Fianna Fáil is dedicated to Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. It is a policy we have pursued both in and out of government and its key defining characteristic is non-membership of military alliances. This policy of military neutrality has gone hand in hand with strong support for international co-operation to ensure peace and stability, as manifested in Ireland’s participation in UN mandated peacekeeping operations. Various Defence Acts passed by the Oireachtas mean that Ireland only takes part in missions which are unambiguously authorised by the United Nations and on the basis of a sovereign decision made by the Government, subject to the approval of the Dáil. Furthermore, the Constitution, in Article 29, confirms Ireland’s dedication to the ideals of peace and friendly co-operation among nations founded on international justice and morality. Article 29 also upholds our observance of the principle of peaceful resolution of international disputes. Since the 1930s and 1940s, we have never sought to have the type of neutrality which, for instance, Belgium pursued before 1914, for the very good reason it proved not to be worth the paper on which it was written.
With this in mind, Fianna Fáil does not see a case to amend the Constitution. The second Nice treaty referendum introduced a provision in the Constitution affirming that Ireland could not take part in common defence without further amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann. This gave constitutional effect to the solemn commitment in the national declaration by Ireland at Seville that a referendum would be held in Ireland on the adoption of a decision taken by the European Union to move to a common defence. The Seville declaration clarified that there was nothing in the Treaty of Nice or previous treaties that posed a threat to Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. In order for Ireland to join a common defence, the people would, first, have to vote to delete or amend this constitutional provision. Of course, while no decision to create a common defence can be taken at the European Council without Ireland’s agreement, it has never been Ireland’s position that we would attempt to block the desire of other member states to establish common defence arrangements among themselves in circumstances where Ireland was not going to participate, as long as these arrangements would not prejudice its national interests.
At the Seville summit in June 2002 the State secured the agreement of our EU partners to declarations that reflected Ireland’s position on military neutrality and European Security and Defence Policy. Two declarations were included in the Nice treaty to underline the Irish position. The national declaration by Ireland states: (i) Ireland is not party to any mutual defence commitment; (ii) Ireland is not party to any plan to develop a European army; and (iii) Ireland will take a sovereign decision, on a case by case basis, on whether the Defence Forces should participate in humanitarian or crisis management tasks undertaken by the European Union, based on the triple lock of a UN mandate, a Government decision and approval by Dáil Éireann.
The declaration of the European Council at the time confirmed that (i) Ireland’s policy of military neutrality was in full conformity with the treaties on which the European Union was based, including the Treaty of Nice, and (ii) that there was no obligation arising from the treaties which would or could oblige Ireland to depart from that policy. These are solemn formal political declarations which have been deposited at the United Nations and we stand by them. We also stand by the triple lock mchanism.
Ireland has conferred fundamental importance on the United Nations since we joined 58 years ago and working with other UN members we have supported international action in areas such as disarmament, peacekeeping, development and human rights. We are strong and committed supporters of collective security through the United Nations. This has been the stated policy of many governments over the past 58 years. Alongside this we have endorsed and supported the primary role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security in accordance with its charter. This emphasis on the United Nations is not one we should lightly discard. While we are conscious of the opposition to the triple lock from some military and political commentators, we believe there is overwhelming public support for this mechanism.
We acknowledge that the United Nations is far from perfect and can be slow to respond to developing crises but it is still the guarantor of the freedoms of small nations and the best bulwark against unilateralism. Its imprimatur provides a greater legitimacy for peacekeeping operations than any other international organisation. Furthermore, the legitimacy conferred by a UN mission bolsters the safety and security of our Defence Forces when they participate in peacekeeping missions. No mission will be without risk but the absence of the blue hat will heighten the risk.
While neutrality was the given policy of successive governments prior to the Second World War, it was that conflict that put it to the test. In 1940 Éamon de Valera told this House:
“We have chosen the policy of neutrality in this war because we believed that it was the right policy for our people. It is the policy which has been accepted, not merely by this House, but by our people as a whole, and nobody who realises what modern war means, and what it means particularly for those who have not sufficient air defences, will have the slightest doubt that that policy was the right one, apart altogether from any questions of sympathy on one side or the other.
In 1946 as the Dáil debated a motion on admission to the newly formed United Nations he provided another illuminating insight when he stated, “I would like our people and the Members of this House to bear in mind that for six years of war the question as to whether our neutrality would be respected or not depended ultimately upon the will of, perhaps, two men.”
He went on to say with regard to the United Nations:
[I]t is the small nations particularly that should welcome an organisation which is intended to give collective security … But the small nations, just like the big ones, will, if they become members of such an organisation, have to be really loyal members of it. They will have to make up their minds that the obligations which are necessary, if the organisation is to be successful, will be fulfilled and carried out.
Of course, our neutrality from 1939 to 1945 was feasible only because we had regained control of the treaty ports from Britain in 1938. When discussing this in the Dáil in the immediate aftermath of securing their return, de Valera emphasised sovereignty rather than neutrality.
As has been pointed out in this House before, the war between 1939 and 1945 showed clearly that military neutrality by itself is not sufficient to maintain conditions of peace and security internationally. It is also essential that we work actively for international peace and security, taking account of the prevailing circumstances. This support for collective security has essentially been followed through the United Nations.
I reject very strongly the contention that Irish Governments have degraded our neutrality. Let us recall very clearly that when our neutrality was most tested between 1939 and 1945, Sinn Féin and the IRA did everything but respect that neutrality and for that organisation to present itself now as a champion of Irish neutrality lacks any semblance of credibility. Ireland is not alone in not providing a constitutional provision for its neutrality. Several of our EU partners do the same. Sweden has a long-standing policy of neutrality but it is not a feature of its constitution. Similarly, Finland is not in any military alliance but does not feel any need to provide for a constitutional prohibition.
What would happen if we did make a provision for neutrality in the Constitution? That is worth pondering. I suggest it would be left to the Supreme Court to decide on what our neutrality could mean. Can the definition of a military alliance be also open to interpretation? Is our participation in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, in the Golan Heights or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, a form of military alliance? If the provisions of the Bill became law, the Supreme Court could well have to decide because I have no doubt there would be a challenge to such missions. The truth is that a constitutional provision could be too rigid and too doctrinaire. Many in the legal profession share that view. It could undermine the whole purpose of collective security and the United Nations, to which Ireland is so committed. The inclusion of a specific reference to neutrality in the Constitution could have a serious impact on our capacity to support the United Nations. There would be serious doubt as to whether we could fulfil obligations as a member of the United Nations. Resorting to the courts would be a clear implication of this plan to amend the Constitution and it is simply not a suitable area for judicial decision. These are not matters to be settled in the Supreme Court rather than by those who have been elected by the people.
The people are sovereign through our electoral system and that is where sovereignty must reside.
Another myth that Sinn Féin and other supporters of this Bill peddle is that of increasing militarisation. The truth is that all over Europe, military expenditure has declined rapidly in the 20 years after 1989. Now events in Ukraine may reverse that in some countries where the important issue of the violation of sovereignty arises. Here in Ireland we have reduced our Defence Forces from around 14,000 in 1990 to fewer than 10,000. I hope that number can increase again to 10,000. In the ten years after 1997, defence spending in this country halved as a share of gross domestic product, GDP. In the era known as the Troubles we had a very substantial expenditure on defence and security due to the atrocities carried out by paramilitary organisations and the needless loss of thousands of innocent lives. Fortunately, we have been able to reduce those security and financial demands and the need to put in place security along the Border.
This Bill would represent a backward step. It would not do anything to enhance the protection of military neutrality that is already there and I restate my party’s opposition to it. We did not support a similar Bill proposed by Sinn Féin while we were in government in 2003 and we will not do so now.