Diarmaid Ferriter: Irish neutrality isn’t as plain as we have been led to believe

Some mystery surrounds Ireland’s defence arrangements with the UK; citizens deserve the full details so they can be understood and debated

Speaking at the commencement of the Dáil debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 14 December 1921, Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith, who had led the Irish delegation in London that negotiated with the British government representatives, explained the Irish dilemma: “We had fought in the beginning, we had tried the Republic, we had tried neutrality... we were up against the Crown and Empire and we had to face it. We had driven them from position to position on other points, but on this they were standing on a rock.”

That rock seemed to crush any hope of an independent foreign policy for the putative Free State. The text of the Treaty was clear: “the defence by sea of Great Britain shall be undertaken by His Majesty’s Imperial Forces.” Ireland would not be permitted to have a navy, and Britain would also control the ports of Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly, and in times of war, the Free State would be required to make available any “harbours and other facilities as the British Government may require” for its defence.

The day after Griffith spoke, Erskine Childers also contributed to the Dáil debate. “National independence is impossible in the true sense unless the right of Ireland to defend herself, her own coasts and her shores is admitted. If that right is not admitted, no number of treaties or agreements can get over the fact that Ireland is restrained from expressing one of the fundamental and essential functions of an independent Government.”

Childers, who had served in the Royal Naval Air service and had published on defence matters, had travelled with the Irish Treaty delegation to advise on security and defence issues. His desire, according to historian FMA Hawkins, was “to see an independent Ireland possessing sufficient military strength to deter possible invasion through the high cost to an aggressor that invasion would entail. This would require a well-organised national army and a modest naval force. Nevertheless, he accepted that Ireland’s defence policy must be purely defensive which, provided it was an independent policy, would not diminish national status.”


A ‘senior official’ quoted in Conor Gallagher’s book maintains a memorandum on the use of Irish airspace by the RAF has existed since 1952

In his forthcoming book, Is Ireland neutral?, Conor Gallagher, security and crime correspondent for this newspaper, notes that Childers was incensed at British defence demands, describing them as a “most extreme extension of militarism” and suggested the Irish side was not remotely prepared for these discussions. Griffith, according to a diary entry by Childers, “admitted he had read no defence documents” and at the very beginning of the negotiations was “inclined to let defence go”.

The delegation was more focused on other matters and had accepted in a memorandum in late October, “the principle that the naval and air defence of the Irish coasts would be a matter of common concern to Ireland and to the British Commonwealth”.

Ireland would be allowed to have small naval vessels for fisheries and revenue and a small army; no stipulations were made regarding an Irish air force, and it was decided the issues could be reviewed in the future. But what had happened to the original British proposals that the Royal Air Force (RAF) would have the use of “all necessary facilities” in Ireland for both military aviation purposes and communication? While the Treaty ports were returned to Irish control in 1938, enabling it to declare neutrality in 1939, Ireland’s geographic location and enfeebled defence forces ensured that the shadows of the 1921 discussions remained.

‘Permission to track’

The RAF crops up in Gallagher’s book again during the second World War, as it was permitted to use what became known as the Donegal air corridor to reach the Atlantic to protect shipping from U-boat attacks. An anonymous interviewee quoted in Gallagher’s book, described as a “senior official”, maintains a memorandum on the use of Irish airspace by the RAF has existed since 1952: “a commitment on their part to come to our assistance”. This is apparently “approved by the Irish Cabinet on a yearly basis” and includes “permission to track Russian military aircraft which enter Irish sovereign airspace”.

This issue has created a stir in recent days, and is very much tied up with ambivalence, semantic somersaults and assertions that it cannot be discussed openly as a “matter of national security”. It has been suggested it can be regarded as a “memorandum of understanding” rather than a formal alliance.

In March 2022, Micheál Martin, then taoiseach, proposed a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish neutrality, while expressing the view that Irish neutrality needed to “evolve”. The assembly idea, however, has been parked or abandoned in favour of a series of “public consultations”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs likes to refer to Ireland’s “traditional policy of military neutrality” as one that “is well understood” by other European countries. But surely we, as citizens, should be given the necessary information on this vital matter in order that we can understand and debate it?