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Irish Foreign Affairs: the Non-Aligned Movement debate

The following editorial comment is reproduced from the March 2023 issue, with kind permission of the Irish Foreign Affairs magazine. You can read and subscribe to this informative magazine using the links.

Editorial Comment: the Non-Aligned Movement debate

    We don’t often agree with The Irish Times. But its editorial on 10th March that it was finally “get real” time for Irish political leaders to decide what the country’s foreign and defence policy amounted to, is a contention with which we wholly agree.

    Who would have thought a few years ago that we would be called upon to urgently and clearly clarify our policy on that most basic issue in the life of States: war and peace?

    The current official Irish policy position is in a state of flux between, on the one hand, a “policy”, unwritten, of what the Taoiseach calls “military but not political neutrality”, and, on the other, ever deeper entanglement in the EU’s “Common Foreign and Security Policy” and emerging “Common Defence”, recently re-defined as de facto alignment with the values and aims of NATO and further integration with them. This process has finally brought the rooster home to roost, forcing the Irish to confront their position and clarify it.

The Irish Constitution is no longer the detailed but very concise document adopted by the people by referendum in 1937 and greatly treasured ever since. It has been modified – again endorsed by referendum – by the addition of an enormous quantity of EU Treaties and agreements, changing the Constitution to a document now thousands of pages in length. In the process, Irish foreign and defence policy has been much circumscribed, conditioned and even re-defined. What exactly it now is would require much judicial interpretation and many angels dancing on pinheads.  

Irish Foreign Affairs, March 2023

    Ireland has minimal “defence forces”. In a recent statement, the Rotating Tánaiste revealed that the Irish naval forces, responsible for what is the largest territorial waters of any EU state, had slumped to just 800 personnel and no longer has the capacity to field more than a single modestly-armed fisheries patrol boat at a given time! Our “air defences” entail some “arrangements” with the Royal Air Force. Despite the original constitutional imperative not to be embroiled in others’ wars, Shannon Airport is a significant conduit for US forces and equipment into and out of the Middle East, and latterly to “Eastern Europe”.

    Early in the current crisis, a Russian naval exercise was announced for an area a considerable distance from the southwest Irish coast. This startled government, which engaged in some “megaphone diplomacy” in tune with the NATO portrayal of Russia as an evil aggressive empire. But it was a response which, predictably, solved nothing.

    In the event what resolved it was the Russian Ambassador agreeing to meet a delegation of the South-West Fishers’ Association, who, keen to get on with their livelihoods, had taken matters into their own hands. Following the meeting, the Ambassador announced that he had raised the fishermen’s concerns with his government and that it was decided to move the naval exercises further into the Atlantic beyond the affected fishing zone. The Fishermen’s Association declared its satisfaction with the outcome and thanked the Ambassador for the cordial and respectful meeting and for the resolution of the affair. The State, with its empty ideological stance, was left looking ridiculous.

    The Irish government has sent some protective gear and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. On the basis of what the Rotating Taoiseach and Tánaiste have called the “established policy of military but not political neutrality”, it declined to supply lethal military aid. But it has also joined with other EU Member States in agreeing a common EU “aid package”, a major element of which is some very serious military equipment indeed.

    Parallel to this, Ireland has used its day in the sun as one of the toothless temporary members of the UN Security Council to agitate for the ejection of Russia from that body and the ending of its Veto, a position which few other even western EU states support. Figures from government have also called for amending the “triple lock” on Irish participation in military action, an Oireachtas-established position prohibiting this unless authorised by the UN Security Council, the EU Council and the Oireachtas. They propose jettisoning the UN bit. 

    During the 2010 Israeli onslaught on Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”), the Irish government was urged by pro-Palestine activists to call upon the EU and UN to impose some kind of economic sanctions to deter the aggressor, if only on the already illegal Israeli produce from the Occupied Territories. Micheál Martin was at that time Foreign Minister and made little secret of his “abhorrence” at the Israeli actions, but, on “legal advice” he advised that sanctions would be contrary to both EU and international law. When it came to Russia, however, Martin, now the Rotating Taoiseach, not alone abandoned any such legal qualms, but became one of the world’s most fervent advocates for such measures against Russia.

    This hodge-podge of positions and “policies” do not constitute a coherent Irish Foreign and Defence Policy, let alone a set of principles or even a clever stance of studied ambiguity in which some might see merit. It reflects, rather, an evasion of policy-making in favour of profitable drift that maintains benevolence towards Ireland by its “allies” while avoiding principled choices and, more importantly, actual cost.

    But nature abhors a vacuum, and Irish sovereignty dictates the need for unambiguous articulation of its foreign and defence policy. Ireland was very seriously neutral in WW2 without compromising its political values. De Valera’s historic contributions to the League of Nations are reprinted in this issue of Irish Foreign Affairs and these are a great example of “active neutrality” that laid the basis for how the Constitution of 1937 proposed dealing with international conflicts. 

    The insincerity of government policy has produced confusion among the public. Polls during the crisis indicate consistent popular support for continuing the backstop stance of “military neutrality”. The most recent poll showed the enduring popularity of this position, with about 70 per cent opposing ending Irish “military neutrality” by providing direct military aid to Ukraine. But on another question, 70 per cent also approved the EU providing such assistance and Ireland supporting it!  This neatly encapsulates the current state of ambiguity and inconsistency in Ireland on the issues of war and peace.

    It is incumbent on Irish political leaders from all tendencies to propose how to end this unsatisfactory state of policy drift at a time when matters of peace and war are likely to be with us for some time. While advocates of Irish NATO membership have not been shy in advancing their case, those who propose an “independent foreign policy” and an active “positive Neutrality” need more adequately and succinctly to define theirs.

    A statement of sovereign Irish foreign policy based on the principles on international security cooperation, military non-alignment and the peaceful resolution of disputes, as set out boldly in the 1937 Constitution, and how the State should prosecute policy to realise these principles, is sorely needed.

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