Irish Neutrality and military alliances…

The Irish Times recently published my letter on Neutrality and military alliances. In this post, I reprint the letter as well as expand on the topic.

A chara, – It has often been noted that generals tend to fight the battles of today with the weapons and strategies of the last war. Russia may be finding this out to its cost in Ukraine.

Critics of Ireland’s policy of neutrality and relative lack of military capability tend to call for us to join Nato or else to expend many billions of euro on fighters, tanks and ships to develop an independent capability to defend ourselves. /cont.

First, the notion that we could ever achieve a level of military capability sufficient to repel a major nuclear and conventional military power is laughable, not to mention the effect it would have of creating a very militarised society here.

Second, the possession of some such capability would make us more of a target for a potential military adversary, for fear of us directing that capability against them.

Far from making us more secure, it would therefore make us more vulnerable to attack.

Third, our neutrality, and relative lack of capability to attack others make us more acceptable as a neutral, third-party, peacekeeping force, and a developmental partner who isn’t using development aid as a cover for neo-colonial domination or arms sales.

Fourth, in a world ever more dominated by increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons systems, the survival of the human race depends not on evermore arms purchases, but on developing our capabilities in diplomatic and peaceful conflict resolution, something we have some recognised expertise in.

But finally, and most importantly, the wars of tomorrow will increasingly be dominated by cyberwarfare, misinformation, and remote-controlled robotic, drone and missile technologies which bear little relationship to the battleships, aircraft carriers, bombers, fighter jets, tanks, and artillery of today.

If we must invest in increased military hardware and software, let it at least be appropriate to the real risks we will face in the future, and not some tokenistic homage to the defunct military strategies and weaponry of the past. – Is mise,


The invasion of Ukraine has led to a lot of soul-searching about Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. The policy arose at the time of the state’s foundation in 1922 partly out of necessity. The state was bankrupt and had just gone through a bitter civil war. Centuries of resistance to British rule and the Great Famine had emptied the country of what little military capacity it had. It would not have been able to overcome a determined and well-armed loyalist resistance in Northern Ireland had it sought to end partition at the time.

The 1932-38 trade war with the UK further eviscerated the country’s ability to defend itself. But the bad feeling it left behind also shaped the determination of the new state not to do the UK’s bidding when it came to the Second World War in 1939. 70 thousand Irishmen and some women joined the British armed forces partly because of the lack of any economic opportunities at home, but the state remained resolutely neutral. Not that it would have made much difference in any case. Its military capabilities were minuscule.

Behind the scenes, the state provided valuable weather forecasting information which informed the D-day landings. British airmen who landed in Ireland were spirited across the border to N. Ireland, while German airmen were interned. But the public stance of neutrality was maintained, even to the point of Taoiseach De Valera – a stickler for protocol – extending his condolences to the German ambassador on the death of Hitler. It was more a statement of our independence from Britain than a sign of any support for Germany.

Ireland joined the League of Nations in 1923 and the United Nations in 1955 to reinforce its status as an independent nation. It became an enthusiastic supporter of UN peacekeeping missions and developed a reputation for being able to defuse very tense situations without resorting to military action. But its military budget remained tiny (c. 0.3% of GDP) with a complement of c. 10,000 service personnel. Its main roles included assisting the largely unarmed police force during the Troubles and against armed criminal gangs, UN peacekeeping missions, and fisheries protection. There was never a pretence we could defend ourselves against invasion by a foreign power.

Many have accused us of free-loading under the nuclear and military umbrella of the USA and NATO. But this protection, insofar as it exists, has been a mixed blessing. The USA has regularly used Shannon airport as a stopover for its troop deployments in Europe and the Middle East and allegedly for “extraordinary rendition” flights of captives to and from torture sites (always denied by the USA). Irish people have been very happy not to have been directly involved in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria and don’t particularly want to pick a fight with Russia either.

Compared to the UK, there is a marked absence of military culture with its hierarchies and authoritarianism, and the fetishization of all the paraphernalia of militarism. There is no military-industrial complex to speak of and the influence of the armed forces in public debate is minuscule. One of the great achievements of the Irish state was the development of an unarmed police force in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. It required the widespread development of the skills of non-violent conflict resolution which has stood us and our society well.

We are, of course, the beneficiaries of our geographical location far away from the current friction points in international relations (if you exclude the current EU/UK dispute over the Protocol!).  Were we located on the borders of Russia, a different policy might be required. It is not that we are indifferent to the plight of Ukraine – far from it – but it seems to be our best and most relevant contribution must be economic and humanitarian aid and sanctuary for Ukrainian refugees. We simply don’t have the means to be of significant military assistance.

This has led to some scorn and derision chiefly from unionists in the North and Brexiteers in the UK who seem to see every conflict in terms of the projection of military power. They glory in their military support for Ukraine while taking in virtually no refugees. I don’t want to see Ireland or the EU become that sort of country or alliance.

The EU is founded on a philosophy of making war unthinkable between member states by creating greater economic, social and political inter-dependencies. Some increased military capabilities may have to be developed to protect our external borders, but the primary focus must always be on developing good relations with our neighbours. The future of our continent and the planet depends on it.

As the USA and now Russia are discovering, no one wins wars anymore. Everyone loses, and it is just a question of how much. Our challenge is to build a better peace where everyone’s vital interests are protected, and unnecessary provocations are avoided. It is not in Europe’s interest to become entangled in a proxy war between nuclear superpowers for global hegemony.

Russia’s war aims now seem restricted to hegemony over the Donbas region which will be a wasteland by the time the war is over. It is important that any gains they make there will be seen to be far outweighed by their costs. Ultimately some kind of peace will have to be negotiated and then the most urgent task will be to ensure that such a war of conquest is never attempted again. That is where the EU (and EU membership for Ukraine) can be of greatest influence and benefit to counteract the polarising tendencies of NATO. Like Ireland, the EU’s greatest strength is that it is not trying to become a military superpower.

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