Is Irish neutrality an outdated idea?

There was truth in one thing that Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said this weekend in response to the news that the Russian Navy was conducting a “live firing exercise” involving its Atlantic fleet, off the coast of Ireland:

Mr Coveney said the planned Russian naval exercises were in international waters, “but it is also part of the exclusive economic zone of Ireland.”

He told reporters: “We don’t have power to prevent this happening. But certainly, I’ve made it clear to the Russian ambassador in Ireland that it’s not welcome.

He is correct. We do not have the power to prevent this happening. Should Russia wish it, they could park their fleet in Galway Bay and conduct live firing exercises against the Connemara coast, and Ireland would still lack the power to prevent this happening. As a nation, we have no naval vessels capable of tackling anything with more armaments than a Spanish supertrawler, and we have no air defences of any kind.

It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that Ireland can, or should, commission a battle fleet capable of going toe to toe with the Russian Navy, or build an air force capable of holding out against the Russian Air Force. But it is a statement of fact that the Russians held these exercises in waters close to Ireland. They would not have dared to conduct them in the UK’s waters, or the waters of any member of NATO. Violating Irish neutrality is consequence free, for them. And here’s the thing: The Russians (or anybody else) will never attack or invade if they have to deploy their full might in order to do so. The Irish military would never have to go toe to toe with the military of a superpower. It would have to go toe to toe with a single naval group and air wing. The basic principle is this: The more troops somebody has to commit to an attack, the less likely they are to attack in the first place. We don’t need an armed forces that can win a war. We need one that can make a war costly enough that nobody ever bothers to think about starting one. We don’t have that, at the moment.

The traditional case for Irish neutrality is very strong, but it is also based on an anachronism: Ireland is of almost no strategic value. We have no natural resources to make an invader wealthy. We are located in a relatively unimportant place. To the extent that Ireland has ever had military value to a hostile power, it has been as a staging post to make war on the United Kingdom. That is how the French, and at times the Spanish, saw us for generations, during their endless wars with the British Empire. Most of their efforts to “free Ireland from British rule” were not about sympathy for Irish nationalism, but about creating a military problem for the British on their own doorstep. Today, with the advent of long range air power, there is almost no sane reason for any power to wish to invade Ireland or threaten us militarily for that purpose, or any other.

For that reason, we have never felt the need to invest in defences. We do not have a single Jet fighter. We have a naval service that is built, and designed, to do two things: Support Sea rescue efforts, and police fisheries. It is not designed for modern military combat. Our land forces are designed to support UN peacekeeping efforts, not to repel an invasion. We have almost no offensive capabilities: There are no Irish medium or heavy tank battalions. Ours is an infantry army.

All of this was well and good in a time before globalisation. In the traditional sense, Ireland has no need to worry about invasion. But that does not mean that our interests cannot be threatened.

We are, for example, in the European Union. But what does that really mean? What does it mean, for example, to be an EU citizen? If there was, tomorrow, a Russian invasion of Latvia, or Lithuania, or Estonia, all countries in the EU, made up of fellow EU citizens, is it remotely sensible to pretend that this does not attack Irish interests? And even if you make the tenuous case that it is sensible to pretend that, what about the moral case? How can you claim to be at the heart of Europe, proud EU citizens, and then be unwilling to defend the EU?

It is also true that Ireland has strategic needs: We rely on a huge portion of our energy coming by way of imports, many of them flows which could be turned off at a moment’s notice. We have corporate and business interests and outposts in almost every corner of the globe, which could be seized or attacked. We have Irish citizens in almost every country, who might find themselves in need of rescue, or extraction in the event of conflicts or disasters. And we have no ability at all to project power, and no allies to help. We rely, in those situations, on the charity of friendly states.

There is, of course, a historic reluctance in Ireland to join NATO, primarily because of a nationalist taboo about fighting alongside the British, and a left wing taboo about fighting alongside the Americans, and an idealistic taboo about fighting at all. But our strategic interests, for good or ill, are tied wholly and completely to those of the European Union in the first instance, and the Americans and the British to only a very slightly lesser extent.

My own view is that our position is ultimately unsustainable. Others may differ. But in the context of growing Russian aggression on the eastern borders of the European Union, this is a conversation we should be having now, before it is forced upon us later.

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