The Erosion Of Irish Neutrality



From top: Overseas deployment map; Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan inspects Irish troops attached to the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in Lebanon last February

French President, Francois Hollande’s, recent invocation of article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty has called on all EU member-states to aid and assist France by all means in their power.

This is the first time since the Lisbon Treaty’s formal adoption in 2009 that the so-called mutual defence clause has been activated – meaning we’re all wading deep into unchartered waters.

Ryan McCarrel writes:

Francois Hollande’s request came with a further wrinkle – the French army is already thinly stretched across much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Djbouti along the Gulf of Aden to Senegal on the Atlantic.

Therefore, president Hollande and his cabinet have apparently made it plain that they want other EU member states to send their military support to either Mali or Lebanon, essentially to act as stand-ins for France’s overstretched forces, so they can be redeployed in order to beef up security at home and redirect their attention towards fighting ISIS in Syria.

It is entirely unclear, and indeed, debatable as to whether this is what the authors of the treaty had in mind when they drafted the mutual defence provision in the first place.

What is clear, however, is that increasing the amount of Irish soldiers deployed on overseas missions, to approximately 850, was already on the government’s agenda long before the attacks in Paris – even if relatively few bothered to pay attention.

So it should have come as no surprise when Irish defence minister, Simon Coveney responded favorably to the French request for more soldiers – in fact, he doubled down on the strategy after attacks in Mali on Friday left 21 dead, many of whom were foreign nationals, at the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako.

At the same time, Coveney charged that those – including myself – who have openly questioned the wisdom of sending more Irish soldiers to France’s deeply fractured former colonies, were “trying to create a story that is unfair.”

Insisting that any request to deploy more soldiers would come through the United Nations adding a further assurance that if such a request were received it would conform to the ‘triple lock principle,’ and therefore, would not violate Irish neutrality.

First, it must be said that if anything ought to be considered “unfair” here, it is Minister Coveney’s framing of IDF deployments as Ireland’s moral and legal responsibility explicitly in response to the attacks in Paris, given that the government had already decided to send an additional 180 soldiers to Lebanon beforehand.

There’s little reason to excuse this politicking, considering raising net deployment numbers has long been part of a 10 year defence strategy that the Minister himself oversees.

Second, when we take a closer look at the history of Irish foreign policy, including past deployments, it becomes increasingly clear that the idea of the so-called triple lock – and with it Irish neutrality – is as much myth as it is reality.

The triple lock principle is a rhetorical trope invented by Tanaiste Mary Harney in 2001 that essentially refers to the political process that ought to take place prior to the deployment of Irish soldiers internationally.

It was clarified in 2002 by then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he said that any deployment of Irish soldiers abroad must first 1) be approved by the Dáil 2) and the Irish government; and, 3) must be endorsed by the UN – even if only loosely.

Much has changed since then.

Writing in 2013, UCD Professor, Ben Tonra, noted that the triple lock “appears no where in Irish legislation” adding that, “In truth, the only ‘lock’ that exists … is the self-imposed legal requirement for some class of UN authorisation.”

Yet even this self-imposed requirement for UN authorisation, is no longer a guarantor of neutrality – in part, because what constitutes UN authorisation has, for the Irish government at least, slowly eroded over the last decade.

Authorisation used to mean a UN resolution explicitly establishing a peace-keeping force, this is no longer the case. In fact, since the Daíl passed the Defence Act of 2006, what counts as UN authorisation has grown into a ‘laundry list’ of terms, including “supports, endorsed, approved, or otherwise sanctioned.”

The slow erosion of what constitutes UN authorisation was, and continues to be, an intentional maneuver to circumvent the UN security council. In particular, in response to growing weariness on the part of some Irish politicians who are tired of countries like China, using their position on the UN Security Council to veto international missions that the government would otherwise support.

Of course, if we take that last point seriously, what it really means is that by 2006 the Irish government was looking for ways to side-step what was increasingly being regarded as an overly restrictive definition of neutrality.

This, then, is the non-legally binding triple lock mechanism which supposedly safeguards Irish neutrality, that Defence Minister Coveney refers to when offering his assurances. A weakly worded commitment to only partake in missions that have some level of UN support. Perhaps this slow erosion helps explain why Irish soldiers are currently deployed in 13 countries.

It would be unfair to group all of these overseas deployments together of course. The Irish Defense Forces deployment to help with the Ebola epidemic has little to do with their deployment to Afghanistan, for example. And yet grouping these missions under the same UN banner is exactly what looser definitions of ‘UN endorsement’ allows the government to do ().

It’s this grouping that allows the minister to so casually discuss IDF deployments to Mali and Lebanon as if they are interchangeable even though they vary widely. Each conflict has its own context specific dynamics and potential risks and consequences for Ireland’s national security and the the safety of Irish soldiers that must be taken into account, regardless of UN endorsement.

With regards to Mali, the growing possibility that the peace accord will fall apart, or that it was never fully implemented in the first place, means that there may be no ‘peace to keep’ – while extremists there have made a habit out of targeting peacekeepers and aid workers specifically. These, in addition to France’s colonial legacy and particular set of national security and regional economic interests, were only some of the contextual factors that Minister Coveney wanted to so quickly write off as an “unfair story.”.

Yet falling back upon rehearsed rhetorical tropes that boil down to the UN’s tacit approval of some interventions and not others does not in-of-itself provide an indicator of a mission’s legitimacy or moral standing – much less does doing so provide detailed reasons as to why Irish bodies in particular ought to be expected to fill in for French soldiers were they to redeploy to bolster security at home or ‘bring the fight to ISIS’ so to speak.

The UN’s checkered past of powerful states manipulating resolutions to their benefit, and ongoing scandals involving UN peacekeepers, including allegations of sexual abuse, can attest to the first part.

As for the second – Ireland needs to seriously consider the implications of sending more soldiers abroad, at a time when the very safeguard protecting Irish neutrality, the so-called triple lock mechanism, continues to suffer from legislative erosion AND when interlocking security arrangements between the EU, NATO, and the UN muddle what would otherwise be a fairly clear picture of what we could safely consider ‘neutral’ peace-keeping missions.

Indeed, the unprecedented invocation of Article 42.7 by Hollande, in addition to the further French government’s clarification that this aid and assistance ought to take the form of military support for EU-led UN ‘endorsed’ ‘peace-keeping’ missions in their former colonies – so they can redirect their soldiers to fight in yet another conflict beset with its own geopolitical intrigues – just goes to show how muddled this picture has already become.

Ryan McCarrel (@ryanmccarrel) is a PhD candidate in Geopolitics University College Dublin where he specializes in NATO’s relations with its non-member states.

Previously: In Harm’s Way

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36 thoughts on “The Erosion Of Irish Neutrality

    1. bisted

      …I think when Shatter was Minister he didn’t see much difference…maybe Charlie ‘friend of israel’ Flanagan has the same notion.

      1. Declan

        Hold your horses there – swap out Israel for Islamic and you’d be ok with some and not others. Seriously though, sly Jewish/Islamic bashing isn’t cool – let’s keep it for your safe space

        1. dav

          whilst being no friend of israel meself, especially over their occupation of gaza, the amount of anti Semitic feeling in the irish people (older generations to younger) is fierce strong. I’m sure if the germans ever invaded during ww2 what few jews here would have been enthusiastically handed over to the germans, as what happened in poland.

          1. Declan

            Ah now Dav – that’s a bit much. I think their is an affinity for the weaker of the two. Also on the older generation would be much more pro Israeli – especially when the Govt was lead by Labour and not the Likud Hawks.

            People like Moshe Dayan and Co pop up as someone they admired (probably the eye patch!!!)

          2. Clampers Outside!

            “the amount of anti Semitic feeling in the irish people (older generations to younger) is fierce strong” …says you.

            I do hope you are not mixing up a dislike of Israel’s apartheid govt and a dislike of Jewish persons. Sounds like you may be….

          3. dav

            “I do hope you are not mixing up a dislike of Israel’s apartheid govt and a dislike of Jewish persons.”
            @ Clampers Outside! I’m not but when you see people accusing Alan Shatter for being an Israeli because he is jewish, I do believe that there is a stong histoy of antisemitism in this country.

          4. Colm

            That is a shockingly zionistic statement and approach. What basis do you have for such a disgusting comment?

          1. Neilo

            @Clampers: full disclosure: I would be a supporter of Israel’s right to exist. I also endorse fully a two-state solution and a cessation of settlements. Israel’s government – for all its cack-handed actions, to put it mildly – doesn’t strike me as an apartheid government. All Israeli citizens have voting rights and can stand for office. Lord knows, it could do much, much better than it has in recent times – Israeli Arabs still suffer indignities like the law of return and restrictions on land use which are manifestly unfair, I blame freakazoid religious political parties in coalition for this – but South Africa under PW Botha it ain’t.

          2. Clampers Outside!

            OK, it runs the areas it illegally occupies like an apartheid regime.

            Israel will not stop until Palestine is wiped off the planet. Anyone who thinks otherwise, is not paying attention to Israel’s past.

            Two state, at 1967 borders, or Israel can get out altogether.

  1. Eoin

    ‘All war is a racket’. -General Smedley Butler, Americas most decorated marine.

    Lets not get involved. Lets start taking our neutrality SERIOUSLY.

  2. Rich

    Ireland “non-aligned” rather than neutral. We have been participating in UN missions since the 1960’s.

    The triple lock is a joke as a concept. The implication of it is that we could not use our army outside Ireland without UN mandate. Why would any country think that is a good idea? It was conceived of when a European issue looked like it was going to be defeated but is a hugely illogical position.

    If the French asked for help in Paris after the attacks to help maintain order, what good reason would there be to seek a UN decision?

  3. ryry

    This is a fantastic read. Thanks to Ryan and BS for sharing. Saw a lot of people calling out the controversial Lisbon treaty as being responsible for our deployment of troops but it appears that it would have happened anyway. Hopefully this legislative issue gets sorted soon.

  4. Wayne.F

    What nonsense, Ireland is not neutral in any way. The constitution has no reference to it, there is no legislation in relation to it, it is a government policy that on no way can be defined as neutral.

    If we want to be truly neutral we would need to have a massive increase in military spending to be sure we can defend our own skies and oceans. We would need a big shift in relation to serving with the UN and a national attitude change

    1. Medium Sized C

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by Neutral.

      Ireland is not, currently a belligerent in any international conflict and we have not been since the War of Independance. As such the state can be soundly described as Neutral in all current international conflicts.

      1. Wayne.F

        Say like returning, allied soldiers to their lines & interning German soldiers, providing access to facilities for combatant nations to transport troops, & materials via Irish airspace and airports (Both NATO and non NATO forces). All of that and the fact that Ireland is not a signatory of The Hague convention Ireland is more of a Neutralism state.

        If you don’t understand neutrality try a dictionary or Switzerland and the difference between it and is and you may understand true neutrality

  5. mauriac

    Ryan repeats that Mali is Frances’ former colony as if they were involved in some kind of scramble for Africa redux but they sent a relatively small UN sanctioned force to restore the legitimate government and to prevent the huge territory falling into chaos .Imagine Mali run by the likes of Mocktar AL Mocktar.

    1. Ryan McCarrel

      The legitimate government was ousted by a military coup and has yet to be reinstated.

      With regards to France – I merely wish to highlight that they have their own reasons for being there that Ireland might not share.



      1. mauriac

        they restored order , got the touraegs back onside and Ibrahim Boubakar Keita won an election in July 2013.Maybe the fight against medieval salafists is one Ireland might want to help ?

  6. Kolmo

    What is the desired end result? Outside of UN peacekeeping, what reason is there to deploy our Defense forces abroad, does the government think we can take a slice of the imperial pie for other countries natural resources? Seems all a little 19th century, it’s the type of thinking that has left us the current legacy of utter cluster-nonsense in the middle east

  7. Mr. T.

    Simon Coveney attended the May 2014 Bilderberg meeting in Copenhagen as a guest of Peter Sutherland (Goldman Sachs Chairman). Just two months later in July 2014 he was made Irish Minister for Defense while very unusually still holding the agriculture portfolio. The head of NATO was at that meeting.

    Coveney has been tasked by people outside this country, unelected and unanswerable to Irish citizens to get Ireland into NATO. If Fine Gael are returned in 2016, they will set about doing this.

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