Neutrality – a foreign policy which has served us well

Neutrality – a foreign policy which has served us well

Neutrality in Ireland is a morally charged concept, both for supporters and critics. For supporters, it is a principled stance to avoid becoming embroiled in armed conflict and military alliances and to support the peaceful resolution of disputes. For critics, it is an evasion of responsibility and taking a free ride behind serious defence measures of friends and neighbours.

When Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, it made a substantial contribution to the manpower of the British army and navy. A permanent exhibition in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich shows that broken down by county Ireland contributed more sailors to Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar than Scotland, and that Dublin was second only to London. For Redmond, most of the Catholic Church, and other leaders of opinion, the passage of Home Rule justified enlistment in 1914.


A minority did not want to fight Britain’s wars or for other small countries in the absence of freedom for this small country.

The banner outside Liberty Hall, ‘We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser – but Ireland’, had a resonance about it that echoes to this day. However, the ideal of neutrality did not sit easily with Casement’s attempts to recruit an Irish brigade from prisoners of war to fight alongside the Germans in the Near East, if not in Ireland, the reference in the Proclamation to ‘gallant allies in Europe’, and subsequent naive expectations that a German victory would secure Ireland’s place at the Peace Conference.

Ireland did not figure in Germany’s war aims published in 1916-7. Ironically, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality was the main rallying point for Irish participation in the war, but that violation permanently damaged the credibility of internationally guaranteed neutrality.

A key turning point in constructing the basis for a free Ireland was when de Valera guaranteed that an independent Ireland would not allow itself to become a base for powers hostile to Britain.

Retention of the ports was meant to secure Britain’s strategic interests, but their negotiated return in 1938 to secure Irish goodwill in the event of war enabled the State to stay out of World War II.

Both for financial and internal security reasons, recalling the so-called army mutiny of 1924 and an ongoing paramilitary menace, the State’s armed forces had been reduced to a minimum, making it very vulnerable to any external threat.

Neutrality was conducted more pragmatically below the surface, but Ireland received no credit for this from Churchill, who still did not accept the reality of Irish independence and who tried to squeeze Ireland economically.

Any other policy would have been divisive and destabilising, as well as inviting destruction from the air. The offer of a united Ireland in June 1940 in exchange for joining the war was, if closely examined, a mirage, not unlike Home Rule passed in 1914.

Neutrality was the strongest possible demonstration of independence, but it left Ireland out in the cold at the end of the war, especially after revelation of the extermination camps. Northern Ireland’s position in the UK was strengthened.

In 1955, de Valera in opposition stated the classic case for neutrality, when he said that a small country has to be extremely cautious, when entering alliances which will bring it into wars.

It would not be consulted when wars started, nor on the terms on which they finished – the great powers would decide that. However, he did support collective security under international auspices, such as the League of Nations, then the United Nations, and to this day UN approval is needed for Irish participation in overseas military tasks.


Post-war, there were sporadic attempts to use neutrality as a bargaining chip for the ending of partition, but this overestimated the strategic importance of Ireland in a cold war context. In 1990, one of the foundations of the peace process was the public acknowledgement that Northern Ireland no longer had any selfish strategic importance for Britain.

Collective European defence is organised on a transatlantic basis round NATO. While Lemass and Lynch would have been prepared to sacrifice neutrality, if a full-blown common defence policy had become a condition of EU membership, many partners did not want to weaken or duplicate NATO, most of all Britain.

Today, an independent EU defence policy without Britain or North America looks even less likely. Ireland makes a valued contribution to international peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, and is fully committed to partners in protecting against international terrorism.

It is and was legitimate for different countries to play different roles in accordance with their values and traditions and also their position and their interests. The EU effectively exercises ‘soft power’, something that Ireland broadly speaking is comfortable with, though the EU’s critics often accuse it of neo-colonial or super-state ambitions (hard to sustain on an EU budget of about 1% of GDP).

Irish neutrality is, at the latest since we joined the EEC in 1973, military, not political. The EU strives to reach common positions on foreign policy issues, but does not always succeed. Military neutrality is a policy rather than a status. Its content is decided by the Government, not by international law. If we were members of NATO, we would be committed to doubling our defence expenditure.

We are now members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, which facilitates our participation with other countries in peacekeeping. Our geographical position makes territorial defence less of an issue.

Our close political and economic relationship with the United States underpins our willingness to allow US military transport planes to use Shannon, a fraught issue at the time of the Iraq war which stretched neutrality to breaking point, as did controversy over rendition,  but which we were assured did not take place through Irish airspace.

All countries have to exercise restraint in their comments and actions in international relations, and cannot crusade. Some groups want the State to take sides on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in general our foreign policy is within reason ethical and has served us well.