Fact check: Does Ireland need a referendum to join NATO?

On the one hand, you’d understand why some people are annoyed about this statement by the Taoiseach. A fuller explanation follows below, but first, here’s what he said, courtesy of the Irish Times:

Asked to comment on remarks by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar last week about a possible referendum on defence policy, the Taoiseach said a Citizens’ Assembly might be best placed to take a “informed, evidence-based approach” to assess the issue.

“We need to reflect on military non-alignment in Ireland and our military neutrality. We are not politically neutral,” Mr Martin said.

“We don’t need a referendum to join Nato. That’s a policy decision of government,” he continued.

“We would need a referendum to join a European Union defence pact, if one was formally developed and declared, because there are provisions in our constitution that would demand such a referendum.”

Some opposition politicians, predictably enough, have expressed outrage, and appear to be presenting the Taoiseach’s comments as some kind of a plan to actually join NATO. And, ironically enough, the response from those politicians has been to call for a referendum to insert neutrality into the constitution. Here’s Paul Murphy, calling the Taoiseach’s comments evidence of a “war on neutrality”:

The problem here is simple enough: If the Taoiseach said something wrong, then why on earth would Murphy be proposing a referendum to put neutrality into the constitution? The whole point of such a referendum – were it passed – would be to make sure that NATO couldn’t be joined without another referendum on that specific question. Since Neutrality is not in the constitution, there is no need for such a vote at present.

Irish Neutrality is Government Policy, in the same way that the carbon tax is Government policy, or the TV licence is Government Policy. The things that require a referendum are only those things which directly conflict with the constitution: For example, a referendum was needed to introduce abortion because the constitution specifically forbade it. The referendum itself did not introduce abortion, it simply lifted the ban on doing so.

There is no evidence, by the way, of any kind, that the Irish Government proposes to join NATO. Less often talked about, but probably just as relevant, is that there is very little evidence that NATO would want us to join in the first place. What could Ireland add to NATO that it doesn’t already have? Our military capabilities are hardly so vital to the alliance as to require our services. And once we were inside NATO, we would, of course, have a vote. It would take a foolish pentagon functionary to actively want to deal with Irish politicians and their opinions the next time the alliance wants to deploy troops to the middle east, for example. There’s a very strong case that Irish membership of NATO would do more to hamstring the alliance than strengthen it.

The vastly more likely alliance for Ireland to join is, of course, an EU common defence, and that very much – as the Taoiseach points out himself – would require a referendum, as most new EU compacts do. That is because the difference in the nature of an EU common defence as opposed to NATO lies in the word “common”: Where NATO is an alliance of sovereign states, an EU common defence would effectively be a sort of shared EU armed forces under EU command. It is highly likely that the forces committed to it would act on the instruction of the EU, not the Irish Government. The difference is that while Ireland in NATO could, for example, opt out of sending troops to somewhere like Iraq and Afghanistan, Ireland as part of an EU common defence probably could not. The second surrenders sovereignty, while the first is voluntary.

In many ways, then, the Irish person who values Irish sovereignty and wishes to abandon neutrality should probably prefer NATO to the EU common defence. As should the Irish politician who wants to change our neutrality without a referendum. NATO would, on balance, be the better option on both counts, if they’d have us.

Anyway, the facts are as follows: The Taoiseach is right about the lack of requirement for a referendum on NATO membership, and he is right about the requirement for one for an EU defence. There are no proposals at present for Ireland to join either. It is not a foregone conclusion that we would be accepted into NATO anyway, and, not for the first time, Paul Murphy is engaged in grandstanding and alarmism on this issue.

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