Ireland Should Resist the Pressure to Join the Western Military Bloc

Ireland’s neutrality policy has a complex history, but it has blocked Irish participation in disastrous wars and enabled some positive interventions in world affairs. We should resist pressure to scrap neutrality, whether or not it means formally joining NATO.

Irish foreign minister David Andrews (L) is watched by NATO secretary general George Robertson (R) as he signs the Partnership for Peace document on December 1, 1999, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. (Jacques Collet / BELGA / AFP via Getty Images)

War mania has convulsed Europe since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. NATO is having something of a renaissance. EU member states have bought into the renewal of the alliance or plotted a kind of strategic autonomy, although some flirt with both approaches. According to the most recent estimates on the European Peace Facility (EPF), the EU’s extensive military support to Ukraine has totaled €5.6 billion.

Under relentless pressure from within and without, Finnish and Swedish neutrality came to an end last year as both states agreed to join NATO. Even nominally neutral Ireland has contributed €122 million under the EPF in “non-lethal support” for the Ukrainian military. War and its sibling, great-power rivalry, have thus unsettled century-old orthodoxies.

Against this backdrop, the Irish government recently closed the four-day Consultative Forum on International Security Policy, which was presented as a “public consultation process” after the government backed out of holding a more democratic Citizens’ Assembly. Chaired by the political scientist Louise Richardson, this forum followed months of concerted efforts by the Irish media and the government to “open a debate” on neutrality through a constant drip-feed of opinion pieces, supposedly revelatory polls, and new discoveries that allegedly undermine old shibboleths.

Dangerous Drift

This campaign has above all exhorted Irish citizens to consider how a lack of investment in the Irish Defence Forces renders the country helpless in the face of cyberwarfare and hybrid threats. We need to rethink neutrality, runs the argument, because there are recently disclosed secret air defense arrangements with Britain’s Royal Air Force to secure and defend Irish airspace, or because Russian warships have been monitored in Ireland’s “exclusive economic zone,” allegedly putting undersea cables that transmit vast internet traffic between the United States and Europe at risk of sabotage. There have also been suggestions that NATO membership might be the price Irish people need to pay for reunification.

For pro-neutrality activists and antiwar campaigners, the greatest immediate risk is to the so-called triple lock, which requires a mandate from the United Nations, a decision by the government, and a vote in Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil, in order to send more than twelve Defence Forces personnel overseas. Critics say that this mechanism gives Russia and China an unconscionable veto power over Irish missions in the UN. Yet the veto privilege is one also possessed by the United States (which has used it more than the other permanent members of the Security Council) and the UK (which is the only member of the council to have colonized Ireland and occupied it with armed forces).

A frantic energy courses through these efforts to “enlighten” the supposedly childish, myth-blinded Irish masses. However, the ruling parties have seriously miscalculated the national mood. Opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of Irish voters believe that neutrality should be maintained. One voice of reason has been the country’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who correctly judged that Ireland is on a “dangerous drift” toward NATO.

Ireland has never been impeccably neutral, if such a thing is even possible. Commentators and activists of left and right agree that “neutrality” is an imperfect descriptor — even a diplomatic chimera of sorts. To grasp this slippery term and its even slipperier application, we must first examine the historical roots of Irish neutrality.

A Perplexing History

If neutrality’s core functions have sometimes escaped Irish governments, it has proved equally perplexing to some outsiders. The Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko once remarked to an Irish taoiseach: “I don’t understand Ireland, you are not aligned, and you are not aligned with the non-aligned.”

In his book A Singular Stance, Patrick Keatinge identified two “ideological sources” for this abstract and inscrutable “conception of neutrality.” First is the manifestation, and performance, of independent statehood; second are clear overtures to the most cosmopolitan elements within European liberalism, which he says argue for “the futility and immorality of force and the ultimate harmony of the interests of all mankind.” These conflicting notions, Keatinge suggests, “may well converge to provide an effective justification for the aspiration to be neutral.”

There are some discernible historical roots for what we today call neutrality. After World War I descended on the continent, James Connolly and others founded the Irish Neutrality League in 1914, and the slogan “We serve neither king nor kaiser” raised by Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army took on a totemic meaning for pro-neutralists and socialists alike. While the Irish Republican Brotherhood made efforts to seek support from Germany before the Easter Rising of 1916 — the proclamation of an Irish Republic mentions Ireland’s “gallant allies in Europe” — Irish neutrality received a new lease of life in 1918, when the British government considered imposing conscription in the final months of the war.

The strength of feeling against the move resulted in a mass protest campaign and a general strike. This set the seal on Sinn Féin’s rise to political hegemony in Ireland, with the party’s landslide victory in the UK election held later that year, followed by the declaration of Irish independence. Neutrality had become a political tool that allowed Irish nationalists to express sovereignty on the world stage: it was, in this view, a simple but powerful emanation of independence, and abandoning it would only reverse or undo the gains of the national revolution.

The Emergency

As neutrality’s fiercest critics like to point out, Irish rebels made a habit of seeking military assistance from various European powers in a very unneutral fashion, from the Holy See to France and Germany. Much has been written about Ireland’s sui generis foreign-policy strategy during World War II, which was referred to obliquely as “the Emergency.” Aided by censorship, the country was officially neutral yet secretly collaborated with the British state on matters of counterespionage and security.

For all the invisible collaborations, however, neutrality was never fully sacrificed. In July 1940, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera rebuffed a conditional British offer of Irish unification in return for an Irish declaration of war on Germany or agreement that British troops would be sent to southern soil.

De Valera was willing to countenance alternative arrangements that involved security cooperation with Britain. But he believed that these conditions would have meant committing the state “definitely to an immediate abandonment of our neutrality” while receiving “no guarantee that in the end we would have a united Ireland.”

During the Cold War period, it was the partition of the island that prevented Ireland from joining NATO, not any principled neutrality. Whether this was a convenient rhetorical device for Washington-sympathizing politicians or the manifestation of a deeply felt anti-partitionism, the coalition government of the late 1940s stressed that Irish agreement to join NATO would have meant recognizing British sovereignty over Northern Ireland in both de jure and de facto terms.

Adventures in Nonalignment

After Ireland joined the UN in 1955, the concept of Irish neutralism became infused with some nonaligned ideas. Fianna Fáil’s minister of external affairs Frank Aiken courted notoriety by occasionally denouncing Europe’s colonial wars — particularly France’s effort to hold on to Algeria — and voting to open discussion on the admission of the People’s Republic of China.

Aiken’s most controversial initiative was a set of proposals for mutual great-power disengagement in Central Europe. As many people do today, he understood neutrality as an opportunity rather than a constraint. As he put it in July 1961:

We have, owing to the accident of history or whatever way you like to put it, been independent, untied, neutral in the accepted sense of the term, in the military sense of the term. It was our duty as a delegation in the United Nations to take full advantage of that position, in order to promote the peace, to try to make propositions which countries tied to blocs could not make without committing their blocs.

One could sense a lingering Aiken-ism amid the surge in antiwar organizing and New Left activism in Ireland during the 1970s and ’80s. Neutrality had a substantial appeal at the time of the Cold War, allowing campaigners to press Irish governments on the chasm between Ireland’s actually existing practice of neutrality and a more uncorrupted form that would be truly aligned with peace and justice on a global scale.

As my own research has found in the case of the Irish Nicaragua Solidarity Group, activists reasoned that a position faithful to the tenets of Irish neutrality would mean explicitly condemning US interference in Central America, particularly the subversion of the Contras. Ireland’s neutrality during the Cold War functioned, in the view of the historian Van Gosse, “via a peculiar mix of Catholic nationalism, residual anti-imperialism, and emerging Euro-philism, permitting it to operate as simultaneously an anti-communist friend of the West and an anti-colonialist friend of the developing Third World.”

Today, the form of neutrality practiced and preached by the Department of Foreign Affairs has shapeshifted: Catholic nationalism and residual anti-imperialism have exited the scene, while the process of Europeanization is complete. Irish Atlanticists cling on to the idea of military neutrality, unrecognized under international law, which refers only to nonmembership of a mutual defense pact such as NATO. In fact, the post–Cold War moment saw Irish governments double down on the term “military neutrality.”

In truth, that term is a political fudge formulated by neutral states who sought membership of the European Community/European Union. They sensed that this commitment to political union would necessarily lead to a collective EU defense settlement, yet still needed to reassure voters at home that their neutrality was sacrosanct.

Debunking Myths

There is something of a cottage industry among Irish academics and journalists as well as retired politicians and diplomats who insist, through empirical reasoning, that Irish neutrality has never really existed — that it is the stuff of “mythology.” As the former Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald wrote in 1999:

Our “traditional neutrality” was in fact an unintended historical accident . . . contrary to sedulously fostered myths, we were not neutral in the last World War; our absence from NATO has nothing to do with neutrality; and every Irish Taoiseach from 1960 to the 1990s rejected the concept of neutrality and accepted eventual Irish participation in European defence.

Let’s take these assertions one by one. Most people accept that Ireland was, as the historian Joe Lee puts it, at the very least “benevolently neutral for Britain” during World War II. On his second point, FitzGerald is right to note that Irish nationalists raised the prospect of the whole island joining NATO in exchange for reunification with Northern Ireland. His final point also stands up to scrutiny: taoiseachs such as Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch explicitly and emphatically questioned whether neutrality was necessary or even desirable.

But this all seems beside the point. Semantic quibbles aside, there is tacit agreement that Ireland has never been purely neutral across the political spectrum, from socialists and republicans to liberals and conservatives. Supporters and opponents of NATO both dispute the purity of this long-standing policy, citing the same examples but to completely different ends.

For FitzGerald and many of his ilk, Ireland must come to its senses and cast off these mythological pretensions so that it can join the Western alliance to which it belongs. In trademark fatalistic language, Fintan O’Toole, the country’s foremost liberal public intellectual, recently expressed this perspective when he claimed that “Ireland is too much part of the West to stand apart from it.”

Even if the political class conflated neutrality with nonmembership of NATO, a war-averse Irish people expanded it into a much broader idea, as Karen Devine has argued — one rooted in a commitment to the UN, to development aid and human rights, to peacekeeping and attempting to pursue a foreign policy independent of large, powerful states. But how have these ideals survived the last thirty years of NATO collaboration and encroaching EU militarization?

Orbiting NATO

Although politically effective in one sense, the line many activists take — that Irish people must view the current debate as a Trojan Horse for imminent NATO ascension — sometimes misses the precise nature of Ireland’s watered-down neutrality. No party is pushing directly for Ireland to join NATO, at least for the time being, so we should set our eyes on the current order of things.

Irish citizens voted to reject EU treaties on two occasions, to a significant extent because of a perception that they represented threats to Irish neutrality. Both the Nice and Lisbon treaties had to be approved in a second referendum after they failed to pass the first hurdle. EU treaties even contained specific provisions for Ireland and other neutral states.

For example, the Lisbon Treaty safeguards the “specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states” by exempting them from participating in the NATO Article 5 mutual assistance clause. A lesser-known consequence of the Lisbon Treaty, in Irish quarters at least, is that it guaranteed EU dependency on NATO, with stipulations that the security and defense policies of member states must be “consistent” with NATO.

While many dispute that this exemption even qualifies an opt-out from collective security, it has been said to allow for “active neutrality,” exemplified by Ireland’s long history of supporting and participating in peacekeeping missions. As Carol Fox reminds us when writing about Ireland’s efforts to promote peace through disarmament, Irish negotiators could leverage neutrality to initiate the efforts that led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ireland has long been pulled into the NATO orbit, having joined the alliance’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1999, though its neutral status limits its contributions. Facilitated by PfP, Ireland looks set to take part in a brand-new NATO project called the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell. In 2024, its forces will take part in an exercise called Thor’s Hammer in Indiana. A representative of the Irish Defence Forces currently chairs the Partner Interoperability Advocacy Group, which strives to strengthen cooperation between NATO members and partner states like Ireland.

Some insist that a nonaligned, virtually unarmed Ireland is Europe’s “worst security policy free rider.” Three months before the Consultative Forum on Security Policy, the NATO deputy secretary general, Mircea Geoană, addressed an Irish audience, pointedly telling them that the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines had brought “into sharp focus” the security of undersea cables connecting Ireland to North America and Europe: “As an advanced, knowledge based economy, with thriving technology, pharmaceutical, and financial sectors, ensuring Ireland’s resilience will be critical in the years ahead.”

The NATO-Ireland partnership is expanding slowly but is still relatively insubstantial, constricted in part by its political toxicity. Nevertheless, these paeans from NATO to Ireland’s economic system indicate that a quiet displeasure lurks beneath the organization’s public face. In the eyes of NATO officials, they can untangle this stubborn knot of neutrality through mechanisms of collaboration — a destination short of full membership that we should still find troubling.

EU Militarization

Under the cover of Brexit and the pandemic, the EU to which Ireland has chained itself has bolstered its security policy and boosted defense spending. As the Financial Times recently observed, the war in Ukraine has further galvanized “efforts to make good on vague or failed ideas to bolster Europe’s status as a cohesive global military power.” In a bellicose speech in May, a high-ranking EU official promised an audience of European defense-industry representatives, NATO staffers, and admirals that the EU will transition into “war economy mode” to feed the industrial appetite for weaponry and materiel.

Aside from Irish participation in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), another alarming development — agreed last December — was the launch of the €8 billion European Defence Fund (EDF). This is intended to develop new weapons and technology for militaries within the EU and abroad. Similarly, the European Peace Facility is set to improve the EU’s ability to provide training and equipment, including weapons, to non-EU military forces.

Indeed, 2022 was a milestone year for militarization. The Strategic Compass committed the EU to the establishment of a “Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5000 troops for different types of crises.” As a 2021 report by members of the European Network Against Arms Trade observed:

EU Member States and institutions — with substantial lobbying by the European arms and security industries — have advanced the militarisation of the EU at a worrying pace . . . to the detriment of Member State cooperation on social issues and peace.

From an Irish perspective, there is also an industrial consideration. The value of military equipment exported from Ireland soared from €42.3 million in 2019 to €108.5 million in 2020. The development of a burgeoning defense industry, which could take advantage of a very low corporation tax rate, other tax loopholes, and a pool of highly skilled workers, would push Ireland by default further in the direction of alignment. Over time, will Ireland seek to benefit from and contribute to the EU’s self-declared “war economy mode”?

Predictably enough, even peacekeeping capacities seem to be giving way to missions evoking militarist zeal. Earlier this year, the Irish government announced that it was withdrawing a large peacekeeping mission in Syria from April 2024 so that it can redeploy personnel to the EU Battlegroups — yet another ominous outgrowth of EU militarization.

The Meanings of Neutrality

There are several arguments — some more persuasive than others — that suggest that Irish neutrality is meaningless, whether on account of Ireland’s EU membership, its failure to join the Non-Aligned Movement at the peak of its influence during the Cold War, or its record of voting with the United States more than many other neutral or formerly neutral states at the UN. There is also an oft-repeated view that Ireland benefits from an accident of geography since its borders do not straddle those of a war-making power (although this fact should give the state more reason to be neutral, not less).

Yet there is still more substance to Irish neutrality than some would contend. It is not merely a curiosity or a historical essence. Nor is it purely “mythological.” The implied (and sometimes explicit) endorsement of Euro-American foreign-policy objectives by successive Irish governments, evident throughout the past few decades, still never led to Irish soldiers occupying Afghanistan, or bombing Libya, or training Malian soldiers who led a coup.

The crucial question facing the Irish antiwar movement is this: can there be any true rupture in Irish foreign policy without transforming the Irish economic model and the state’s political culture, so reliant on EU membership and an umbilical relationship with US capital?

As Irish Times journalist Conor Gallagher has shown, the decision to allow the US army use of Shannon Airport — most heinously for extraordinary rendition flights — could be explained at least in part by government worries that a refusal might disrupt US investment in Ireland. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs also uncritically swallows and regurgitates the EU line on geopolitical issues, carefully diverging from that line only by degree when a neutral-esque pose appears suitable.

Having long been a stalwart of the pro-neutrality camp, Sinn Féin has shown signs of willingness to blunt the edges of its stance, as demonstrated by the party’s recent dropping of a pledge to withdraw Ireland from PESCO and PfP if it forms a government. For now, however, the party is still arguing against further steps toward militarization. As Gallagher summarized his conversation with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald on neutrality:

One thing is not up for discussion: while Sinn Féin may accept that Ireland would have to remain in the PfP programme, there would be no further integration with Nato structures if the party were in government. In other words, under a Sinn Féin government, there is no chance of Ireland moving to the second level of PfP, as countries like Finland, Sweden and Ukraine have done in recent years.

She also wanted the EU to formally recognize Irish neutrality:

One of McDonald’s goals if Sinn Féin takes power is to place Irish neutrality in the basic law of the EU in a way that goes far beyond the “specific character” reference contained in the Lisbon Treaty. Such a move would put Irish neutrality on par with the Swiss version in terms of international legal recognition of its status.

McDonald argues that Ireland could form part of a network of states that “could take the lead in EU conflict resolution efforts in situations where the involvement of EU-Nato members could prove counterproductive.”

At any rate, popular support for the principle of neutrality does not appear to be waning. Formally placing this policy in the Irish constitution, as People Before Profit has argued should be done, could be on the agenda if there is a Sinn Féin–led government after the next general election.

A Pretty Good Fight

At the height of the Cold War, the historian and campaigner E. P. Thompson called for a policy of “active neutrality”:

Not the passive self-preserving isolationism of a small power, but positive, indeed aggressive, foreign policy aimed at relaxing East-West tension, dismantling military blocs, and resuming economic, cultural and political intercourse between the Communist and non-Communist world.

It would no doubt be a delusion of grandeur to think that Ireland could manage by itself to ease geopolitical tensions or de-escalate conflict. Yet as a small state, it is Ireland’s duty to promote peace on a global scale at every opportunity.

The neutrality debate also reveals real anxieties about Irish national identity in an age of hyper-globalization. Early Irish leaders and diplomats may have occasionally spoken the language of anti-colonialism. But as Conor Cruise O’Brien once suggested, there was a somewhat irresolvable tension between this part of Irish history and the sense of Europeanness that was being cultivated:

Ireland’s love of freedom had to be balanced against Ireland’s Common Market hopes; love of freedom put up, it must be said, a pretty good fight, but it did not always come out the winner.

We should hope that Ireland’s love of peace wins out over both “Common Market hopes” and Common Defence fantasies in this age of tumult and a New Cold War.