Evolving Irish Neutrality: Military Opportunities and Political Obstacles

Main Image Credit Safe no longer: members of the Irish Defence Forces training in 2010. Image: Irish Defence Forces / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The changing security situation in Europe has led to a fresh debate in Ireland on the country’s neutral status.

Challenges to the Western-led international order from Russia and China and the development of hybrid interference for strategic competition have altered Ireland’s security situation. Once ‘safely tucked away behind Britain’, conventional Westphalian security conditions during the Cold War gave Ireland shelter to ‘free-ride’ on the collective security produced by the UK and other NATO neighbours. Dublin has since struggled to adapt its strategic outlook to the post-Westphalian complexities that now define security in its North Atlantic hinterland. Hosting many global corporations, Ireland is a major transnational data hub – thus becoming an increasingly attractive target for cyber attacks. 75% of transatlantic telecommunications cables pass through or near Ireland’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. The risks to this key infrastructure also serving the UK and Western Europe came into stark focus when Russia planned to conduct naval exercises just 240 km off Ireland’s southern coast in February 2022. While naval tensions rise in the North Atlantic, Irish-controlled airspace has also been threatened by Russian military aircraft ‘flying dark’ without transponder visibility for civilian air-traffic control.

Evolving Neutrality

Long insulated from many major events shaping security in Europe, this abrupt arrival of hybrid threats has surprised both Ireland’s government and its wider society. Without collective defence guarantees, Ireland’s cyber, airspace and naval defences remain underdeveloped and are inadequate for a neutral state that can only rely on its independent military capacity for baseline security. Established to assess different aspects of Ireland’s defence organisation, the Commission on the Defence Forces (CoDF) released its report in February 2021 with the general finding that Ireland’s Defence Forces (DF) cannot ‘meaningfully defend’ the state. The report recommended three Levels of Ambition to guide future defence modernisation. The Irish government has responded by selecting the second level, which will see the defence budget increase ‘from €1.1 billion to €1.5 billion, in 2022 prices, by 2028’. With Ireland long one of the lowest spenders on defence within the EU, this increase will address some DF weaknesses in recruitment and retention, and primary radar acquisition is planned as an important capability upgrade to strengthen airspace surveillance. Nevertheless, as the security situation continues to deteriorate, doubts remain on whether these improvements alone will be enough to fully serve Ireland’s future defence needs.

As political relations with London fragment and as security in Europe deteriorates, Ireland’s neutrality has become a challenge for its leaders to explain

Ireland has been hesitant to explore wider options for defence cooperation. Primarily focused on events in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and other nationalist factions continue to portray the UK as a problematic partner for Ireland, but these claims are overblown. Putting a durable peace process in place in Northern Ireland, UK-Irish relations were positively transformed by the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Cordial change was most vividly symbolised by the official visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011, the first by a ruling UK monarch since Ireland’s independence in 1922. As political and economic cooperation flourished, modest efforts were also made to improve cooperation in security and defence policy. The UK and Ireland undertook joint operations to support the EU Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali in 2013. Despite this, recent Brexit negotiations have restored political unease to UK-Irish relations. The UK government’s current plan to unilaterally override the protocol negotiated with the EU to regulate trade in goods to and from Northern Ireland has angered Dublin, leaving no mood for further cooperation with London in other areas.

As political relations with London fragment and as security in Europe deteriorates, Ireland’s neutrality has become a challenge for its leaders to explain. Regular clarifications have been made to assert that Ireland is not ‘politically neutral’ and that it morally supports Ukraine with non-lethal assistance. It is affirmed in parallel that military non-alignment will remain a core tenet of Ireland’s security policy. Nevertheless, it is understood that geography alone is not enough to secure Ireland from hybrid attacks, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin arguing that neutrality needs to ‘evolve’ in response to a worsening security situation.

Defence Cooperation and Political Change

As emphasised by its first documented strategy for the Nordic region in 2021, Ireland perceives deeper political cooperation with ‘like-minded’ Nordic states, among others, as increasingly important for its post-Brexit EU policy. However, Irish discussions downplay the fact that some Nordic states (Denmark, Norway and Iceland) were among NATO’s founding members in 1949. Finland and Sweden’s decisions to promptly begin the NATO accession process soon after Russia’s assault on Ukraine in 2022 have led to further doubts on whether these states are in fact ‘like-minded’ with Ireland in security affairs. After some reflection, NATO’s imminent Nordic enlargement might foster a stronger understanding in Ireland that its political outlook and strategic interests actually converge closely with the alliance. It remains Ireland’s sole responsibility to improve its defence capacity and ease its ‘weak-link’ status within the European defence system, but a stronger partnership with NATO could still assist in achieving these aims. It has recently been acknowledged that DF capacity has benefited from Irish participation in NATO’s Operational Capacity Concept. Further engagement in NATO’s other partnership programmes and exercises promises more mutual benefits.

As the wider security situation undergoes profound upheaval, it is in Dublin and London’s mutual interest to improve defence ties

A stronger Ireland–NATO partnership that bypasses the UK would be an opportunity missed. Troubled episodes in military history have combined with discord on Brexit to fragment relations between near neighbours, but as the wider security situation undergoes profound upheaval, it is in Dublin and London’s mutual interest to improve defence ties. Ireland does not possess fighter jets for air policing, and controversy shrouds an officially unconfirmed but often discussed agreement between UK and Irish civil servants to permit the Royal Air Force to intercept aircraft in Irish airspace under emergency circumstances. Meeting the UK’s defence interests, this agreement also benefits Ireland, but it is not a publically transparent arrangement. Open disclosure on this as well as other current or future cooperation is essential to ‘normalise’ UK–Ireland security relations. Established in 2014, the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) has become an important opportunity to develop defence capacity in a multinational context. Led by the UK, the JEF mostly comprises smaller European states that have similar defence development priorities to Ireland. Irish participation in the JEF could enhance interoperability with the UK and other ‘like-minded’ NATO members.

Nevertheless, looming political change is likely to obstruct possibilities to ‘evolve’ Irish neutrality in this direction. Attracting voters with a move to mainstream socialism that has pushed its past paramilitary links into the background; Sinn Féin currently leads in Irish opinion polls. It will probably have a major say when the next Irish government is formed. Sinn Féin’s foreign policy outlook is not compatible with Irish involvement in wider cooperative security initiatives. Its leaders have long criticised NATO and are suspected of having some past sympathies for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. If in government in Dublin, Sinn Féin stands to escalate confrontation with London on Brexit while advancing its ambitions to edge closer to a united Ireland. Its stricter interpretation of neutrality will leave options for stronger Irish cooperation with the UK and NATO by the wayside. Thus, as new insecurity hampers Europe, it is old political disputes that will continue to hinder any joint UK-Irish response.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Eoin Micheál McNamara

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