Ireland is engulfed by a heated debate about its long-held and deeply held military neutrality. The government of Ireland struggles to find the right balance between supporting Ukraine and maintaining its neutral status.
While the European Union might be sending lethal weapons overseas for the first, Ireland is not. While other neutral countries like Sweden and Finland have sent weapons to Ukraine, Ireland has not.
Dublin has committed EUR31 million (PS26m) in aid, but the military equipment it is contributing is limited to items like body armour and MREs (meals-ready-to-eat). Even calls were made to ensure that the fuel Ireland paid for would not be used in fighting vehicles. This is impossible in the chaos of war zones.
The situation is being viewed against the background of horrendous imagery from Ukraine. This has led to unprecedented scrutiny of Ireland’s non-aligned status.
The Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister, has repeatedly stated that Ireland is not morally or politically neutral in relation to the Russian invasion. This has been strongly condemned by the Irish government.
He has admitted that there will be a debate about Ireland. “But we don’t have the time right now. It is impossible to change an old policy in the middle of crisis.
“Ireland must be more engaged”
Sky News’ Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said that while he doesn’t believe that [military neutrality] will change rapidly, but that there is a greater appetite in Ireland right now and that he would lead the discussion on the matter…that Ireland should be more involved, not less in, collective defense and security issues throughout the European Union.
“And I think that the Irish public will be happy with that, considering the brutality we’re witnessing from Russia in Ukraine right at the moment.”
Minister Coveney spoke of the new atmosphere around Ireland’s neutrality. “There is a greater willingness in Ireland to talk about issues related to common security and defense in a more proactive and open manner that allows for a possible change in policy.”
Others call for Ireland’s neutrality not to be maintained. Cathal Berry was a former member the Army Ranger Wing. This elite, secretive special forces unit is part of Ireland’s Defence Forces. He is currently an independent TD (member the Irish parliament).
According to Mr Berry, it’s time for a serious debate about changing the police. He spoke from Portarlington in Co Laois, telling Sky News.
“To be truthful, it’s long past due. The Ukraine situation has really focused our minds. It’s likely to be a defining moment. Remember that Russia has threatened Ireland, a member of European Union, for imposing sanctions on the Kremlin. They could become very, very aggressive towards Ireland in the coming weeks and it is important that we are able to defend our interests.”
Is Ireland’s neutrality mythical?
Outsiders have long been puzzled by Ireland’s unique interpretation of neutrality or “military-non-alignment”, as the government prefers.
Berry stated that “We are most definitely a neutral fraud.” “We pretend to be neutral, but we are not really neutral because we have never been neutral.”
Ireland’s neutrality dates back the 1930s when the fledgling state tried to find its way in turbulent times.
Despite intense British pressure during WWII, the country remained neutral. This was known as “The Emergency” (Ireland). It was not an absolute form of neutrality, but it was a sign that things were to come. The “Donegal Corridor”, which allowed Allied pilots access to Irish airspace, gave them the ability to fly to bases in Northern Ireland.
The pilots of the downed Allies were discreetly ferried over the Irish border to their home country, while their German counterparts were held in concentration camps until the end. Allies were regularly informed. Famously, D-Day was ordered by the Irish because of weather reports provided by the Irish.
After the war, Ireland decided not to consider joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. (NATO) was a NATO alliance.
Since 1958, Ireland has proudly sent its troops overseas to support UN and EU peacekeeping operations. There are currently 560 Irish soldiers in foreign countries, including Mali, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon.
“We are not neutral, but we are just defenseless”
However, Ireland’s defense spending is one of the lowest in Europe as a percentage GDP. A recent report also found that the Defence Forces would not be able to resist an attack by a foreign power. The neutral status has been used by successive Irish governments as a convenient excuse for decades of underinvestment.
Berry stated that neutral states have an obligation to protect their airspace, sea, and land borders. We can’t do this, so we are not neutral under the 1907 Hague Convention.
He said that Ireland cannot defend itself because it is not neutral. That’s two completely different things.
Since the Russian invasion, the debate about neutrality has been a constant feature on newspapers and radio. There has been a call for Ireland to donate its small stock of US-made Javelin antitank missiles (unclassified but believed to be 50 by Sky News) as well as thousands of single-use AT-4 antiarmour rockets launchers.
“Those stocks are easily replenishable. Berry stated that we should send only what we can afford and receive replacements within the next few weeks.
Since independence, Ireland has held neutrality as a core value. It is a sign of the shock felt in Ireland by watching the conflict in Ukraine and welcoming thousands of refugees to Ireland that the policy is up for debate for the first time in many generations.