Ireland is apparently a neutral country. That is what we have always been always been told, and this is best expressed via the triple lock mechanism employed in the rule surrounding the deployment of military troops. This coupled with Ireland’s unwillingness to sign up to NATO, resistance to any EU military action (even going so far as to get a specific carve out in Treaties to support this) and having never deployed troops without a UN mandate, this all culminates in the belief that Ireland is a neutral country. Yet this assumption is increasingly being challenged.

Late last year Ireland agreed via a vote in the Dáil to sign up to PESCO, a joint EU framework for military cooperation. Despite instances that this does not compromise our neutrality, by virtue of the fact that our military is now bound even loosely to a group of nations, we cannot credibly claim our neutrality is intact. The fact that we have rallied in support of what have loosely been called our allies further illustrates the gap between words and actions.

Even in our media our lack of neutrality is even more obvious. Some readers may recall headlines speaking about Russian bombers flying close to Irish airspace. More recently coverage of the Russian aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov passing through the Channel on its way to Syria. Both of these incidences got reasonable amounts of coverage as they occurred. In contrast the very regular landing of American planes in Shannon, or the fact the UK submarines regularly traverse Irish waters which all receive next to no coverage. This even if this is unintentional, this contrast in the coverage demonstrates the unconscious bias that is being felt.

Even going back to the foundation of the state we have claimed this neutrality, raising it as a shield to avoid conflict. This was most evident during the Second World war, where we as a state had a system in place whereby we would return allied pilots to the United Kingdom if they crashed here but interned German pilots (note not saying that thus was the wrong thing to do, just that it wasn’t very neutral).

Ireland has never been a truly neutral nation, and this fact is becoming more obvious with each day. It is with that in mind that we need to have a more serous discussion about what our foreign policy is going to look like. Are we going to engage with Europe and the Western Alliance, a group that we are already increasingly close to, or are we going to try and link up with the smaller developing nations whom we could perhaps relate more to economically? Are we going to engage more militarily or continue to only deploy our defence forces with UN mandates?

Perhaps more relevant is how much we are going to allow other nations to avail of our territory for their own military purposes. While there are certain rules that govern the movement of naval forces through any given territorial waters (as long as it is a peaceful passage you cannot impede its transit), those rules clearly do not apply to the US cargo and transport planes that use Shannon airport for refuelling and stopovers. With this being the case then we need to consider carefully who we allow to use our airspace and the effect that could have on our relationship with other nations.

All of this is not to say that we need to be neutral or pick a side, we just need to make a conscious choice about it. Thus far all debate on our foreign policy revolves around the premise that we are a neutral nation. Despite this premise being false it is the starting point for all debate and it frames it in such a way that we sleepwalk into decisions. It is vital that we have a comprehensive and rigorous debate about what we want our foreign policy to look like. It is not acceptable that we simply avoid debate on the topic. When last year that a debate was forced on the issue of PESCO membership, the biggest argument the Government put forward at the time was that it enhanced our capabilities (though for what purpose it was not clear) but still allowed us to maintain our neutrality. Never was it accepted by the Government despite numerous sources disputing whether or not they could remain neutral if they did join. This kind of behaviour to feeds into the wider issue of how we debate policy here.

We are not a neutral nation, but we could well be. This does need to be a conscious decision though, and numerous changes need to be made to facilitate this. Equally we can become true members of the EU/ NATO alliance. Again, this requires changes to how we approach policy, but it is still practical. Regardless of our path we need to have the discussion, and we need to actually make a decision. Sitting on the fence will not cut it.

Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor