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Ireland rethinks neutrality in wake of Ukraine war

April 15, 2023

Ireland is militarily neutral, but the country has been providing non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, sparking debate in Dublin. What comes next for Irish neutrality?

Irish Defence Forces
Ireland is militarily neutral but its leaders say its support for Ukraine is steadfastImage: Irish Defence Forces

Did you know Ireland needs permission from Russia, China, France, the US and the UK if it wants to deploy more than 12 soldiers to a combat zone? The Western European country is militarily neutral and operates under a "triple lock" system that includes a mandatory resolution from United Nations Security Council.

But Ireland's leaders insist this military neutrality does not mean the country is politically or morally neutral — not least in light of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Ireland has supported Ukraine with €122 million ($134 million) in nonlethal military assistance such as fuel, food, medical equipment or protective gear. Authorities have also authorized 30 members of the Irish Defence Forces to offer specialized training to Ukrainian soldiers at a first-of-its-kind European Union mission.

But that broad backing for Kyiv is now sparking debate in Dublin — and as in other neutral nations in Europe, the war is prompting reflection on long-held policies.

Biden addresses Irish parliament

Ireland: Beneficiary of 'benign geography'

"Ireland's benign geographical position broadly means that we don't have to confront the security dilemmas those nearer Russia have had to face," Brigid Laffan, emeritus professor with the European University Institute, told DW.

The nation is today tucked between allies: to the west across the Atlantic, Canada and the United States — and to the north and east, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Laffan says that means "psychologically, the Irish don't feel threatened."

Location wasn't always on the Republic of Ireland's side. It secured independence from British rule in the first half of the 20th century, but not without a war of independence and a civil war.

Ireland remained officially neutral during the Second World War. "It was the first time a free Ireland could decide not to participate in a British war," Laffan explained, "so I think that was very formative."

Joe Biden walking past soldiers from the Irish Defence Forces
Joe Biden praised Irish peacekeeping efforts on his recent state visitImage: Irish Defence Forces

Campaigners fear Irish neutrality is under attack

The nation has steered clear of overseas conflicts ever since, though its troops have been engaged in United Nations peacekeeping missions. In a speech to lawmakers in Dublin on Thursday, US President Joe Biden praised Ireland for building "international credibility as peacekeepers" and carrying "moral authority with nations around the world."

But the Irish Neutrality League, a campaign group set up after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, argues the country's diplomatic potential as a peacebuilder is being compromised. Parliamentarian Paul Murphy from the "People before Profit" party — which describes itself as "ecosocialist" — helped create the group. In his words: "because neutrality is under attack."

Murphy and other group members object to the Irish government's move to involve the Irish Defence Forces in the EU's military training mission for Ukraine, as well as to Irish officials joining meetings of the "Ukraine Defense Contact Group," set up by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to coordinate military aid to Kyiv between some 50 countries. The lawmaker thinks these actions undermine Irish neutrality.

"We think Ireland should at this stage be raising its voice for peace in Ukraine to call for a cease-fire," Murphy said. "It is just horrendous human suffering that is taking place. And we think that we should be calling for peace."

Murphy says public support for neutrality remains strong, something borne out in polling by the Irish Times and Ipsos from April 2022, where two-thirds of respondents backed the country's current model.

'Not neutral, just defenseless': Lawmaker

But independent parliamentarian and former soldier Cathal Berry thinks neutrality has been used as an excuse for naive defense policy. "We don't even recognize how vulnerable and exposed we are," he told DW. "I don't think we're neutral, we're just defenseless."

Ireland had the lowest defense spending of any EU member in 2021 at just 0.2% of GDP, compared to a bloc-wide average of 1.3%. "There's no automatic obligation on Ireland to send troops to any other country to intervene," Berry said. "But there's no automatic obligation on any country to come to Ireland's assistance also, if we get into difficulty."

Despite its physical distance from potential adversaries, a cyber attack on Ireland's health service in 2021 exposed vulnerabilities. Undersea data cables near Ireland's coast have also been a source of concern.

"We're quite a tempting target if anybody wants to do a serious amount of damage to trans-Atlantic trade, trans-Atlantic flights, trans-Atlantic data transfer — we really are the Achilles heel," Berry said.

He wants to see a big boost to defense spending. "Let's face the situation: We're really freeloading off of British and European taxpayers and we're not providing for our own defense and deterrence and security."

A man in a blue suit walking past soldiers from the Irish Defence Forces lined up at attention
The Irish deputy prime minister has announced plans for a consultative forum on security and defenseImage: Irish Defence Forces

An evolution in thinking on Irish neutrality underway

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the government is opening up a new conversation. This month, Deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste) Micheal Martin unveiled plans for a "Consultative Forum on International Security Policy" to be held in June.

"We have seen blatant and brutal disregard by Russia of international law and Europe's collective security architecture … and our traditional policy of military neutrality does not inure us from the need to respond to this new reality," Martin said at the time of the announcement.

"We need to have a serious and an honest conversation about the international security policy options available."

Professor Brigid Laffan thinks change is afoot, but says what lies ahead is likely more of an evolution than a U-turn.

"We're never going to have a very large army, I don't anticipate us joining NATO," she said. "But I do anticipate us modernizing our concepts of security — also in relation to our membership of the EU, which, whether we like it or not, will become a more important security actor."

Edited by Timothy Jones