Irish policy for so long that few citizens ever oppose it, and fewer still question it. But the day has come to ask those hard questions
Lenin memorably observed that: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
We have just witnessed one of those weeks.
For decades Germany has been a reluctant power. Its economic might was never matched by military power. Germany’s partners in Nato complained that it wouldn’t spend money on European security.
Yet last week new Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Germany would provide weapons to Ukraine, reversing a decades-long policy of not arming third parties in a conflict zone. He later told the Bundestag that Germany would double its defence spending this year.
The EU also had one of those weeks.
It has struggled at every turn to formulate a coherent foreign policy. The pressure of getting 27 countries with different, often competing, interests to agree to anything usually meant that in foreign affairs the EU was an also-ran.
Last week the Union agreed an unprecedented set of sanctions on Russia, some of which run counter to some EU countries’ financial interests. Even more surprisingly, the EU agreed to supply Ukraine with €500m of military support, including weapons. The EU is finally flexing its muscles.
Ireland announced it would not directly support the fund that bought weapons, but instead put €9m into a ring-fenced fund for non-lethal equipment. This Jesuitical sleight of hand makes no practical difference. We’re all putting money into a pot, and that pot will buy weapons.
The idea that the coins with harps on them will go to purchase medical equipment, but not guns, allows Irish politicians to claim Ireland remains true to our policy of neutrality.
Neutrality has been around for so long that it has become a canon of Irish political life. Few ever oppose it, or even question it. Even now, with the security of Europe under threat from Russian aggressors, a new poll suggests that three-quarters of Irish people support Irish neutrality.
But neutrality is and has always been a policy rather than a principle.
For Éamon de Valera there was the obvious need to take into consideration the security needs of Britain. Neutrality was a type of guarantee for them that Ireland would not be used as a staging post to attack Great Britain. In return, Ireland’s waters were protected by the might of Britain’s navy.
When in 1941 Fine Gael’s James Dillon questioned the policy of neutrality, he was a lone voice on the right side of history. But de Valera’s policy of neutrality in the war was pragmatic, rather than based on principle.
World War II was the first war in which air power was crucial. We could no longer rely on being an island behind an island. Keeping Ireland out of the war meant Ireland emerged unscathed from another major European conflict.
We then made a virtue out of necessity. We claimed staying out of wars between big powers was the moral thing to do. Of course we did pick sides in that war. We just didn’t do much to help our side.
And Ireland is at pains to point out that we are not actually neutral on the invasion of Ukraine. We’ve rightly taken the side of Ukraine.
As Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil last Thursday, we are indisputably part of the “system of the West”, one based on liberal democracy, rule of law, social market economy, and multilateralism.
The fact he mentioned multilateralism, the forming of alliances, shows that however we conceive our neutrality, it is not about rejecting pacts with other countries to promote and protect our interests.
Neutrality is not about maintaining our own distinct foreign policy either. The deepening integration of Europe makes that fiction impossible to sustain.
Even last week Taoiseach Micheál Martin ruled out (wrongly in my view) our unilateral expulsion of the Russian ambassador because he felt it should be a move made at a European level.
We tend to interpret neutrality as non-militarism. It’s an odd way of thinking, as neutral countries normally spend heavily on military to protect themselves. But our security budget remains small, as we free-ride on UK and US security. It’s dishonest, but it suits us, as that same RTÉ poll shows a clear majority opposed to increased taxes to spend more on our defence.
What’s odder, however, is that we happily acknowledge that intervention would be the morally right (if perhaps unwise) thing to do. A clear majority support Nato intervention.
The Taoiseach admitted that arming Ukraine is “very, very understandable, given the fact the Ukrainian people are under such attack” and that it “would be unthinkable” for Ireland to seek to prevent the EU’s military intervention.
Perhaps Ireland last week started thinking about what has been unthinkable for decades — whether we should join a common defence alliance able to actually stick up for itself.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and policy at Dublin City University