Reflections from the People’s Forum on Neutrality (Limerick, June 17th)

  • Posted on: 17 June 2023
  • By: shannonwatch

In January 2003, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen (Fianna Fail) confirmed that Shannon was being used by the US military, and that troops travelling on civilian aircraft are “sometimes accompanied by their personal weapons”. These are military contracted aircraft and as such are technically not classified as military aircraft.

In 2021 we still had an average of 54 overflights/month through Irish airspace by planes granted permits to carry munitions. These were almost all US military.

The average so far this year is 52. Nothing has changed.

In 2021 we had an average of 19 planes carrying munitions landing at Shannon. Almost all were US military. The average so far this year is 23 – a bit higher, but again nothing has changed over the lifetime of this government.

The stated intention of the Irish government Consultative Forum on International Security Policy was to “focus on a wide range of issues, including Ireland’s efforts to protect the rules-based international order, through peacekeeping and crisis management, disarmament and non-proliferation, international humanitarian law, and conflict prevention & peacebuilding as well as allowing for a discussion on Ireland’s policy of military neutrality”.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) website, Ireland is committed to playing a positive and constructive role in the maintenance of international peace and security.

The DFA website also says that “Ireland’s policy of military neutrality has long been an important strand of our independent foreign policy. As practiced by successive Governments, the policy means Ireland does not participate in military alliances, or common or mutual defence arrangements.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of our current situation. Shannon Airport is the first and clearest example of our participation in a military alliance. It was an alliance that invaded Iraq in March 2023, and has been upheld since then.

Two other examples of our participation in military alliances or common/mutual defence arrangements are the participation of Irish army personnel in EU battlegroups, and our participation in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation mechanism (PESCO).

Ireland is supposed to have a triple lock mechanism that sets out the conditions under which the Defence Forces may participate in overseas peace support operations - an 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.

But the triple lock is more or less gone now in practice. For over a decade, Irish Army personnel have been members of EU battlegroups where they have performed specified tasks, known as the Petersburg Tasks. The reason they have not come under the triple-lock is that they have been involved in training exercises rather than deployment.

The establishment of the PESCO within the EU is further area of concern. This supposedly represents a further development in EU Cooperation in support of international peace and security under Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Under PESCO, Member States will come together in different groups to develop and make available additional capabilities and enablers for peacekeeping and crisis management operations.

We’ve been led down a path towards full participation and immersion in the military industrial complex through the use of language like international security and crisis management. And by talking about military neutrality as if it such a thing existed.

It is worth bearing in mind what Karen Devine, one of the leading academics in this field has said on the matter:

"Military neutrality" does not exist in international law, it is not a recognised practice of states, and nor is it considered as a traditional foreign policy norm in the international system. 'Military neutrality' is a term created by governments of neutral states who sought membership of the EEC/EU, as a way to agree at the EU level to the progressive framing of a common defence policy, leading to a collective EU defence and the eradication of neutrality, whilst at the same time, telling their electorates at home that the neutrality of the state is retained.

One of the crises that Europe feels it must now respond to, through increased securitization and militarisation, is the so-called refugee crisis. But we must bear in mind that Europe’s military spending grew at a record pace last year - world military spending grew for the eighth consecutive year in 2022 to an all-time high of $2.240 trillion. By far the sharpest rise in spending (+13 per cent) was seen in Europe and was largely accounted for by Russian and Ukrainian spending.

But by increasing subsidies to the arms industry, the EU is feeding the global arms race, which in turn fuels conflicts and displaces people worldwide.

Militarising countries from which refugees come is one part of the problem. Another problem is involving the military in enforcing border controls, as is the case in the Mediterranean.

The consequences of securitisation of EU borders is the horrific sinking of the boat off the coast of Greece recently with the loss of hundreds of lives, including children.

We also see increasing militarisation of refugee camps, which leads to the perception of migrants and refugees as a security risk.

But back to Shannon.

These days very few people question the fact that we’ve got regular US military flights through the airport. We’re told it is consistent with our military neutrality.

But the US has over 1,000 foreign military bases - sites with installations and facilities that are either in active use and service, or that may be activated and operated by American military personnel and allies. Billions being spent on them that could be used to address the root causes of conflict and oppression. It’s seen as a necessary part of the infrastructure for what needs to be done. And going back to that sentence used by the government when introducing their Consultative Forum - the “rules-based international order, through peacekeeping and crisis management, disarmament and non-proliferation, international humanitarian law, and conflict prevention & peacebuilding.”

The rules have been re-interpreted and misused – and in many cases ignored - over the last few decades. And Irish government’s efforts to protect them have been poor.

The US military have not built peace in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya. The opposite is the case; the situations in these countries is worse now than before they invaded.

Nothing has been achieved. Except more death, more suffering, more displacement of people. And more profits made by the weapons industry.

That industry also now includes research institutions all over Europe, including some in Ireland, that are working on ways to make even more sophisticated weapons.

We need to stop that slide. But it’s not going to be easy.

The key question now is, how to untangle our foreign policy, our defence policy, our security “concerns” here in Ireland for proper security to flourish? Not just here, but globally. For the men and women risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean to stay alive? For the people of Yemen to get themselves out of the seemingly intractable war that’s going on there, and the humanitarian crisis that has become one of the worst in the world, with widespread hunger, disease, and attacks on civilians.

Ireland could play a positive role, by remaining neutral in an active and positive way.

The dominant narrative about security characterises it as a military or state-based process preoccupied with political and economic power. This militarised approach to security is causing widespread human suffering and environmental destruction for the benefit of a small elite with a vested interest in perpetuating militarism.

What we need is a new vision of human and ecological security that challenges this current preoccupation with military security. Human and ecological security that meets real human needs, and protects the planet, can form the basis of an active and constructive use of Irish neutrality as a central part of Irish foreign policy.

Militarism is the preparation for and the normalization and the legitimation of war. That’s not what Irish people want.