Neutrality as a positive virtue

Neutrality as a positive virtue Neutral Ireland was marked off in WWII by signs visible to planes overhead.

by Frank Litton

A force for good? Reflections on neutrality and the future of Irish defence. Dublin: Afri 2022, ISBN 0-9511178-3-5

(Afri can be reached at 8 New Cabra Road, Dublin7, DO7 T1W2; email:

War once more in Europe, once more slaughter, devastation, lives destroyed. Once more efforts to make sense of it all, to come to terms with its horror, find expression in a melodrama that tells of the undoubtedly good confronting the utterly evil. Important facts about the context of the war are occluded and the possibilities of ending it diminished.

While not directly engaged in the fighting, our partners in the EU supply weapons and munitions worth billions vital to Ukraine’s defence. Our neutrality comes into question. Should we abandon it to join, without reservation, the side of the ‘good’? Should we follow Sweden and Finland in recognising the threat Russia now poses to Europe?

With this publication NGO Action from Ireland (Afri) makes a valuable contribution to the debate. The book, or pamphlet, is short, some 55 pages. Yet, each of its six contributors make substantial points.

Nobel prize-winner Mairead Maguire reminds us of the horror of violence from which the melodrama distracts us as it opposes ‘good violence’ to ‘bad violence’. The enemy is guilty of the latter, while we cheer on our side as it advances with blazing guns. She recalls us to the truth: the maiming, killing, destroying of habitats that devastate now and inflict long-lasting injuries.

Dr Karen Devine from DCU outlines Ireland’s foreign policy in the 50s and 60s when Frank Aiken was Minister for Foreign Affairs (then External Affairs).The state’s neutrality gave him a position, and a standing, from which he made substantial contributions to making the world a safer place. His persistent efforts played a key role in securing the first nuclear non-proliferation treaty; he worked hard to strengthen the United Nations and its peace keeping capacities.

Neutral buffer

He urged the importance of a neutral buffer zone in Europe separating East from West, increasing the security of both sides and reducing the chances of conflict.

In Article 29 of the Constitution of Ireland, “Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly cooperation amongst nations founded on international law and morality. It affirms its adherence to the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination”. Aiken worked with diligence and creativity to give effect to these affirmations.

Have subsequent ministers, and the military establishment shown equal commitment to the obligations found in the Constitution?

Prof. Maguire in an open letter to Lieutenant General Sean Clancy demonstrates that the answer in both cases is ‘NO’. The recent ‘White Paper on Defence’ is a sorry document, lacking the seriousness and cogency so evident in Aiken’s contributions, liberally quoted by Dr Devine.

Its barely concealed agenda, delivered in the style of modern political ‘spin’ is to ready us for closer involvement with NATO. It is no surprise that secular, progressive, Ireland enthusiastically encourages the development of an arms industry here, paying no heed to the Pope’s repeated condemnations of the arms trade.

The well-known French Catholic political philosopher, Pierre Manent observes that the EEC and then EU were the work of political elites. Whatever their intentions (I am inclined to think that on the whole they were good, certainly in the early phases when ‘peace and friendly cooperation among nations’ were prominent) they sought neither to share them with, or explain their implications, to their electorates.


Prof. Maguire shows that Ireland is a prime example.

Joining together with others in a joint enterprise can bring great benefits. These come at a cost. Our sovereignty as an independent nation-state is diminished now that it must, in important aspects, be exercised in concert with 26 other states.

So, our understanding of ourselves as a nation-state that underpinned our democracy has been undermined. Our partners, rightly, expect us to pay our dues to ensure the security of the collective endeavour. While we hear praise for the ‘European Project’, where do we find discussion or debate on the transformation of our political culture and its implications for democracy? Our politicians and their academic minions are silent.

Prof. Maguire points out how they have obfuscated, distracted attention from, failed to inform, or debate, what our obligations to EU security entail. Perhaps they suspect we would not be willing to pay this cost.

On St Patrick’s day 2019 two United State army veterans, broke through the fences protecting the runway at Shannon airport. They were arrested as they walked towards a plane they suspected carried US troops with their arms, so breaking the law and violating Irish neutrality.

After 13 days in Limerick prison, they were granted bail, after nine months they were permitted to leave the country on condition they returned for their trial. Tarak Kauff writes of their time in Ireland. They travelled around the country explaining their actions to crowds in pubs and other gatherings; their message was well received everywhere. The elites’ suspicions are well-grounded.


Perhaps, the elite believe that they have no adequate answers to the case against Irish participation in NATO and in favour of neutrality that Carol Fox makes in the conclusion. What compelling reasons could bring us into an alliance armed with nuclear weapons and dominated by powers whose records gives us every reason to doubt their intentions?

Micheál Martin says we need an honest debate on neutrality. Let us hope he was talking to himself. Whatever, thanks to Afri, we now have a measure of that honesty. An honest contribution will attend to the powerful points in this valuable contribution to public discourse on vital issues.