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Opinion: It's time to admit that Ireland is not neutral, nor should it be

Rory Fitzgerald says we need to get real in the debate around Irish neutrality in the face of Russian aggression in Europe.

Rory Fitzgerald Criminal lawyer and journalist

NOW THAT SWEDEN and Finland look set to join NATO, Ireland should do the same. Irish neutrality is a charade that should end. In reality, Ireland is not truly militarily or politically neutral today. What’s more, Ireland didn’t actually want to be militarily neutral after the Second World War.

In 1949, the Irish government wanted to join NATO to help protect “Christian civilisation” from international communism. However, it was forced into neutrality by the dispute over Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s only objection to joining NATO as a founding member arose from its contention that the UK was occupying part of its rightful territory. The undeniable historical reality is that, but for the Anglo-Irish dispute over Northern Ireland, Ireland would have enthusiastically joined NATO in 1949, when it was being founded.

‘Christian civilisation’

On 23 February 1949, Minister for External Affairs Sean MacBride told the Dáil that “Ireland as an essentially democratic and freedom-loving nation is anxious to play her full part in the protecting and preserving of Christian civilisation and the democratic way of life. With the general aim of the Atlantic Pact, therefore, we are in agreement.”

In 1949 Minister McBride addressed the Seanad on the Atlantic Pact, the treaty which founded NATO. He said that “based directly on the contents of the Atlantic Pact, based on military considerations, based on public policy, the Atlantic Pact is heralded as the new instrument of international co-operation in the North Atlantic. It was intended to preserve if you like, the democratic way of life among the nations of the North Atlantic.

“With that, we are in complete agreement. We approve of the Atlantic Pact and I think that, if it were not for the fact that a portion of our country is wrongfully occupied by Britain, we would have been in the Atlantic Pact. Theoretically, its aims, its purpose are in accord with our own wishes and our own desire.”

Minister McBride told the Senate that there were two reasons that Ireland could not join in 1949. Firstly, he said that no Irish government “would have the support of the majority of the people for a military alliance with the power that occupies a portion of our country”. He asked, “would not it be completely ludicrous if we were to place ourselves in the position of entering into a military alliance guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the power that is wrongfully occupying a portion of our country?”

He also noted joining would create a “constitutional difficulty. In effect, the Atlantic Pact contains guarantees of territorial integrity of the participating nations”. He said that if Ireland joined, “we would be acting contrary to the provisions of our own Constitution because, under our own Constitution, we claim that the national territory includes the whole island of Ireland.”

Modern Ireland

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, therefore, removed the main obstacle to Ireland joining NATO. It removed the Irish state’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The people of Ireland democratically accepted that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, pending referenda on unity.

The idea that Ireland was genuinely non-aligned during the Cold War – or that it is today – is arguably false. Ireland is clearly politically aligned with Western democracies, both formally and informally. It is an EU member state and Western democracy with very close relationships with the United States and the UK.

Some of Ireland’s network of international arrangements have a clear bearing on defence matters. For example, the UK effectively provides our air defence under a memorandum of understanding. It warns us that there are Russian bombers approaching, and then intercepts them, flying over Irish territory. That alone is arguably a form of alliance. Throughout the Cold War, Ireland was closely aligned diplomatically with the US and the Western democracies in various ways.

In 1962, the Taoiseach Sean Lemass, explicitly stated that “NATO is necessary for the preservation of peace and the protection of the countries of western Europe, including this country. Although we are not members of NATO, we are fully in agreement with its aims.”

With NATO in practice

Ireland shared the aims of NATO, but not those of international communism, and so was openly in one camp alone. Ireland was not in a formal alliance with NATO, only because of the Northern Ireland dispute. However, it was clearly not neutral in the Cold War. It was openly on the side of the western democracies, against Communism, and it was a consistent political supporter of the West and democracy in international fora.

Was Ireland truly neutral in the first Gulf wars, or the Afghanistan conflict? Since it provided fuel and support to the US military in Shannon, this is debatable. Irish soldiers take part in the EU rapid reaction force and other EU military initiatives. Does it carry out similar drills with the Russians or Iranians? Ireland also has a formal co-operation agreement with NATO, but no similar agreement with Russia or China. It consistently co-operates with and supports one side only. It is not truly neutral. Nor should it be, in my view.

Ireland is formally and informally allied with the US, the UK and the EU. Ireland is certainly bound by the EU’s mutual defence clause, which was introduced in 2009 under Article 42 (7) of the Treaty of the European Union. This says that EU countries are obliged to assist a fellow member state that has become “a victim of armed aggression on its territory”.

No formal procedure has been set out, and the article does not require that the assistance should be military in nature. But it can be. Yet the reality is that we are de facto aligned with the other EU states. The EU is also currently funding weapons for Ukraine, which are killing Russians in Ukraine. Ireland funds the EU. Ireland is therefore paying for these through its EU funding, whether directly or indirectly. Is this neutrality?

Irish neutrality is a figment of the collective imagination. We need to face the harsh realities of the 21st century. Russia has attacked a sovereign democratic state in Europe and is committing unspeakable atrocities.

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In the Second World War, Ireland shamefully sat aside and watched millions murdered in Europe. We should not do so again. We should help protect our neighbours and stand firmly against dictatorships like Russia, instead of allowing ourselves to be a weak link in European defence. The constitutional obstacles to joining NATO are now gone. We should follow the lead of Finland and Sweden, and join NATO to play a full role in defence of democracy and human rights in Europe.

Rory Fitzgerald is a journalist and lawyer.

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About the author:

Rory Fitzgerald  / Criminal lawyer and journalist

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