Ciarán Cuffe: The Green Party’s changing position on defence - a new triple-lock proposal

Ireland must adopt a policy of active, rather than passive, neutrality. The party’s position on defence has evolved

In March 2021, my submission to the public consultation on the Commission on the Defence Forces highlighted our strengths as a neutral nation, and how this has served us well in our peacekeeping role abroad. I called for the “triple-lock” – the approval mechanism used to clear Irish Defence Forces’ participation in overseas peacekeeping missions – to be respected. Today, however, I believe Ireland needs a modernised triple-lock mechanism that better equips us to live up to this role effectively.

The Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, published in February 2022, noted a “growing demand [for Ireland] to contribute to increasingly complex and operationally challenging peace support, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations in the EU’s neighbourhood and beyond.” Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Since then, and following conversations with my Finnish colleagues, who share a border with Russia, and with MEPs from Austria and Romania who have felt the impact of a war close by, I have reflected on how Ireland can and must engage more in crisis areas with a policy of more active, rather than passive, neutrality. This could be in Europe, or in countries such as Yemen, Palestine and Syria.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas, “the people of Ireland ... have been supporting Ukraine since the very first days. Although Ireland is a neutral country, it has not remained neutral to the disaster and to the mishaps that Russia has brought to Ukraine.” The point of view he expressed cuts to the core of the Green Party’s founding principles, which acknowledge the dire need for world peace and the challenges involved in achieving this goal. Neutrality does not mean, however, that Ireland doggedly pursues a policy of strict impartiality in international matters. On the contrary, it brings with it a solemn responsibility to oppose warmongering and to work tirelessly to prevent it.

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Parallel discussions about neutrality within the Green Party, led by foreign policy group chair Garret Kelly, have focused on the so-called “triple lock system, which requires the Government, the Dáil and a UN mandate to approve deployment for such missions. However, this triple-lock is not law: it is only mentioned in a political annex to the second Nice Treaty and as such is a political commitment, rather than a legal one.

In reality, the legal basis for deployment is a “double lock” contained in the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006. This requires a Dáil decision and a UN Security Council or UN General Assembly resolution to greenlight the participation of Irish forces in peacekeeping missions.

This formula is no longer fit for purpose because the veto capability of Russia, China or even the United States can be a barrier to Irish peacekeeping operations that are morally justified. It is unacceptable that Ireland should rely on the will of authoritarian regimes like Russia to decide whether to engage in peacekeeping operations. Relying on a UN General Assembly resolution is equally problematic, as it has no mechanism to implement or make any such vote operational, unlike the UN Security Council.

Our proposal is to replace this outdated lock system with a new, modernised triple lock mechanism. Any deployment for peacekeeping should be approved by Dáil Éireann, reviewed by Seanad Éireann, and supported by either a UN (Security Council or General Assembly) resolution or, failing such resolution, by a decision of a regional organisation which recognises and complies with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

Examples of such organisations are the African Union or the European Union. Deployment for peace enforcement missions, which critically can involve the use of military force, would still need UN Security Council approval as stated in Article 53 of the same charter chapter.

There is a need to tackle the poor remuneration, brain drain, masculine culture and convoluted management that have bedevilled our Defence Forces

This new system avoids the potential veto of the superpowers over peacekeeping operations, while maintaining our commitment to the UN founding principles. While a mandate would represent a prerequisite for Irish personnel to join a multilateral mission, it would not impose an obligation to do so, thus maintaining Ireland’s foreign policy independence. There is no role for Ireland as a Nato member. The Green Party does not support some calls for Ireland to seek to join Nato, nor do the majority of Irish people.

For our Defence Forces to effectively defend the State and respond to calls for multilateral peacekeeping, a proper upgrade in their budget is appropriate – from €1.1 billion to €1.5 billion by 2028. There is also a need to tackle the poor remuneration, brain drain, masculine culture and convoluted management that have bedevilled our Defence Forces and plug the gaping holes in our ability to respond to cyberattacks or identify anything that traverses our sea and sky. We must overcome our limited ability to identify potential threats to our offshore wind resources, biodiversity and Atlantic cable interconnectors, or to tackle those who exploit our weaknesses to smuggle illicit drugs via our lengthy coastline. Our Defence Forces also need the ability to opt into the type of high-quality training provided through the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) so that when our personnel go on peacekeeping missions they benefit from having had access to top-quality guidance and technology.

I still believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. The last few years have sadly reminded us that arc is also long. Bad actors still populate the international stage and as long as they do, Ireland has a duty to ensure it can defend itself, while also working peacefully to oppose them. The Green Party’s neutrality policy equips us to do exactly that.

Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party member of the European Parliament for Dublin.