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Explainer: What is Ireland's Triple Lock mechanism and why is the Govt planning to scrap it?

Micheál Martin made a major announcement today about a change in Ireland’s foreign policy.

MICHÉAL MARTIN HAS announced that government plans to bring forward legislation to get rid of the triple lock for Irish military involvement in operations abroad.

Such a departure from the mechanism is a major change in Ireland’s foreign policy. 

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon on a debate on the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy Martin said there was no single consensus over how to proceed with the Triple Lock.

“It would therefore make sense, I believe, to amend our existing legislation in a manner which would allow us to respond to crisis situations with more agility, and where in making these important decisions, we are not surrendering our sovereignty.

Martin said: 

I have therefore instructed officials in the Department of Defence to prepare legislative proposals without delay that would govern the future overseas deployments of our Defence Forces.

What is the triple lock system? 

The “triple lock” is a mechanism that sets out the conditions under which more than 12 Irish troops may participate in overseas peace support operations.

For troops to take part, the operation must be mandated by the United Nations; it must be approved by the Government; and it must be approved by Dáil Éireann by means of a resolution. 

There has been a lot of talk over the years about the triple lock system and whether changes are warranted. 

In 2013, the Green Paper on Defence, published by former Defence Minister Alan Shatter, argued that the positives of the system outweighed the negatives, recommending to retain the policy, and cited “substantial public support”.

In 2014, the then-Defence Minister Simon Coveney noted that keeping the triple lock system could result in a situation “where there is a pressing moral or security imperative and overwhelming international support” for a military response, but that a UN sanction might not be forthcoming as a veto could be exercised by a permanent member of the Security Council. 

A change to the system was mooted by Coveney in 2022 after Fine Gael members voted in favour of such a move at its annual conference. At the time, Coveney said he didn’t see a move away from the triple lock as “radical change”. 

The Journal reported earlier this year that the Government was considering new legislation that could allow Irish special forces to be dispatched on foreign missions. 

In what was seen as signal that possible changes were on the cards in terms of government policy, the Green Party dropped its insistence on retaining the triple lock. 

The party’s policy council voted unanimously to drop the necessity for a UN resolution.

Instead, the party says defence personnel could be deployed overseas with Dáil approval and a decision by a regional organisation as authorised in the UN charter.

What is the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy Forum? 

The consultative forum, chaired by Louise Richardson, took place in June at various locations across Ireland. It took the form of panels and public debates and looked at Ireland’s place in global foreign affairs.   

Martin defended the holding of the forum at the time, stating that there was no preconceived outcome.

The report from the forum was published in October and said the State’s defence strategy will continue to “pose challenges” to Government and diplomats on the international stage.

However, the report also suggested that there is currently “no popular mandate” to change the State’s ongoing policy of neutrality.

Despite the identified problems regarding defence policy the report also found: “It was frequently expressed, and rarely contradicted, that there is currently no popular mandate in Ireland to abandon the policy of neutrality”.

“Maintaining a policy of military nonalignment along with active political engagement in global forums will continue to pose a challenge for Irish governments and diplomats, as will the need to balance a values-based foreign policy with taking seriously the security concerns and responsibilities of our partners,” Richardson wrote. 

What were the criticisms of the forum? 

A number of Opposition TDs hit out against the forum and questioned why a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish neutrality was not established instead. 

Martin defended the forum, stating that he felt it was the more appropriate mechanism to discuss such issues. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to defend the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy after Opposition TDs labelled it “rigged” and said they’ve been excluded from the debate.

Varadkar said that the forum was not about whether Ireland should join NATO or any other military alliance, but a “deep dive” into the state’s security policy. 

He said the country faced “very different threats” today and that he believes it’s time to begin to look at upgrading Ireland’s Defence Forces and putting investments in place.

People Before Profit TD Mick Barry said the speakers list was biased and criticised the “audacity of the government” to choose such speakers, stating that there was not enough contrary voices speaking at the events.

At the time of the forum was taking place, President Michael D Higgins weighed in, much to the discomfort of those in government.  

In an interview with the Business Post Higgins spoke about his views on the impending Consultative Forum on international security policy. 

In a strongly worded rebuke of the Government’s move ahead of the public engagement discussion on foreign policy the president said: “the most dangerous moment in the articulation and formulation of foreign policy and its practice, since the origin of diplomacy, has been when you’re drifting and not knowing what you’re doing”.

“I would describe our present position as one of drift.”   

In relation to the Consultative Forum he criticised the various panels claiming they were stocked with “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it” and also of formerly neutral countries that have now joined NATO.

Higgins asked why there was no representation from still-neutral countries such as Austria and Malta.

What next? 

In somewhat of an unexpected announcement, Martin stated today he has instructed officials in the Department of Defence to prepare legislative proposals without delay that would govern any future overseas deployments of our Defence Forces.

Opposition TDs criticised the move, with some stating that a referendum on neutrality is the best path forward as it would allow the public to have their say. 

Independent TD Catherine Connolly told the Dáil that the consultative forum was dubbed as the start of the conversation and Martin has now ended that conversation. 

Connolly said those that opposed the policy change have been ostracised and labelled as people that are not rational.

She said Martin should consider his position given the announcement he made today. 

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