October 8, 2023
The tanaiste’s (The Tánaiste is the deputy head of the government of Ireland ) visit to Kyiv last week ruffled a few feathers in the usual isolationist quarters that preach Irish exceptionalism. As usual there was a bit of hysteria coupled with a lack of comprehension. Essentially, Micheál Martin was being criticised for acknowledging the nature of Ireland’s support for Ukraine. Most of that takes the form of political, economic and humanitarian support. Some of it goes to the civil population and some of it to the military, but in a “non-lethal” form.
So the truth is, in line with our EU partners and many others, we are actively supporting a side in this war. But what about our “neutrality”, say some? Speaking at the recent forums on international security, a Swiss academic urged Ireland to remember that “neutrality is not a religion”. No, in fact it’s a policy crafted to the needs of the nation. The Swiss have their version and we have ours.
Our version is very simple. It’s about not being bound by mutual defence pacts that would force us to support military action that might not be in our interests. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have a neutrality clause in our constitution, with good reason. The term is so nebulous and world geopolitics so fast-moving and mercurial that it would be dangerous to our national security to create a legal impediment to us taking decisions to protect our people and interests.
In short, our “neutrality” is about independence in course of action. It doesn’t mean we can’t take sides. If it did, we wouldn’t be members of the EU or indeed the UN. However, we need to be more mindful of not creating legal and constitutional booby traps for ourselves.
There is already a clause in the constitution that specifically prohibits Ireland from taking part in any European mutual defence pacts without having a constitutional amendment. In other words, joining Nato or signing up to some sort of EU army is off the cards unless a majority of Irish people vote for it.
That is enough regarding the constitution. We do not want a situation where a judge is making decisions on our national security.
However, the other big criticism of the tanaiste’s stance on aid is that in addition to our “non-lethal military aid” we are supplying Defence Force instructors in basic weapons drills and training.
On one level we should remember that as the tanaiste states, this is at a modest level. However, there is a moral and legal imperative here.
For a state that won its independence under arms, arms that were sent from the US and Europe, it is a bit rich for us to take the high moral ground on supplying a meagre amount of training to a beleaguered fellow European state being aggressed against.
Now this is where we must remember our values. We have taken a side, not just because the EU has, but because the UN charter has been violated. We have taken stands before in the UN to uphold the international rules-based order.
This concept is essential for smaller nations such as ours to survive and goes back to the doctrine of Éamon De Valera and Frank Aiken that is still at the heart of our values-based foreign policy.
Therefore, it is perfectly legal and legitimate for our Defence Forces to be assisting their Ukrainian counterparts to defend themselves against a level of aggression not seen in Europe since the Second World War.
A final point. Creating political legal instruments to limit being dragged into conflict can often lead to unintended consequences. During the recent forums I sat on the panel that discussed Ireland’s “triple lock”, which prohibits our deployment of troops unless there is government, Dail and UN assent. It was that triple lock that caused Irish troops and gardai to be pulled out of a peacekeeping mission in Macedonia.
It was also the same triple lock that prevented Irish troops from being formally deployed on humanitarian missions to Rwanda and Honduras. The only way the troops could go was as private citizens travelling in a civilian capacity, which significantly limited their effectiveness.
Sometimes if you want to do good, you have to get off the high moral fence and into the arena where the “dust, sweat and blood” exists.
Declan Power is an independent security analyst