Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year, Micheal Martin, then Ireland’s prime minister, insisted on several occasions that “Ireland’s official policy is to be militarily non-aligned. We are, however, not politically non-aligned”.
Although Ireland was quick to condemn Russia’s aggression and express its support for Ukraine’s right to self-defence, opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that the majority of Irish people want to maintain the country’s policy of military neutrality.
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“Our neutrality comes from a place of strength and a belief in ourselves. It’s part of who we are as a people,” Reada Cronin, the left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein’s junior defence spokesperson, tells Al Jazeera.
Emma Clarke, a 31-year-old student at University College Cork (UCC), tells Al Jazeera that she believes this policy gives Ireland a diplomatic advantage on the world stage.
The roots of Irish neutrality
Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War II to discourage British and German invasions or attacks, Andrew Cottey, a professor in UCC’s department of government and politics, tells Al Jazeera.
“The roots of Irish neutrality go back more deeply to the whole question of British colonial rule and trying to get independence from Britain,” he adds.
Ireland’s neutrality has always had an “element of flexibility”, says Cottey.
Despite Ireland’s declared neutral stance at the start of The Emergency, the term Ireland used to refer to World War II, it secretly supported the Allies in small ways.
For instance, Allied pilots shot down in Ireland would be quietly brought to the border with Northern Ireland so they could rejoin their unit in England.
While Ireland’s policy of neutrality does stem from the Irish Republican struggle for independence, it was also a pragmatic decision taken to allow Ireland to “chart an independent foreign policy that best protected its citizens” at a time when it “would not have been able to defend itself”, Cian Fitzgerald, a security and defence researcher at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, tells Al Jazeera.
Ireland was invited to join NATO in 1949 shortly after declaring itself a republic, but declined, stating that it did not want to join an alliance that included the UK, which it said was responsible for “the unnatural division of Ireland”, i.e. Northern Ireland.
In a public shift from its policy during World War II, Ireland has provided 122 million euros ($133m) in nonlethal military assistance to Ukraine such as food, fuel, medical equipment and protective gear, and 63 million euros ($68m) in stabilisation and humanitarian support.
Ireland is also hosting almost 90,000 Ukrainian refugees, who represent 1.8 percent of its population.
Clarke applauds the move by the Irish government, adding: “I want Ireland to do all it can to help and resettle Ukrainian refugees.”
She feels that this is the best way for Ireland to contribute to the war effort as “our army is too small to help Ukraine in any impactful military way”.
Although the Irish government announced in July 2022 the largest increase in defence spending in the country’s history, jumping from 1.1 billion euros ($1.2bn) to 1.5 billion euros ($1.6bn) by 2028, Ireland continues to have one of the lowest defence budgets in Europe.
The Irish government approved in February 2023 the participation of up to 30 defence forces personnel at any given time as part of the newly established EU Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine).
Six Irish military personnel returned in May 2023 from a first mission in Cyprus, where they had been training Ukrainian forces in mine clearance.
This type of training “balances [Ireland’s] international commitment with its domestic opinion and military capabilities”, as it is a niche ability that Ireland has developed through its work in UN peacekeeping missions, says Fitzgerald.
However, this government decision was criticised by the Irish Neutrality League, which called it an “egregious and incontrovertible breach of neutrality”.
Such government decisions also make Joe Murray, director of the Dublin-based NGO Afri, concerned that the country’s policy of neutrality is “eroding away”.
“In previous conflicts, Ireland presented itself as an honest broker and said it was best to move away from escalation. Now we’re egging on the conflict [by training Ukrainian soldiers] and our voice is becoming indistinguishable from that of our former colonial power and other imperial powers,” Murray tells Al Jazeera.
Martin, now the Irish foreign affairs and defence minister, said in April 2023 that the Triple Lock mechanism needed to be revisited.
Seen as “the most significant legislative bulwark supporting Irish neutrality” by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, it allows the deployment of up to 12 military personnel to participate in overseas peacekeeping operations, with the triple approval of the Irish government, the lower house of Ireland’s legislature, and the UN, which in almost all cases would require the Security Council and, therefore, Russia’s agreement.
The war in Ukraine has brought this policy into the public consciousness, says Fitzgerald.
Ireland held its first Consultative Forum on International Security Policy in June 2023 to discuss the future of Ireland’s neutrality and defence policy, including the Triple Lock.
In the weeks leading up to this forum, it elicited many strong reactions. Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, who occupies a largely ceremonial role, accused the government of “playing with fire” by launching a debate about military neutrality and the possibility of joining NATO.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar responded the following day, insisting “once again” that Ireland was going to remain militarily neutral and is “not going to apply for NATO membership or membership of any military alliance”.
Martin will receive the report on the forum in September and decide whether to take any recommendations to the government.
Despite a national reckoning with neutrality as a result of the war in Ukraine, Cottey believes that it is very unlikely that Ireland will abandon this policy as it “has become associated with a range of other policies and foreign policy activities that the Irish public generally support, such as engagement in UN peacekeeping missions, support for nuclear disarmament and conflict resolution activities”.
Ireland certainly will not be joining NATO in the near future, says Fitzgerald, sharing conclusions he reached after attending the consultative forum.
However, he believes that Ireland will try to strengthen its pre-existing relationships, such as with NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and EU defence projects like Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).
‘Peacekeepers and brokers’
As the war in Ukraine rages on, it is clear that Irish people feel a kinship with the Ukrainian people.
“While we are militarily neutral, Ireland is fully supportive of Ukraine and its right to defend itself. We had a belligerent neighbour and we can see a lot of commonalities with Ukraine. We want to try to help them as much as we can while maintaining our neutrality,” says Cronin.
Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement celebrated this year across the island of Ireland, the deal credited with bringing an end to the 30-year-period of violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, Cronin believes that “our [country’s] political and historical experience make us well placed to be peacekeepers and brokers” at a time when countries of the Global South are also seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict.