Ireland’s recent debate about signing up to the EU’s PESCO framework sparked concerns over whether its stance of military neutrality would be compromised. Yet whilst many continue to depict Ireland as a ‘peacemaking and peacekeeping nation’, there are legitimate questions over the veracity of this depiction. John MacDonald casts a critical eye over the issues. 


In December 2017, the Irish Dáil approved – by majority of 75-42 – Ireland signing up to the European Union’s Permanent Structured Co-operation on Security and Defence (PESCO). This is a framework designed to deepen defence co-operation within the EU. PESCO isn’t a new arrangement: it was actually voted on, and passed, under the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Its aim, according to the EU, is:

‘…to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations. This will thus enhance the EU’s capacity as an international security partner, also contributing to protection of Europeans and maximise the effectiveness of defence spending.’

Ahead of the vote in the Dáil, debate centred on a familiar topic: would signing up to PESCO impact Ireland’s stance of military neutrality?

Ireland’s foreign policy outlook since before the Second World War has been based upon the principle of neutrality. Yet the issue of whether this is the right stance for the country remains alive. Recent events, such as the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, have sparked debate – and some opinion polls – on whether Ireland should change its position.


Ireland’s foreign policy outlook since before the Second World War has been based upon the principle of neutrality. Yet the issue of whether this is the right stance for the country remains alive.

And so it was with December’s PESCO decision. With the vote approaching, critics declared that Ireland would be selling out its neutrality by signing up; others warned that PESCO represents a major step towards a European army by an increasingly militaristic EU.

In response, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made clear that Irish involvement in PESCO was necessary, declaring that it was time Europe stopped relying on the United States for its defence. PESCO proponents also pointed out that other militarily non-aligned states – the veteran neutrals Sweden, Finland, and Austria – have also signed up to the framework.

Reflecting on the vote in the Irish Times last month, Barry Andrews – Director General of the Institute of International and European Affairs – wrote that Ireland should be part of PESCO, ‘not just out of pragmatism but also to fulfil the values associated with EU membership…and [as] a demonstration of reciprocal solidarity’. Rejecting accusations that Irish neutrality was under threat, he declared: ‘Ireland is a peacekeeping and peacemaking nation and that will not change’.

Ireland as a ‘peacekeeping and peacemaking nation’ – this is a lofty declaration. But it reflects a widespread assumption of Ireland’s global benevolence, despite the fact that a huge question mark hangs over this assumption.


Ireland continues to proclaim military neutrality, despite having provided crucial war-fighting and intelligence support to the United States government in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001.

Ireland continues to proclaim military neutrality, despite having provided crucial war-fighting and intelligence support to the United States government in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. And it continues to do so under a US President who has spoken of unrolling a new rendition programme, and who has increased the numbers of US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria during his first year in office.

So what is Ireland’s status as an international actor? Can it really lay claim to being militarily neutral? In a world where statecraft is nuanced and influenced by a diverse network of considerations, perhaps it’s a naïve question.

THE BLURRING OF MILITARY NEUTRALITY

Irish military policy has long been steered by the principle of military neutrality. While Dublin has taken on many military commitments – focused almost exclusively upon United Nations (UN) and EU peace operations – it has always firmly rejected binding mutual defence commitments, most notably NATO membership. The formal overseas remit of Defence Forces Ireland is:

‘To participate in multinational peace support, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations in support of the United Nations and under UN mandate, including regional security missions authorised by the UN.’

This limited and benevolent military outlook is heavily tied to a raft of domestic constitutional law. The Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), enacted on 1st July 1937, is unambiguous on the Irish state’s ability to use military force. Article 28.3.1 states that: ‘War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.’

Beyond this fairly routine constitutional formulation lie a series of strict approval procedures, based on a ‘triple lock’ protection mechanism. These dictate the conditions under which the Defence Force can be deployed. Any deployment of over 12 Irish military personnel requires three prerequisites:


1. An Irish government decision;

2. A formal endorsement of that decision by the Irish Dáil;

3. A UN Security Council Resolution validating any deployment to which Irish forces are to be committed.


Much emphasis is placed upon the third requirement. As the Defence Forces Ireland website states: ‘UN authorisation is a key factor that informs the Government’s decision in the event of a request for Defence Forces participation.’  

The UN component of the ‘triple lock’ has acted as a barrier to Irish military action before. In 2003, Ireland didn’t participate in the EU-led peace support mission in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The operation was sanctioned under UN Security Council resolution 1371 but even as Irish Defence Force personnel readied themselves to participate, the Irish Attorney General intervened, advising the Irish government that Ireland could not contribute troops to the mission since the terms of the resolution did not meet the requirements set out in Ireland’s Defence Acts.

Whilst the decision left the EU ‘bewildered’, and drew criticism from within Ireland itself, the episode demonstrated the ultra-cautious approach taken in Ireland towards military affairs, where the deployment of its troops is concerned.


Irish troops during an inspection while serving with UNIFIL in Lebanon, September 2013. Image: Irish Defence Forces [CC BY 2.0]

On the face of it, it might seem that Ireland has a judicious and responsible military posture, one which is characterised by tight, self-imposed, legal constraints on the state’s ability to involve itself in military activity. However, a closer inspection reveals a more complicated picture. Ireland’s position of neutrality may, in large part, be about guarding against involvement in ‘bad military behaviour’. Yet complicity in such behaviour can take many forms.

MILITARILY INVOLVED

It is widely assumed that the ‘triple lock’ mechanism demands formal UN authorisation before Ireland can participate in military activities. However, the UN Security Council endorsed neither the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan nor the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and yet Ireland has played a critical role in sustaining Washington’s prosecution of both conflicts.

Despite its declared position of neutrality, in the post-2001 period Ireland has allowed the United States to use Shannon Airport – Ireland’s second largest commercial airport – as a staging post for military aircraft transporting troops and materiel from across the Atlantic to active theatres of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

US military traffic has long passed through Shannon. However, the conditions of passage were traditionally those which met with the international prescriptions for ‘neutral states’. According to the 1907 Hague Convention on Neutral Powers, neutral countries are forbidden to move troops, or convoys of munitions of war or supplies, across their territory. In other words, US troops passing through Ireland should be unarmed, and should not be travelling to participate in warfare.


Information obtained by RTÉ suggests that the number of US flights and personnel travelling through Shannon more than doubled in 2003, the year the US led the invasion of Iraq.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, things changed. Information obtained by RTÉ suggests that the number of US flights and personnel travelling through Shannon more than doubled in 2003, the year the US led the invasion of Iraq. All in all, it is thought that over 2.5 million US troops passed through Shannon between 2001 and 2011 on their way to the theatres of Afghanistan and Iraq. 2005 was the busiest year, when nearly 2,000 aircraft carrying 336,000 personnel transited through the airport.

Critics argue that these arrangements explicitly breach the international neutrality laws that Irish governments claim to abide by. This makes Ireland, they argue, one of Washington’s ‘coalition of the willing’, despite the fact that Irish forces are not actually fighting at the frontline.


US troops at rest in the terminal of Shannon Airport (circa. 2013) Image: Shannonwatch

A great number of US government flights, other than troop transports, have also passed through Shannon since 2001. There is strong evidence that these included CIA rendition flights, where prisoners were transported to ‘black sites’ for interrogation, and sometimes torture. Indeed, some researchers have declared that Shannon has played ‘a vital logistical role’ in the CIA’s rendition operations circuit. This has prompted accusations that Ireland is in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture.

One American pilot who flew through Shannon recalls that it was in fact one of the easier international airports to pass through. He reported that when landing to refuel, everything was prearranged on the ground so as to make the stop-off as brief as possible. Weapons were carried on some of his flights but never revealed since his aircraft was never boarded and checked (despite the fact that the Irish authorities have the power to make such checks). The pilot in question further contends that he was never asked about his passengers. Nor was he ever asked where he had been, or where he was going.


Indeed, some researchers have declared that Shannon has played ‘a vital logistical role’ in the CIA’s rendition operations circuit. This has prompted accusations that Ireland is in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture.

US government and military flights through Shannon continue. According to the group ShannonWatch, which monitors activity at the airport, at least 730 US military flights came through the airport in 2016, the highest number recorded by the group since it began daily monitoring of the facility in 2008.

And on Saturday 20 January 2018, US vice-President Mike Pence met US troops in the airport terminal itself, during a re-fuelling stop by Air Force Two on his way to the Middle East. The soldiers he shook hands and took selfies with were on their way to a six-month deployment in Kuwait.

NEUTRAL?

Given the sheer numbers of troops and materiel which have passed through Shannon Airport during the post-2001 period, it can be argued that Ireland has played as significant a role in supporting US military and intelligence operations as those nations which have contributed warplanes, warships, and many thousands of troops to frontline duty. Critics have contrasted Ireland’s stance with that of other militarily neutral countries such as Switzerland and Austria, which routinely deny the US military access to their airspace and airports.


Image: the Irish Anti-War Movement.

Is Ireland neutral? Politics is rarely reducible to simple answers. Perhaps we might differentiate between types of neutrality. Ireland may be militarily neutral, but it certainly is not politically neutral. And this is what complicates things, smudging the straight, clean lines of Ireland’s benevolent image.

Ireland does take seriously its stance of militarily neutrality – but it has strong ties with the United States, across a variety of fronts, and is understandably eager to do what it can to assist its key ally. During a turbulent post-2001 period, these dynamics have stopped Dublin from shutting down its ‘transatlantic stop-over’ assistance to Washington, despite that fact that not doing so has damaged Ireland’s reputation as a ‘peacekeeping and peacemaking nation’.

But is the damage done really that severe? Acting as an umbilicus for US war-fighting and counter-terrorism operations certainly doesn’t sit comfortably with Ireland’s preferred image of itself. But governments can generally live with the discomfort arising from bad headlines, and they know that in the realm of international politics, three key rules apply: support allies where possible; double-standards are unavoidable; and criticism can be managed, so long as public outrage doesn’t eclipse public ignorance or passivity.

LOOKING AHEAD

Ireland’s accession to the EU’s PESCO framework reinvigorated the debate over how its stance of military neutrality might be affected. When seen against the backdrop of what Ireland has facilitated across the past fifteen years or so, these discussions seem a little disingenuous.

Whether or not the EU is heading in a more military-orientated direction, as some PESCO opponents warned, it seems highly unlikely that the Irish government would allow its Defence Forces to participate in any multilateral operation which didn’t meet the requirements set out in the national constitution and legislation. And Ireland’s allies, familiar with its national concerns, would have no expectation otherwise.

But when we consider Dublin’s transatlantic assistance to Washington, we might be talking about a completely different Ireland. This assistance is ongoing – because Washington needs it. The US continues to orchestrate a war-fighting and counter-terrorism agenda which is global in its outreach, multifaceted, and often highly secretive. Indeed in recent years, some of the sharp rises in US military activity – for example, by forces operating under AFRICOM (US Africa Command) – have been wilfully hidden from the public view.


President Donald Trump, General Mark Milley and vice-President Mike Pence, 20 January 2017. What might the Trump foreign policy agenda mean for Ireland? Image: USDoD/Dominique A. Pineiro [CC]

War continues to blight Afghanistan and Iraq. Hostilities in Afghanistan are actually getting worse, due largely to a resurgent Taliban. Under President Trump, US troop numbers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have all increased. And rumours continue to circulate that the Trump administration is considering a renewed rendition policy.

In short, the international conditions which make Shannon such a useful stop-off point for US military and intelligence flights remain. This clearly has implications for Ireland. If we are witnessing another escalation in US military and intelligence activity under President Trump, will Washington’s need to use Shannon Airport increase? Would the Irish government assent to any such increase? And is the Irish position changed by the fact that US operations are now presided over by a Commander-in-Chief who has stated publicly that ‘torture works’?

Your call, Dublin.


John MacDonald is the Editor of CABLE. He is on Twitter at: @1johnmacdonald


Feature image: a US Boeing C-17 Globemaster sits at Shannon Airport, fanked by Irish police vehicles. 6th March, 2016. Image: Shannonwatch.