Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Micheál Martin, has announced the opening of a consultative forum on Irish neutrality.
Speaking on Thursday in the Dáil, Mr Martin said that Ireland must have an “open and honest” debate on its longstanding military neutrality and the possibility of joining Nato, ahead of a public forum on the matter, set to begin next month.
Ireland has a long-standing tradition of military neutrality, which predates the Second World War, and means it does not take part in interventional conflicts, join military alliances or defence pacts, nor does it host foreign armies.
The Consultative Forum on International Security Policy is set to take place in June across four days and three venues in Cork, Galway and Dublin. The war in Ukraine has raised questions about Ireland’s security in the face of 21st century threats – which include issues like cybersecurity and attacks on undersea cables.
“As I have said previously, my aim in convening this Forum is to build a deeper public and political understanding of the international security environment facing the State, and the policy options available to us.
“This needs to be a national conversation; one which is inclusive and – as the name of the Forum implies – consultative,” the Tánaiste said yesterday during a Dáil debate on the Forum.
Mr Martin said that the forum will hear from “stakeholders, with participation from civilian and military experts and practitioners”.
The launch of the forum has, however, sparked outcry from opposition politicians, with Tipperary Independent Mattie McGrath among those to criticise the Forum.
“This is a charade,” Mr McGrath said, blasting the consultative forum as a “scandal”.
He cited the Tánaiste’s previous comments regarding neutrality, adding:
“This is a charade because [Mr Martin] is on the Dáil record numerous times having said that our neutrality is an outdated position at this point in time,” he said in a blistering response posted to social media.
He described the Forum as a “select invited audience to come up with the answers he wants”.
“This situation is a scandal, to be honest,” he said, adding: This is definitely denying democratic politics.”
Deputy McGrath said the launch of the process represents a “slippery slope” – one which he is opposed to:
“They are going to get the answers that he wants to ensure that we change our position. It is a very slippery slope, and I for one am totally opposed to this,” the opposition politician said.
The Tánaiste told the Dail that he acknowledged that both politicians and members of the wider public have “different views about how Ireland should address the international security policy challenges that face us.”
“Those differences are entirely legitimate,” he said. “It is precisely because there are many valid policy options to consider that I have initiated this national conversation.”
“I have said on multiple occasions, as has the Taoiseach, that the government is not prejudging the outcome of any of the discussions at the Forum. There is no hidden agenda at play. Let’s dispense early on with the notion that this is part of the latest secret plan by the government to join NATO,” he said.
The approach taken by the Government was also criticised by Sinn Féin, with TD Matt Carthy telling the Dáil debate that there would be no specific role for opposition politicians to contribute to the forum, which will be chaired by Professor Louise Richardsom, former vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and will hear from around 1,000 people.
Mr Carthy said the approach could lead to Ireland entering into international agreements which successive governments would not be able to exit, adding that the structure was “less about public discussion” and more about “an attempt to reshape public opinion”.
“This is an important point because decisions on foreign policies are different to other areas. When one government sets itself up to international agreements, for example, a successor government cannot always simply change position without damaging our international reputation.
“Therefore, the Government cannot simply exclude opposition from important information and discussions which could have an impact for generations to come,” he said. Mr Carthy said that his party would “vociferously advocate for neutrality and in doing so we will follow the long-standing position of republicans, trade unionists and other progressives over many generations”.
Meanwhile, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett accused the Government of wanting to enter into military alliances spearheaded by the US, something he described as a potential “disaster” for Irish troops. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan also added his voice to opposition to the process, saying that his party would oppose any referendum on Ireland joining Nato.