It may be time to reconsider our neutrality



The presence of Russian ships loitering with mysterious intent in Irish waters for the second time in a matter of weeks is a chilling reminder of how warfare has changed. It also adds fuel to any future debate about Irish neutrality – should we run for protective cover with the 31 NATO member nations which undertake to defend fellow members against attack by a third party?

The ships inside Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) have been monitored by both the Irish Air Corps and the Maritime Defence Force. Their presence has been interpreted in some quarters as a test of Europe’s weak flank. The Russians have not so far broken any international law but the ships could be taken as threat by Russia to the busiest data communication cables in Europe. The network of 16 cables under the Atlantic carry 97% of global internet connections between Ireland, the US, Britain and Europe and an attack on them could cripple Western economies.

Neutrality has been part of our national identity since the 1930s but, nearly a century later, it can seem like a nostalgic attachment. Warfare has changed. Now disruptive techniques include covert sabotage, cyber attacks, disinformation and interference in elections.  Recent examples that show the kind of havoc that can be wreaked include explosions and leaks on the Nord Stream gas lines 1 and 2 (denied by the most likely culprit Russia); the criminal cyberattack on the HSE last year which cost around €80 million; and alleged interference in the US elections.

Perhaps our stance on neutrality, which has always been partisan, given arrangements like the Donegal Corridor for allies during WWII and refuelling NATO  military aircraft at Shannon, should alter given a changed world.

A discussion on our neutrality – along the lines of the Shared Island initiative and the Citizen’s Assembly – has been promised here for later this year but this will not, we are told, be a prelude, to joining NATO. Perhaps it should be and certainly there is a greater willingness by the public to reconsider our neutrality. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, support for joining NATO has increased to 48% according to a poll last year. Should we continue to stay neutral, while benefitting from the protective effect of our stronger neighbours and possibly an unconfirmed secret deal made with Britain to protect Irish airspace post 9/11, without contributing?

Ireland is hardly in the position currently to defend itself or participate effectively. We have the lowest spending on defence of any of the 28 EU member states at 0.3 % of GDP compared with nearest neighbours Britain and France at 1.8%. While Ireland plays an honourable part in peacekeeping and takes part in other non-combative roles, we are hardly sharing the burden of European security and the number of personnel in the combined army, navy and air corps amounts to under 10,000.

Only three other member states – Austria, Cyprus and Malta – are now neutral, opting out of Article 42 of the Treaty of the European Union. Finland became the most recent member to join NATO and Sweden is about to join, both in the wake of Russian aggression.

One of the reasons Ireland hasn’t joined NATO is due to the sovereignty claim over Northern Ireland by NATO member Britain, an objection which would disappear in the event of a united Ireland.

What are the implications of joining NATO? Given that we meet the criteria as a functioning democracy we would have to have a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, something already demonstrated through our peacekeeping missions and membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.  The ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations are also required. This would come at a steep price given that members of NATO are expected to raise their military spending to 2% of GDP by 2024.

The Russian ships could be investigating the whereabouts of the undersea data cables and looking at means of sabotage, maybe as a means of striking back if the war in Ukraine goes badly for Russia. Eirgrid, which is responsible for the cables, has to use  a private company for undersea protective surveillance of the cables using GPS. It would be an ironic thing if, in a country where so much of our wealth depends on information technology, the means of its transmission can be seen our Achille’s heel, a weak point on Europe’s flank.

Maybe it’s time to consider that saying, there is safety in (NATO) numbers.

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