Defending Neutrality

Ireland’s role in international affairs has been honourable, let’s not throw it away.

Seán Rainford
6 min readJun 10, 2022
Credit: Irish Defence Forces Facebook page

The Ukrainian War has triggered a profound shift in the European Union regarding defence. High Representative Borrell has pointed to a fundamental policy transformation and that the EU will ‘never be the same again’. This is primarily a result of the EU’s decision to supply fighter jets and other lethal aid to Ukrainian forces battling the brutal invasion of their country. EU aid like this is unprecedented. Questions have been raised about whether it’s now inevitable that the EU becomes a full military alliance.

In Ireland, the traditional policy of neutrality has come under serious scrutiny. The Taoiseach has said that a debate about this policy’s feasibility needs to take place. The Tánaiste remarked that we can no longer assume that friendly nations would come to our aid without a formal military alliance. Many newspaper columnists have argued that it’s time for Ireland to ‘grow up’ and abandon its infantile neutrality position. After all, in the face of this Russian onslaught, how can neutrality be morally defensible?

In the midst of this ‘debate’, one wonders where the other side of the argument — in favour of neutrality — can be heard. So far, the consensus one would distill so far would be that neutrality should obviously be ended and that Ireland should join a European Defence Union (and possibly NATO). And yet, all polling of the public indicates that a large majority don’t want an end to neutrality. This disconnect needs to be addressed if a proper debate is to take place.

Neutrality through History

Firstly, contrary to Irish Times columnist Stephen Collins’ assertion that Irish neutrality meant that the State took “no particular view on the course of international relations”, Ireland has often taken firm stances in international affairs — usually in accordance with Western powers, but not exclusively. Irish neutrality was originally sought by Eamon De Valera as a means of signifying Ireland’s independence to the rest of the world in the 1930s — that Ireland would not automatically take the side of Britain given its dominion status. In the subsequent World War, while Ireland remained militarily neutral, the State favoured the Allies in its practice.

During the Cold War, Irish neutrality did not mean that the State took no stance in international affairs; it meant that Ireland chose not to align itself with either of the major nuclear powers — the United States/NATO or the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact. As Diarmaid Ferriter has pointed out, neutrality signified not only the State’s independent foreign policy, but its opposition to nuclear proliferation, its commitment to the United Nations system, and the protection of smaller emerging nations. Ireland’s neutral stance allowed it to focus on UN peacekeeping and humanitarian aid — something for which it is respected around the world — as well as multilateralism and negotiated conflict resolution.

As many have pointed out, Ireland is not truly neutral when it comes to choosing a side in geopolitical struggles between the West — represented by the US, NATO, and the EU — Russia, and China. Ireland has effectively chosen the side of the Western powers. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, traditional neutrality has been somewhat eroded. US armed forces continue to use Shannon Airport as a strategically important refuelling base. As the EU developed from a common market to a political union, pressure to fully participate in European defence cooperation has mounted.

Safeguarding Neutrality

One thing that makes defending neutrality slightly more complicated is that its advocates don’t always approach the topic with full appreciation of its consequences. If a country is to be militarily neutral, that doesn’t mean it can abandon its responsibility to defend itself. In fact, it probably means that it needs to take this responsibility more seriously — no one else is going to come to your rescue. That’s why other neutral states in Europe like Austria or Switzerland spend a substantive amount of their budget on defence — not an extortionate amount, but enough to maintain a well-staffed and well-equipped defence force. Committing funds to armed defence is not militarism, it’s a basic function of maintaining an independent state.

As the Commission on the Defence Forces report showed us, Ireland’s current defence regime leaves a lot to be desired. The vital factor in the retention crisis is the lack of adequate pay for Defence Forces staff. Addressing this problem has to be the first priority in rebuilding our Defence Forces. But beyond this, it must be acknowledged that if a country is to have a military, it needs to be equipped. That means that the Naval Service needs adequate vessels capable of defending our large territorial waters. It means the Air Corps needs a radar system to know what aircraft are in Irish airspace and, yes, our own interceptor jets so that we don’t need to rely on the air force of another country to defend our own skies.

The point here is that if Ireland is to be militarily neutral (as polls show is the majority’s wish) it needs to be able to protect that position. It needs to be able to rely on its own defence and not have to call on the good will of others to do this — such a situation is inconsistent with neutrality in the first place. The objection may be raised that in the event of attack, no amount of increased defence capacity will hold off invaders for long. But by this logic the State shouldn’t bother maintaining Defence Forces at all.

The EU and NATO

As the European Union makes monumental strides in its outward policy, Irish eyes should be firmly fixed on the implications this has for us. If it is inevitable that the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy develops into a full military union, the implications for Ireland would be massive. The question at that juncture would have to be asked: is it possible to be militarily neutral and a member of the EU?

Of course, if Ireland was attacked, our neutrality would not come into play; we would simply defend our sovereignty. Since we have already pooled our sovereignty with Europe, perhaps common defence is a reasonable thing to consider without any need to compromise on neutrality. After all, if our sovereignty is pooled with the rest of the EU, an attack on one would be an attack on all. It may also be the case that a common defence policy would lessen Europe’s need for NATO in the first place since the defence of member state sovereignty would be covered. However, if neutrality were to survive this transition, it would preclude the possibility of involvement in offensive wars committed by the EU akin to the US-led Iraq War. For that reason, suggestions of a European army by French and German leaders should be fiercely resisted by the Irish government.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, those commentators arguing for an abandonment of neutrality equate Ireland’s current stance as cowardly and immoral, that Ireland should be willing to defend the liberal democratic ‘Western’ values that we live by. While this seems reasonable enough in the context of Ukraine, the reality for the last two decades has been that this ‘defence of liberal democracy’ has been the cover for Western interventions across the world. It’s important that those wanting an end to neutrality specify what they envisage — do they mean merely the defence of the EU from aggressors, or do they really want a European army capable of power projection across the world?

The primary reason for maintaining Ireland’s military neutrality is as an opposition to militarisation, nuclear proliferation, and the domination by superpowers of smaller states across the world. As long as those conditions continue to exist, Ireland should remain a neutral power. But this should not mean a shirking of defence responsibility. As great power politics continue, the need to maintain one’s own defence remains. Nor does neutrality preclude the possibility of common EU defence arrangements, provided they are defensive only.

In conversations about neutrality, many military hawks in Ireland have quoted the late Bishop Desmond Tutu: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But military neutrality does not imply moral neutrality. Rather than implying an amoral stance, military neutrality has enabled Ireland to be one of the most moral and upstanding members of the international community. It has enabled us to advocate on behalf of emerging states. It has allowed us to oppose nuclear weapons and lead peacekeeping operations across the world. It has kept our men and women out of the imperialistic conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries — something we couldn’t do under British rule.

Ireland is respected throughout the world for these stances, and this respect could not have been achieved without neutrality. It would be a shame if, in the centenary year of Irish independence, we threw away one of its most notable successes.



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.