While there are those who may find it ironic that a nation – whose people have often been unfairly stereotyped as the “fighting Irish”, has been so much to the forefront globally in advocating disarmament, non-alignment and militarily neutrality, I do not.
I do not find it ironic at all, because we have done more than advocate. We have backed-up our fine words with even finer actions thorough 60 years of peace keeping operations that have sadly cost us some 87 lives.
That is why there is nothing ironic in a small nation that spent so long struggling for its own freedom and independence feeling solidarity with other small nations and supporting a global system of laws and rules that guaranteed those freedoms.
Let us look to our history for examples.
In the Celtic world and in Gaelic Ireland, a type of brio or measure of manliness was associated with waging war.
And the vagaries of our history with its recurring themes of exile, loss and emigration often conspired to ensure that, over the centuries, wherever there was a major conflict, Irish soldiers were combatants, either out of financial necessity or ideological belief.
Many of us probably have a vague memory of learning about the Wild Geese in school.
The Treaty of Limerick in 1691, which signalled the end of the Williamite war in Ireland, and the departure of Patrick Sarsfield’s Jacobite a rmy began a tradition of Irish regiments being incorporated into the armies of the great European powers.
If the notion of the Fighting Irish sprang from early modern Europe, it was however nurtured in the United States at a time of great peril for the Union.
Irish soldiers were to be found, in abundance, on both sides of the divide, in the bloody conflict that was the American Civil War.
In the summer of 1963, almost exactly a century on from the Battle of Gettysburg, President John F. Kennedy visited his ancestral home in Co. Wexford.
There he spoke about having only a few months previously visited the site of the battle in Pennsylvania. He was moved to tell his audience that he had seen the monument to commemorate fallen members of the Irish brigade.
President Kennedy used a large portion of his remarks to the Oireachtas, to laud and encourage Ireland’s role in international peacekeeping.
President Kennedy said, “Your destiny lies not as a peaceful island in a sea of troubles, but as a maker and shaper of world peace.”
Praising Ireland for “wisely” pursuing “an independent course in foreign policy,” -Kennedy envisaged Ireland’s role as in the vanguard of post-colonial nations.
He said, and I quote, “Ireland’s role is unique. For every new nation knows that Ireland was the first of the small nations in the 20th century to win its struggle for independence, and that the Irish have traditionally sent their doctors and technicians and soldiers and priests to help other lands to keep their liberty alive.”
Ireland’s struggle, to borrow Kennedy’s phrase, “as the first of the small nations in the 20th century” to win its freedom is significant in tracing the evolution of Irish military neutrality.
We know from World War One that the system of military alliances from the Great Powers in Europe had seen them entangle themselves into a massive conflict, which resulted in the deaths of 10 million military personnel, including up to 50,000 Irish soldiers.
A suspicion of military alliances, a desire to not become immersed in the conflicts of the so-called great powers, a distaste for imperialism, resentment against Britain, anti-war sentiment, a genuine wish to chart our own future and manifestations of Irish sovereignty were competing and overlapping features of the successful anti-conscription campaign in Ireland in 1918.
As the foreign policy of the fledging independent Irish state developed in the Europe between the two world wars, these same features that I have listed as key elements of the 1918 broad-based, hugely populist anti-conscription campaign were integral to the shaping and the evolution of Irish neutrality.
On 10th September 1923, arising from the efforts of Desmond Fitzgerald, the Minister for External Affairs the Irish Free State joined the League of Nations , independently of Britain.
The work of successive governments in this international forum (and later in the United Nations) has done much to emphasise that Ireland was autonomous, with its own foreign policy and was not a mere annex of the United Kingdom.
A lot of myths have taken root about Irish neutrality during World War II.
Increasingly, the emergence of new historical research shows that the state’s policy was more akin to non-belligerency in favour of the Allies rather than a strict neutrality that placed the interests of Axis and Allied combatants on a level playing pitch.
Those who hold neutrality up as a sacred cow or an irreversible standard might be shocked at its reality in World War II and the extent of the support that Ireland gave Britain and the US – such as, for example, the unpublicised permission given to Allied military aircraft to use the Donegal air corridor and the decision to share Irish meteorological reports with the British and US authorities.
Indeed, not many people know that a weather report shared by Ireland from Blacksod Lighthouse, Co. Mayo, convinced General Dwight D Eisenhower to delay the D-Day invasion for 24 hours – a decision which averted a military catastrophe and changed the course of the Second World War.
I mention all of this to place my own thoughts and views on the direction in which we should steer future defence and security policy into a broad historical context.
Looking back over our more recent political history, we can see that defence policy has at best been discussed in the abstract and at worst, as a means of creating differences.
Past EU referenda in Ireland have seen some incredible red herrings thrown into the mix by campaigners whose view of the EU would be closer to the Brexiteers in the UK than to mainstream political opinion in this country.
We were told that ratifying the Nice Treaty meant Ireland was signing up to NATO.
Who remembers the infamous “No to Nice, No to NATO Poster”?
And similarly, we were also told that ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would see Irish people conscripted into a European Army.
Needless to say, none of that happened!
Prior to Christmas, the Dáil approved Ireland’s joining the EU’s PESCO military framework. This decision was supported by Fianna Fail.
There is no provision in the EU treaties for creation of an EU-wide army, though the usual suspects are suggesting PESCO is the first step towards an EU army.
Let’s all be clear, PESCO is about security and co-operation.
It is about defending Europe’s shared borders and improving the capacity of the EU and Ireland to support international peace and security, and to assist in crisis management, particularly humanitarian crises.
It will ensure that our Defence Forces will have access to the best equipment and training, during PESCO missions.
At a political level, PESCO is about fostering EU inclusivity – something we badly need in this Brexit-era – and PESCO is about ensuring that Europe provides humanitarian and compassionate global leadership.
While PESCO is not, as I have said, about building a European Army, it will help deepen European integration and this is not something from which Ireland should recoil.
As the UK resiles from the EU, Ireland has chosen a different and wiser route.
One which will see us strengthen our bonds with other European member states.
The EU is beginning a new chapter and there are opportunities and challenges open to us with Brexit.
When Sean Lemass first set Ireland on course for Common Market membership, he recognised that Europe was a new departure and we should be ready to embrace change, even in areas as sensitive as national security and neutrality.
In a 1962 interview with the New York Times, Lemass said, “We recognise that a military commitment will be an inevitable consequence of our joining the Common Market and ultimately we would be prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality. We are prepared to go into this integrated Europe without any reservations as to how far this will take us in the field of foreign policy and defence.”
Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch, also argued that Ireland could not be neutral when it came to European defence. He said, “Ireland would be interested in the defence of the territories embraced by the communities. There is no question of neutrality there.”
You can hear echoes of what Lemass and Lynch had to say five or six decades ago in what the current Taoiseach expressed in his speech to the European Parliament in January, saying that if Europe is worth building, it is worth defending.
It is hard to disagree with that viewpoint.
I want us to have a full and frank debate on defence and security policy, but let it be a debate based on a factual analysis of the real and current threats and not one fuelled by spurious analysis or emotional excesses.
Our end goal should be a defence policy that is pragmatic, deliverable and built on firm and ethical principles.
Bertie Ahern’s decision to take Ireland into Partnership for Peace, a programme of practical bilateral cooperation between individual Euro-Atlantic partner countries and NATO was a wise one.
It has benefitted our Defence Forces and has allowed us to contribute to worthwhile NATO-led, UN mandated missions in in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo and to make a valuable peacekeeping and humanitarian contribution.
In the early 2000s the Fianna Fáil led government commenced a reappraisal of both Irish Defence and Foreign policy.
The process started with the 2000 White Paper on Defence the first of its kind and an important milestone in the modernisation and reform of the Defence Forces.
Given the changing nature of the global security environment and security challenges, comprehensively re-examining these issues are important.
Take the issue of cyber-attacks.
This was not seen as a serious threat to our national infrastructure or our national security a decade ago, yet now, countries across the globe – and that includes Ireland with our valuable high-tech sector – are faced with an evolving and complex cyber threat environment.
Cyber-attacks are now a part of hybrid warfare.
This is just one developing area which requires a more regular and closer consideration of our defence policy response.
This consideration should be informed by the “active neutrality” approach announced back in 2006 and which I plan to expand upon over the coming months.
This “active neutrality” approach was intended to herald a new third phase Irish foreign and defence policy.
The first phase of foreign and defence policy focused, historically, on securing sovereignty and international recognition.
The second phase concentrated on the pursuit of peace and prosperity for the island.
The 2008 Global crash stymied that ambition, but it is one we should update, revise and relaunch now.
An Active Neutrality approach reflects the reality that our sovereignty is secure, our democracy is functioning well and that we are one of the most successful developed countries in the world.
It also reflects the fact that we are at a juncture in our development where we have an enhanced opportunity to focus on what we have to offer to other members of the international community.
Active Neutrality says that we have a duty to share the lessons of our experience of peace building on this island and of peace keeping on the international stage with others who may benefit from them.
One such area is our acknowledged expertise in improvised ordnance device disposal. In our July 2015 Defence document: A Force for Good Fianna Fáil committed to expanding the UN Training School based at the Curragh Camp to become a major international academy for peacekeeping.
It is time for Ireland to develop further our approach to international affairs, building on our long and proud contribution in areas such as peacekeeping and development.
In an era when differences between the developed and developing worlds continue to challenge us, we have the opportunity, and obligation, to seek to build on our reputation as a bridge between nations.
In my view Active Neutrality is about reciprocal solidarity. It is about making Ireland
– a bridge between the developed and developing world.
– a global leader in the fight against poverty, disease and underdevelopment.
– An intermediary and facilitator in Peace Processes.
– The first on the ground in a humanitarian crisis.
– the model UN State for the 21st Century.
This last point is key.
This not just about being “a” model UN member state but being “the” model UN member state and that means pursuing policies that focus on disarmament and human rights.
In this regard it is good to see us seeking a place on the UN security Council.
We do not believe that the challenges facing the international community can be satisfactorily resolved through unilateral action by any one country, or group of countries.
The UN remains the cornerstone of Ireland’s global foreign and defence policy.
This is consistent with our involvement in European Common Security and Defence Policy and indeed with PESCO.
Developing an efficient approach to collective European security and defence gives the EU the operational capacity to undertake missions outside the EU for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and international security strengthening purposes, in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter.
This is what the EU did in 2007 with the EU For Chad mission, under the command of an Irish General, Maj Gen Pat Nash.
But, if we want to do this fully and to return to the levels of commitment we gave in the 2000s then we must also commit to rebuild our capacity to deliver on the ground.
We should return to supplying levels of troops for overseas service up to the top of the UNSAS requirement (of approx 850 troops) as we had done for most of the 2000s.
We should return the Defence Force establishment figure to 10,500 and address the serious difficulties with retention we are seeing in our defence forces.
We should start planning now for developing our defence spending and building capacity to deal with the threats that face us now and into the future, whether they come via sea, air, land or internet.
It also means expanding our naval service.
What I will not be doing is abandoning the Triple Lock, specifically the requirement in the 1954, 1960 and 1993 Defence Acts that there be a UN mandate when sending a contingent of 12, or more, armed Irish troops overseas.
I do not favour any diminution of that requirement.
Ireland’s policy of military neutrality is a positive policy.
Its core, defining characteristic is not just our non-membership of any military alliance, but also the fact that we decide the strength, size and deployment of our Defence Forces for ourselves.
But, as I have already said, let us make these decisions on the basis of an honest and factual analysis.
We should not increase our defence spending because we want to have the shiniest new bit of weaponry, but neither should we suppress defence spending and planning because we have neither the political will nor courage to do otherwise.
Our ongoing commitment to and participation in UN mandated peace support operations proves that our Defence Policy has never obligated us to sit on the side lines and shirk our responsibilities to the international community.
But our ability to deliver on our sovereign responsibilities to our national defence and our international obligations require us to put the proper resources in place.
Military neutrality cannot mean military impotence.
This includes developing the capacity to serve with other countries on peace support operations via improved interoperability and this includes many NATO member countries.
I rule out Irish membership of NATO as nuclear weapons remain a core component of its overall capabilities for deterrence and defence alongside conventional and missile defence forces, but I reconfirm my commitment to working alongside NATO and others in order to deliver on our obligations.
So, to sum up. The Fianna Fail Active Neutrality Defence Policy that I will pursue will:
• Be based on a multilateral approach
• Continue the Triple Lock
• Be designed to address the threats of the 21st Century, esp cyber attacks
• Increase defence spending and commit to continued modernisation
I thank you for your attention and I thank the organisers and the moderator for giving me this opportunity to outline my thoughts and priorities as our party’s Defence Spokesperson.