Next Programme for Government in Ireland Needs to Restore Irish Neutrality
Published in Peace Planet News, Spring 2020
According to its Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland’s foreign policy is based on a set of core principles that include the maintenance of peace and security as enshrined in the UN Charter; promoting and protecting Ireland’s interests abroad; respect for and the promotion of human rights; and a commitment to the rule of international law. Over the past two decades these commitments have been eroded however. This has been particularly evident in two key areas. The first is Ireland’s participation in the European Union's Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative on security and defence (PESCO). This is the part of the EU’s security and defence policy (CSDP) in which 25 of the 27 national armed forces pursue structural integration. PESCO member states are expected to increase defence budgets, provide troops for use in EU Battle-Groups, and join “structures partaking in European external action in the military field”. The second clear and obvious breach of Ireland’s commitment to the maintenance of peace and the rule of international law is the ongoing use of Shannon Airport on the west coast by the US military. The effective transformation of Shannon into a US forward operating base in 2002/2003 was, and still is, deeply offensive to the majority of Irish people. In allowing it to be used for the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Irish government at the time was guided more by a desire to accede to the demands of the Bush administration than to serve the interests or wishes of its own people. Almost two decades later, US military and military contracted planes still pass through Shannon on a daily basis.
As the country’s political parties now come together post-election to try to negotiate a programme for government, there is a golden opportunity to address departures from the stated principles of Irish foreign policy. This policy has always been predicated on a position of neutrality. It too has been eroded, with recent governments referring to a notion of ‘military neutrality’, which is narrowly defined as non-membership of military alliances. The terms ‘military neutrality’ and ‘neutrality’ are now used interchangeably in public opinion analysis and policy statements, thus leading to a lack of clarity over what exactly our role is in international affairs.
It is now time for the political parties in Ireland to ensure the stated principles of our foreign policy position are reflected in the next programme for government. There are four key steps that need to be taken to give effect to this. They are:
- End the use of Irish airports, airspace, seaports and territorial waters by foreign powers preparing for or engaging in war or other armed conflict, and in particular an end to the US military use of Shannon Airport and Irish airspace for such purposes;
- Commit to ending Ireland’s participation in military exercises and deployments not mandated and operated by the UN, including NATO, EU and other multilateral exercises and deployments;
- Revoke Ireland’s ratification of PESCO, and cease all involvement in European Defence Agency programmes;
- Protect and copper-fasten Irish neutrality, by holding a referendum to amend the Constitution to give effect to this, and/or the codification of neutrality in domestic legislation;
As noted by European and Irish foreign policy expert Karen Devine in 2008, the Irish public have consistently adhered to a clear‐cut concept of active or positive neutrality. This embodies the following characteristics: peace promotion, nonaggression, the primacy of the UN and the confinement of state military activity to UN peacekeeping, not being involved in wars, and maintaining Ireland’s independence, identity, and independent foreign policy decision-making particularly in the context of “big power” pressure. This commitment to neutrality was confirmed in a 2016 Red C poll in which 57% of respondents said that Ireland’s neutrality should be enshrined in the Constitution.
The form of neutrality favoured by the majority of Irish people goes beyond the concept of military neutrality. It also accords with traditional norms and international law on neutrality.
The 2016 Red C poll also confirmed that the majority of Irish people believe that the Irish government should not allow the US military to use Shannon Airport for military transit purposes. The next Irish government to accede to the wishes of the Irish people and to restore Irish neutrality.
Ireland’s participation in PESCO undermines the support of the Irish people for an active neutrality. Furthermore, the European Defence Agency, which is the brainchild of the multi-billion euro European arms industry is likely to lead us down the road of participation in an EU army. Ireland should resist this.
Ireland’s history of peacekeeping gives it significant potential in conflict resolution, but involvement in Europe’s security and defence industry reduces its standing as an honest broker in world affairs. The damage being done to our global environment by military forces and unjustified wars endangers all of humanity. Restoring Irish neutrality is the safest and most progressive way to promote and protect Ireland’s interests abroad, and more importantly, the interests of humanity as a whole. The time has come for an Irish government that will develop and deliver a principled and independent foreign policy that promotes peace and justice and has active/positive neutrality at its heart. The devastating human consequences of policies that support military interventions are clear in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East. It’s time Ireland did something to break this cycle and stopped facilitating war.
John Lannon is a founding member of Shannonwatch, a group of peace and human rights activists that opposes the US military use of Shannon Airport. See www.shannonwatch.org.
 From “PESCO: More than Just Projects” published in European Defence Matters, which is the official magazine of the European Defence Agency. Available at https://www.eda.europa.eu/webzine/issue15/cover-story/pesco-more-than-just-projects.
 Devine, K. (2008). Stretching the IR Theoretical Spectrum on Irish Neutrality: A Critical Social Constructivist Framework. International Political Science Review 29(4): 461 - 488.
 Poll conducted on behalf of independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.