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Neutrality debate: Assuming Ireland’s national security policy is morally superior is self-delusional

Prof Andrew Cottey: Supporters often assume that neutrality is a morally superior policy. They should pause for a moment to consider Ukraine

In the debate on security policy, Irish people are, effectively, being offered two different models of neutrality. The Government argues that Ireland is militarily neutral – meaning it will not join alliances, participate in collective defence arrangements or provide arms to countries involved in wars – but is not politically neutral in conflicts such as that between Russia and Ukraine, and should co-operate with the EU and Nato to address security challenges.

The Government has strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, acknowledged Ukraine’s right to self-defence, fully supported EU sanctions on Russia and increased security co-operation with the EU and Nato.

Those on the left, represented by People Before Profit within Dáil Éireann and by peace movement groups, argue for a model of neutrality that positions Ireland as largely equidistant between the West and other great powers (Russia and China) and rejects all defence co-operation with the EU and Nato. Sinn Féin has historically been close to this position, but recently indicated that the party was dropping its previous position of withdrawing from existing defence co-operation with the EU and Nato.

These models of neutrality reflect two different world views. The leftist view sees all great powers as equally bad and seeks to position Ireland in opposition to all forms of supposed imperialism and militarism. This view perhaps made sense in 1916, but is less persuasive in 2023. The logic behind the Government’s view suggests that there is a big difference between democratic states and institutions such as the EU and Nato on the one hand and authoritarian great powers like Russia and China on the other. In this view, Ireland’s values and interests largely align with the democratic world.


Neutrality also links to a wider debate about ethics in international politics. Supporters often assume that neutrality is a morally superior policy. Those who support this view should pause for a moment to consider Ukraine. If the West had not agreed to arm Ukraine, Russia would now control it, the Ukrainian leadership would be imprisoned or executed and President Putin would be imposing a brutal dictatorship on the country.

Assuming that Ireland has somehow found a morally superior national security policy to the majority of EU states who are also members of Nato is at best naive, at worst self-delusional. A more accurate reading is simply that Ireland’s policy of neutrality emerged from very different historical circumstances to those of other EU states.

Ireland also faces a number of specific challenges. The triple-lock mechanism for the overseas deployment of Defence Forces personnel has received particular attention. Imagine a situation where the EU or Nato wishes to deploy a peacekeeping operation in the Balkans and Russia and/or China veto this in the UN Security Council; should Ireland then refuse to participate? Surely, the Irish people should have confidence in their elected representatives in government and Dáil Éireann – not leaders in Moscow or Beijing – to decide these matters.

The Naval Service has only limited capabilities to patrol Ireland’s waters or to monitor underwater activities. What happens if there are concerns that Russia might be planting charges on or planning to sever seabed internet cables close to Ireland or the electricity interconnector between Ireland and the UK? Expanding the Naval Service’s fleet would be expensive and the Service is struggling to retain and recruit personnel. If the Naval Service lacks the capacity to monitor, deter or intercept Russian vessels in Irish waters, are new co-operation arrangements needed with the UK, France, the US or Nato?

Ireland lacks any air defence capability. Establishing a combat air force to defend our airspace would be expensive and slow . Conor Gallagher’s work has recently revealed details of a secret air defence agreement with the UK dating back to 1952, but Government and opposition alike seem reluctant to discuss this. A discussion is long overdue. One of Ireland’s great strengths is its democracy. A more developed debate on security policy should be welcomed.

Andrew Cottey is a Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork