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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Irish Defence Forces
# irish neutrality
Tánaiste questions Triple Lock and calls for greater NATO links in major defence policy speech
The opposition have criticised the use of a consultation forum rather than a citizens’ assembly.

LAST UPDATE | May 18th 2023, 5:21 PM

THE TÁNAISTE HAS said Irish neutrality is not a “lucky charm” to protect Ireland and a reimagining is needed but opposition TDs believe there is an urgent need for a citizens’ assembly rather than the proposed consultative forum. 

Micheál Martin, the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs, made the comments in a Dáil speech to launch the consultative forum on international security.  

Martin’s statement to the Dáil focused on a number of key talking points about the future of Irish military non-alignment and liaisons with other like-minded States and organisations such as NATO.

He also pointed out that Ireland’s position as an island nation on the periphery of Europe now brings its own specific threats and risks, rather than a sense of security which it may have done in the past. 

“I have said previously that our policy of military neutrality can and must be an important part of the discussion at the Forum, but equally that these questions must not be reduced to a simplistic binary choice.

“Staying as we are today, or immediately seeking to join a military alliance such as NATO, are not the only options.   

“There is a more nuanced, informed and layered discussion to be had, unpacking and examining our longstanding policy of military neutrality, while at the same time, exploring the full spectrum of policy options that are available to us as a sovereign state and a committed member of the European Union.  

“In this regard, I anticipate that the Forum will provide a space to examine – critically and unambiguously – the choices that face Ireland as well as our responsibilities towards our European and other like-minded international partners,” he said. 

Martin will state that Ireland’s long-held neutral stance does not protect it from malign States seeking to do harm to the nation’s interests. 

The Tánaiste spoke strongly against the potential for a European Army but will call for greater involvement with neighbouring countries. He stressed that there is no international appetite for such a militarisation of the EU.

He added, however, state that Ireland’s participation in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has reaped significant benefits for the State.

Critically, his speech said that Ireland is negotiating an updated partnership framework with NATO.

Martin said that it is an opportunity to explore areas of “mutual interest” which will include maritime security, cyber and hybrid, climate and security as well as resilience for critical infrastructure.

The Tánaiste referenced the war in Ukraine, the cyber attack on the HSE and attacks on undersea cables as a reason to move closer to NATO.

“But no one country acting alone can respond effectively to cyber threats that can emanate from anywhere in the world; threats whose sophistication and complexity grow by the day.

“We are also an island nation. This brings its own specific risks and threats,” he added. 

The Tánaiste  explained that the consultative forum was an opportunity for a discussion based on “fact not fiction”. 

“Ultimately, and as I have said previously, we need a serious and honest conversation about the international security policy options available to the State, and the implications of each of these,” he added.    

We were joined on The Explainer podcast by Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, to look at the opaque history of neutrality in Ireland. He explains how the seeds of the policy can be traced back far beyond the Free State and examinea previous attempts to move away from our ‘militarily non-aligned status’. Listen at the link below or wherever you get your podcasts.

Opposition view

Matt Carthy, Sinn Fein Defence spokesperson, said that his party supports continued Irish neutrality and that the Government should use a citizens’ assembly to debate the merits of changing the policy.

He listed out his party’s belief that Ireland should continue to play a role in peace building, humanitarianism and diplomacy.

“An independent foreign policy and military neutrality are crucial to allow Ireland to play that important World Role in the wider world.

“We should be proud of our military neutrality and resist attempts by someone government to recast it as a weakness or a failing the legacy of Irish neutrality is our role in working for nuclear Non Proliferation and humanitarianism, in contributing to the drafting of the convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms in peacekeeping,” he said. 

Carthy said that his party welcomed discussion on the topic but added that it was critical to involve the people in those discussions. 

The Sinn Féin deputy said that his party wants to enshrine the concept of neutrality in the Irish constitution.

“Those of us on the left and others who value neutrality have over the past two decades been very good at articulating what we are opposed to not so good at setting up the positive and constructive role that neutrality can help Ireland play internationally into the future,” he added.

Carthy said his party will engage with the Forum but he believes it is the wrong way to address the key issue of Irish neutrality and foreign policy. 

“The appropriate forum would be a citizens’ assembly the proposed format of the consultative forum minimises the input of the public and opposition parties.

“Those contributed contributing will be appointed by government and our contributions will lead to a report authored solely by the forum’s chair, also appointed by government.

“Sinn Fein will of course, engage with the forum in any way that we can, and we will outline are clear positions on Irish international security policy, including reiterating that the public should be consulted via the proven framework of a citizens’ assembly, leading to a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution,” he added. 

Brendan Howlin of Labour said that he had been part of Government’s that used neutrality as a justification for spending less on the Irish Defence Forces. 

Howling said his party believes it is “a long overdue debate”.

“We certainly are delighted as a party that will be an in depth concert consultative process with the people of Ireland.

“With all views on Ireland’s security policy and our place in the world. We would have preferred a citizen’s assembly.

“It was the construct that was devised by Eamon Gilmore and was so successful on major issues of contention that divided our peoples in the past,” he said.

Howlin said his party, nonetheless, would support the consultative forum and look forward to engaging with experts on security needs for the future. 

He asked that the forum report be brought, not direct to Government, but to the Oireachtas so that it can be debated in the Dáil chamber. 

“We’ve reached a point now when we need to set out our clear national stall unambiguously and define what we mean by our neutral status,” he added. 

He concluded: “Because we need to explore a pathway for Ireland. That is not simply to follow the path set out by others. And that we recognise that the issues that are now under discussion at this forum and subsequently are fundamental to our country’s identity.”

Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before profit, attacked the Tánaiste and the Government and accused the ruling parties of moving Ireland to a militarised footing. 

“(The Forum) is part of a sustained campaign by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to dismantle Irish neutrality, and that that agenda of undermining, eroding and dismantling Ireland’s neutrality is a long standing objective of the two major parties in Government.

“And that you are cynically using the horrendous situation in Ukraine and the barbaric invasion by Russia of Ukraine to advance a project within NATO and the European Union of ratcheting up the militarisation of the European Union.

“Developing a European army moving closer to United States foreign policy in a way that is probably the greatest threat to Ireland’s security,” he said.  

‘Better suited’

Gary Gannon, Social Democrats spokesperson on Defence, said that his party welcomed the consultative forum but believed it would have been “better suited” to a citizens’ assembly. 

“That’s fine in terms of the contribution the Social Democrats would make to ensure to  support the maintenance of Ireland’s position of military neutrality and potentially define what military neutrality looks like. Neutrality is never indifferent. We see active neutrality in terms of support for Ukraine and that’s very rewarding,” he said.

Cathal Berry, a former Army officer and vocal advocate for military funding and modernisation, also supported the consultative forum. 

“Ireland’s defensive security has really been treated like kryptonite we couldn’t even discuss it, couldn’t even look at it, in case if we discuss it this means we’ll probably threaten it. So I very much welcome.

“The fact it’s happening, it doesn’t really bother me whether it’s a citizens’ assembly, a consultative forum, whether it’s a Dáil debate, whether it’s a conversation on RTE, but it is the fact that the conversations is actually finally happening,” he said. 

Berry said that Ireland has previously dealt with the issue of divorce, the marriage referendum and abortion referendums and now the forum will allow for a developing of an appropriate policy around neutrality and security. 

Under the consultative forum programme, four fora will take place in Cork, Galway and Dublin Castle on dates at the end of June with an anticipated 1,000 people attending – and the discussions will involve international experts and cover topics around foreign policy and military neutrality. 

The fora will look at what the changing geopolitical environment will mean for Ireland’s version of military neutrality.

A source said that Government is anxious to redraw the neutrality debate and base it on “fact not fiction” but also to stress that there will be no “hidden agendas” and that the discussions at the fora will be open and transparent. 

During the fora, the Government strategy will be keen to stress that there needs to be a new understanding of what the emerging threats mean for Ireland.

The first forum session will be in University College Cork on 22 June followed by University of Galway on 23 June.

It will then move to Dublin Castle for two further days on 26 and 27 June. 

Each session will have a broad range of people from all sides of the debate and draw from civilian and military experts and practitioners.

The sessions will be live streamed and later this month there will be a consultation exercise launched on the Government website.


Since the conflict began in Ukraine, western governments have scrambled to form and maintain a united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

This has been achieved by imposing heavy sanctions and through pledges of military and humanitarian aid in support of Ukraine.

As Ireland is a neutral country, the Government has had to navigate new geopolitical realities under that umbrella, with Martin’s line that Ireland is “militarily neutral, we’re not politically neutral” repeated by senior ministers since the conflict began.

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

It has emerged that reviews of the so-called ‘Triple Lock’ system is on the table this year. 

The Triple Lock system is a policy measure whereby there needs to be separate approval by the Government, the Dáil and a UN Resolution to mandate a mission in order to send more than 12 Irish troops abroad.

It’s understood that discussions surrounding the Triple Lock will be held at the upcoming forum. Micheál Martin will ask today if the Triple Lock remains fit for purpose. 

A change to the Triple Lock system was mooted by then Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in November, after Fine Gael members voted in favour of such a move at its annual conference.

It has now been included in a Government policy document. Such a departure from that mechanism would be a major change in Ireland’s foreign policy. 

But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently said he does not believe Ireland is becoming isolated in EU circles due to its lack of participation in Nato.

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