Ireland: The value of foreign and security policy quirk

4 Apr

The war on Ukraine has left Ireland’s foreign and security policy looking exposed. While Ireland has been strong in its condemnation of Russian aggression, and has accepted a good number of Ukrainian refugees, the European security response has left Ireland looking lonely. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO (Finland joins today!), and European states have sent large amounts of weaponry, but Ireland has traditionally had an ambiguous neutrality policy that means it has not joined military alliances. Nor does it send weaponry abroad. Debates on Ireland’s security stance are now becoming more pronounced with some arguing that Ireland needs to step up, take its own defence more seriously, and align militarily with its European allies. Public opinion, however, is still firmly supportive of the tradition stance of ambiguous neutrality and military non-alignment. The Government has announced that it will undertake a review.

Let’s take a step back and tease out a three strands of this. The first is ‘neutrality’. Ireland has never been neutral and indeed the former foreign minister said that Ireland was not neutral in relation to Ukraine: it condemns Russian aggression wholeheartedly. Ireland was quietly pro-Allied in WWII and anti-communist in the Cold War. Debates on Irish ‘neutrality’ are misplaced. Rather than neutral, Ireland is militarily non-aligned. It is not a member of NATO, and for historical reasons has been shy about joining a military organisation in which the UK play a prominent role. Its armed forces are not geared up for offensive action or anything other than small-scale operations.

Indeed, the organisation and posture of the armed forces is a second strand worth teasing out. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps are small and under-funded. They struggle to recruit. Over the past week, two Russian ships have been acting suspiciously off the Irish coast. The Irish Naval Service has been unable to put any ships to sea this week because of crew shortages. It is a shocking indictment of decade after decade of under-funding, mainly in relation to pay. Government after government has been unwilling to pay members of the armed forces a salary that would tempt a young tech-savvy population to forgo the high earnings found in IT or construction. The posture of the armed forces is also uniquely Irish. The Air Corps and Naval Service are essentially fisheries protection and search and rescue units. The Army is hugely oriented towards United Nations peacekeeping, and has a justifiably proud record in this regard. All three wings do other things, of course, but the organisation is simply not set up for offensive warfare or interoperability beyond UN peacekeeping. The country also is also very vulnerable to cyber attacks, with the health service IT system being paralysed in 2021.

There is no doubt that Ireland is a free-rider on NATO, and benefits from its geography on Europe’s western periphery. There is a lobby that calls for Ireland to step up its defence capability and purchase weapons systems that would genuinely allow it to defend itself. The cost would be enormous. NATO recommends that its member states spend 2% of GDP on defence. Ireland spends 0.26%. It is simply not at the races. It is very unlikely that a public that is content with the status quo would stomach a significant increase in defence spending. It is worth remembering that Ireland suffers a very real housing crisis. It is the number one political issue. Ireland that has failed comprehensively to address a basic human need: shelter. There is a political commitment to spend more on defence, but a radical increase seems politically unlikely.

And this brings us to the third strand: Ireland security and foreign policy posture. The State is a full and enthusiastic member of the European Union (and many of its security protocols). It is culturally Atlanticist in its outlook, and has a reasonably good record on overseas development and humanitarianism (more could always be done). Ireland has one crucial characteristic that gives it a foreign and security policy edge. For want of a better word, let’s call it ‘quirk’. Ireland does not fit with the NATO herd. The country has a history of what many believe to be ‘neutrality’ but really is military non-alignment. It had a proud tradition of speaking out on nuclear weapons (of which it has none) and on injustice (of which it has a fair degree of experience). That tradition of speaking out has largely been lost, and is a real missed opportunity. By not being a member of NATO, Ireland has flex, the ability to speak out, to be a go-between, to float ideas, and be creative. It does not use this flex (an under-valued weapon for good) nearly often enough. Ireland has a cultural value that operates far beyond its GDP or whatever conventional weaponry it can muster. For some reason, (let’s call it the Riverdance-effect) a lot of people like Ireland. In any review of security and foreign policy, this quirk or flex needs to be a centre-piece. This ability to mediate, to scope out, to be different, to not be armed to the teeth and to not have a ‘military wing’ in government is a real strength.

Every so often, Ireland serves on the UN Security Council and congratulates itself on doing “a grand job”. Certainly it is keen and proud. But it does not use these opportunities nearly often enough to speak truth to power, to innovate, to provide work-arounds for seemingly intractable international problems. This is a missed opportunity and a defence review that does not include a wider foreign policy review would be another one.

All communities – even communities of states – need that charismatic individual that can act as a go-between, serve as an example, and show that being different is useful. We can get too hung up on a word – like ‘neutrality’. More important is an active stance that is outward-looking, pro-peace, able to weather shocks, and useful to the international community. Another NATO member – cookie-cutter style paying its dues, in hock to arms manufacturers, and in alliance with states with truly dreadful human rights records like Turkey – is not in the interests of Ireland, Europe or the wider international community. What would be useful is a debate that values Ireland’s difference, and neutral spaces that allow for alternatives, questions and reflection.

There is no doubting that – internationally – we are in a 1930s moment. The rules-based international order is crumbling, capital is more mobile and volatile than ever, populist leaders are on the rise, a climate crisis is on-going, Russia has a clear European destabilisation strategy, and a China-US confrontation looks increasingly likely. There is the possibility that we are one accident away from a tipping point. This is precisely the moment when we need a non-aligned movement with independent actors who can be peace entrepreneurs. NATO might be the right choice for some European countries, but that does not mean it is the right choice for all European countries.

This is not to say that Ireland should not spend more on defence (especially on pay and cyber-security). It is, however, a way of saying that quirk and flex have value. When everyone else is a horse, be a unicorn.


3 Responses to “Ireland: The value of foreign and security policy quirk”

  1. Christine Bell 04/04/2023 at 9:23 am #

    Fantastic post. Will circulate far and wide.

    Anything I can do to help it get traction – let me know.


  2. Anthony Wanis 04/04/2023 at 3:56 pm #

    A beautifully thoughtful and historical piece Roger. I didn’t know about the underfunding and pay issues, but am not surprised. With tech capital flowing into Ireland, the government and armed forces will be a futile fight to match salaries for young tech savvies. Pay supports morale in public service professions too. Ireland has much it can contribute without being a weapons provider.


  1. When you have a government determined to drive away support… - 29/05/2023

    […] happen to agree with the arguments made by Prof Roger McGinty of Durham University in his blog: “Ireland: The value of foreign and security policy quirk”, when he […]

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