History of Irish Neutrality
Neutrality is a foreign policy tradition stretching back over centuries of Ireland’s history. Successive Irish political leaders from Theobald Wolfe Tone in the 17th Century to James Connolly in the 20th Century have advocated neutrality concomitant with independence for Ireland. Similarly, Daniel O’Connell saw Irish independence as a way to serve the common good and fought to eradicate racism and militarism—the two main components at the heart of imperialism in the 19th Century. Connolly and his 1916 comrades were inspired by Tone and O’Connell, and were ready to die to win for Ireland the rights that the British Government was asking them to risk their lives to gain for Belgium in the First World War. The values underpinning support for neutrality included the right to self-determination and independence, the notion of equality of nations regardless of size, resistance to the usurpation of natural rights of peoples or states, and a fearless determination to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms, set in the context of a deep, conscious knowledge of the horror of war and consequences of imperialism and colonisation. The same values resonate in Irish people’s support for neutrality today.
Neutrality was the cornerstone of Irish defence policy during the Second World War, as the only realistic option available to preserve the Irish state and her people. The deterrence of 100,000 combatants ready to resist by all means possible any land invasion, rendered the British unwilling to launch the military campaign of “Gallipoli proportions” necessary to take Ireland. The then-Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, undertook the strategic military and diplomatic manoeuvres necessary to maintain neutrality and, at the same time, pacify the outraged British and American Governments that sought to drag Ireland into the War at every opportunity and by any means, including military aggression, economic pressure, and starvation policies. On 23 January 1940, Frank Aiken, the then-Minister for the Coordination of Defensive Measures keenly observed, “in the modern total warfare it [neutrality] is not a condition of peace with both belligerents, but rather a condition of limited warfare with both…”.
Neutrality is not for the faint-hearted; rather, it is a courageous non-aggressive stance in a world in which most small states simply “bandwagon” with an aggressor, as opposed to striking an independent path for peace. De Valera knew this well, saying:
“neutrality, if you are sincere about it, means you will have to fight for your life against one side or the other – which ever attacks you first. Neutrality is not a cowardly policy if you really mean to defend yourself if attacked. Other nations have not gone crusading until they were attacked”.
In this context, propaganda painting neutrality as “fence-sitting” or cowardly is particularly wide of the mark. The idea that Britain would come to Ireland’s rescue—as part of a so-called “protective umbrella” that Ireland was alleged to have enjoyed—is another falsehood. Robert Fisk asks, given that Britian was not capable of defending Belfast, “how could they possibly have guaranteed Dublin’s safety under air attack if Éire had allied herself to Britain in 1940?”
Clair Wills suggests an interesting reversal, “that de Valera indicated to the German embassy that Ireland is to be regarded as a whole” and there was “a belief that the neutrality of the South would somehow cast a protective shield over Northern Ireland”.
Ireland’s United Nations Activism is hindered by EEC membership
Given his extensive experience of warring struggles for Irish independence and neutrality, de Valera was deeply sceptical of the intentions of the Big Powers and the ability of small states to influence Big Power-led decisions in regional defence alliances, such as the Western European Union (WEU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Thus, he avoided membership of each throughout the 1940s and 1950s. After de Valera regained power in 1957, he re-appointed Frank Aiken as Minister for External Affairs. Aiken used his diplomacy skills, hewn from his experiences of war in Ireland, at the United Nations Organisation. Aiken created an independent, activist Irish identity through many initiatives, including:
- voting to discuss China’s membership of the UN engendered through “small power” responsibility to seek universal membership, in direct conflict with the stated interests of the United States (labelling Ireland as in association with “the bloody mavericks”);
- writing a number of détente plans for the mutual withdrawal of the USA and Russia from Europe to afford a greater degree of self-determination to the countries of eastern Europe; and
- a nuclear non-proliferation Treaty that was successfully agreed in 1968.
For Aiken, neutrality provided opportunities for such initiatives, rather than constraints. Neutrality allowed Ireland “to make propositions which countries tied to blocs could not make” and positioned Ireland as a suitable candidate for UN peacekeeping in later years.
France criticised Ireland for a UN policy more associated with non-alignment than with Western interests during Ireland’s EEC accession negotiations in the 1960s. As Taoiseach, Sean Lemass reversed this “golden era” of Irish foreign policy activism in the hope of currying favour with France, Italy and other European NATO members, for Ireland’s entry into the EEC. France had led UN Security Council opposition to Aiken’s 1965 proposals for new methods for authorising and financing peace-keeping operations by a majority of the plenary, in the event of disagreement among the Security Council Permanent Five members. Along with Italy, France had also resolutely opposed Aiken’s Non Proliferation Treaty proposals.
As Taoiseach in 1981, Garret FitzGerald admitted that neutrality permitted the:
“‘positive merits’ of Irish foreign policy, namely UN peacekeeping, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, decolonization initiatives, opposing South African apartheid, accepting refugees, opposing US funding of South American paramilitaries, increasing aid to the Third World, and supporting Palestinian self-determination”.
However, as a campaigner during Ireland’s 1972 EEC accession referendum, FitzGerald, together with members of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael political parties, deliberately minimised the debate on the security implications of EEC membership. In the early 1990s, the same political elites demanded the Irish public vote in favour of the Maastricht Treaty—and the EU common defence proposals contained within it—on the grounds that the Irish people had already acquiesced to these developments during the 1972 referendum, having been made aware of the defence and neutrality implications at that time.
An irate member of the public wrote a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times to correct the record and point out the TDs’ collective, “criminal” deceit.
Divergent government and public concepts of neutrality
Since then, successive Irish Governments have managed to implement ten U-turns in Irish foreign policy, under the radar of public opinion, in order to conform to EU demands. Two are particularly important to highlight. The first is Ireland’s membership of the Western European Union (WEU) military alliance through a merger with the EU, which was advanced in the Lisbon Treaty. Euro-Federalist young guns purporting to be “Next Generation Ireland” excitedly boasted that
“…the EU is now a military as well as a political and economic alliance. A new government needs to explain why this is a good thing…”[i]
Nevertheless, successive Fine Gael-led governments remain reluctant to acknowledge, let alone promote, Ireland’s membership of this new EU military alliance.
Secondly, the long-standing government definition of so-called “military neutrality” as “non-participation in military alliances” is nonsensical in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty ratification, as it clearly constitutes the exact opposite meaning, i.e. membership of a military alliance. It is important to note these changes, because the meaning of neutrality is supposed to guide the priorities of a state’s foreign policy agenda in peacetime and in war.
Public Support for Neutrality and a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution
The Irish people support “neutrality”, not ‘military neutrality’.
The results of 13 surveys from 1981 to 2013 show that Irish public attitudes towards neutrality have been consistent over time: responding to a straightforward question whether neutrality should be retained or changed, up to four-in-five people in Ireland support neutrality, and one-in-five reject it. The public concept of “active” neutrality accords with international law and embodies characteristics such as peace promotion, non-aggression, 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, especially in the context of “big power” pressure. The values that underpin support for neutrality are independence and patriotism. Our national identity is implicated because Irish neutrality, to quote Ireland’s only White Paper on Foreign Policy published in 1996, “is a statement of the kind of people we are”[ii]. Although supposedly operating in a functioning democracy, today’s Government is clearly not following the foreign policy wishes of the majority of the people in Ireland, and is instead pursuing the EU’s collective defence agenda.
Brexit means the Franco-German juggernaut is no longer driving towards their goal of a European Defence Union with the UK handbrake on. The recently-proposed Defence Union involves:
- a permanent EU Defence Council;
- a permanent Command and Control HQ;
- a new EU Defence Budget and Defence Research Programme paid for by member-states, who are also obliged to
- allocate 2% of GDP on defence spending, and
- spend 20% of this money on equipment identified by the EU’s armaments agency (the European Defence Agency);
- a permanent EU army established by 2020 through the harmonization and standardization of European armed forces, all leading to
- the EU’s ability to launch military missions, (a.k.a. “autonomous action”) separate from NATO, as part of the EU’s global strategy to become a “Global Actor”.
As part of the long-standing NATO-EU “war against neutrality”, journalists and the so-called “Jean Monnet” academics populating Irish universities are paid by the EU and NATO to write and broadcast opinion pieces denigrating neutrality in the Irish media, in order to undermine public attachment to the policy and to soften us up for NATO membership and the EU’s ambitions for military engagement in major conflicts. Many people who would regard themselves as “informed” opinion leaders on EU and national politics might be shocked upon learning of the existence of this propaganda circle. A number of Independent TDs have proposed to hold a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Irish Constitution, partly as a bulwark against entanglement in the EU’s European Defence Union.
Of course, when the time comes to bow to EU pressure to join this new “Defence Union”, our politicians and the aforementioned propagandist elite will probably tell us that we already agreed to all of that Defence Union paraphernalia by voting for the Lisbon Treaty, and furthermore, we knew what we were voting for at the time—despite those very same agents going to great lengths to cover up the neutrality and defence implications of the Lisbon Treaty during the 2008 and 2009 referendum debates.
Does this pattern sound familiar to you by now? Watch this space…
[i] Burke, 2011: 26
[ii] (Ireland, 1996: 7)