We talk a lot about neutrality, and what it means, on these pages. Yours truly tends to be in a minority of about eight-to-one amongst Gript writers on the subject. Nearly all of my colleagues, for good and principled reasons, believe in the idea of neutrality. My issue is with the facts of it. And in that context, the following assessment from Foreign Policy magazine is worth reading. In a piece titled “Ireland is Europe’s weakest link”, they write:
With a token navy of six active patrol vessels, not a single submarine to cover its vast marine zone, and annual defence spending of barely more than 1 billion euros (0.3% of GDP), Ireland stands out as the worst-prepared European country to meet any meaningful threat.
There’s nothing factually incorrect there. It’s all entirely true. No European country is weaker, militarily, than Ireland. No European country is less capable of defending itself in a pinch. But why does that matter?
This is where I split from my colleagues, because the general assumption of pro-neutrality people in Ireland tends to be that because the threats to us are so low, defence is really not a requirement. That, though, ignores our role in the EU entirely.
The EU is increasingly, for good or ill, a global bloc and a global player. It is increasingly interdependent. It is increasingly a single target, not a collection of individual targets.
For example, if you wanted to cripple Europe, you could start by targeting the undersea communications cables connecting Ireland, and the financial centre in Dublin, to the rest of the world. Our entire economy, you might remember, is structured around providing critical services to the continent through the hosting of multinational companies. Vast sums of money flow through the IFSC in Dublin. A hostile actor wanting to target the French, or the Germans has a very plausible case for attacking Irish infrastructure first, to hurt our gallant continental allies.
We also know, in the context of the Russia/Ukraine war, that such actions…. Tend to happen. Look, for example, at the attack on the Nordstream pipeline. Whoever was responsible for that – and we may never know – acted in secret, and deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure.
This piece is not an argument for joining NATO. But it should be very clear to us here in Ireland that it is not sustainable to be both neutral, and incapable of defending our own territory, and territorial waters. Not out of any sense of obligation to anyone else, but simply out of self-interest. Because an attack on Irish infrastructure designed to harm the Europeans would also do grave harm to Ireland. And not only in terms of economic cost.
Such an attack, were we incapable of detecting and stopping it, would also do grave harm to any sense of Irish goodwill. We would be rightly seen as a less attractive place to invest, and a less attractive international partner.
At the moment, the entire Irish defence strategy appears to rest on the notion that sure, we’re lovely and neutral and beloved by everybody, and nobody would ever wish to do us harm. Our “neutrality”, too, is underpinned not by a sense of pure self-interest, as is the case with the Swiss, for example – but rather a sense of a kind of moral superiority. That’s why so many people who support neutrality would also oppose an increase in defence spending – they see spending on arms as sort of immoral, and impure. Our neutrality is not simply tactical – too often it’s about being better than those other countries, spending money on guns while people are homeless, and so on.
There are, really, three options: The first is the current one, do nothing, and hope for the best. The second is the expensive one: Commit to being neutral, but invest in our own defences, knowing that we may well be a target, and that international experts openly discuss the fact that we are a soft target. The third is the cheapest one, but the least morally attractive: Join an alliance – whether that be NATO, or a Common EU defence, and allow other countries to help secure our waters.
That’s it. Those are the three options. Where I differ from some colleagues is that while I am ambivalent about options 2 and 3, option 1 strikes me as entirely unsustainable. And Foreign Policy, at least, agrees.
And if you don’t think they read Foreign Policy in the Kremlin, and Beijing, well. I’d suggest you might be wrong.