The triple lock - a guardrail of neutrality, or an abandonment of sovereignty?

Government contends the mechanism grants powers such as Russia and China the power to dictate where Ireland can send its troops

Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s announcement on Wednesday that he intends to scrap the triple lock, which prevents more than 12 Irish troops serving overseas without UN approval, was met with immediate and sharp criticism.

This is to be expected, given it is seen by many as a cornerstone of Irish neutrality. It is surprising then that before the early 2000s, it is difficult to find any mention of it in Irish public discourse.

While its legislative basis dates back to the Defence Amendment Act of 1960, it was only in 2001 that the phrase entered public use in the context of defence policy. It was conceived by civil servants as a rhetorical device to reassure the public that the Nice treaty would not compel Ireland to take part in EU military adventures overseas.

Voters were assured that, under existing Irish law, troops can only be deployed overseas with the consent of the Government, the Dáil and the United Nations. In other words, a triple lock.


It came to be regarded as a guardrail for neutrality, preventing the government of the day from taking part in anything that wasn’t explicitly mandated by the UN.

There didn’t seem to be much downside at the time. In the first years of the 21st century, the UN Security Council frequently mandated peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions where Ireland could play a valuable role.

An exception came in 2003 with Operation Concordia, an EU-led peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Ireland was eager to contribute and preliminarily promised a small number of Defence Forces troops.

However, the mission did not have an explicit UN mandate. China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, enjoyed a veto and it would not agree to a formal resolution. Ireland had to back out.

Irish legislation was tweaked in 2006 to ensure a repeat would not occur. However, a new problem soon arose as the period of relative co-operation within the Security Council came to an end and the big powers, mainly Russia and the US, became increasingly willing to wield their vetoes, or threaten to do so, as part of larger power plays.

As the world became more unstable, new UN mandated missions became rarer and rarer. In fact, there hasn’t been a UN-led peacekeeping force approved by the Security Council since 2014.

In moving to abolish the triple lock, the Government contends the mechanism grants powers such as Russia and China the power to dictate where Ireland can send its troops. In effect, it’s a surrendering of sovereignty over foreign policy to the great powers, making Ireland not so much neutral as neutralised.

Neutrality campaigners argue the triple lock prevents Ireland from engaging in aggressive military operations. “Without the triple lock... Irish troops could have been sent to fight and die in the US invasion of Iraq,” People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy claimed on Wednesday.

They have also argued the veto argument doesn’t hold water. There has been only one instance, in Operation Concordia, where the veto prevented the deployment of Irish peacekeepers, and that was 20 years ago.

However, a permanent Security Council member doesn’t have to veto a resolution. Usually, the mere suggestion of a veto is enough to prevent the council from even voting on an issue.

“Let’s be clear that many crises that the council deals with never get near the stage of discussion on a peacekeeping mission or even on a comprehensive peace-building plan,” the Tánaiste said yesterday.

In scrapping the triple lock, Ireland will be able to respond quickly to crises around the world, without having to see what the Security Council will decide (or fail to decide, as is more likely), he argues.

Much of this response will likely take place through the newly revamped EU Battlegroup system which is intended to act as the bloc’s rapid reaction force to humanitarian crises. Ireland has committed 182 troops to the 2,000-strong German-led Battlegroup.

Ireland will also be able to contribute to missions led by other bodies such as the African Union or Nato. It is quite possible, therefore, that in the coming years Irish peacekeepers may be deployed to trouble spots such as eastern Ukraine or Palestine under these banners, whether or not the UN agrees.