Sinn Féin spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Matt Carthy, has said that neutrality allows Ireland to play a constructive role in the world and that the principle should be enshrined in the Irish constitution and EU treaties.
Deputy Carthy was speaking during Dáil statements on Thursday on the government’s proposed Consultative Forum on International Security. He said that Sinn Féin wants to rebuild our Defence Forces so that we can protect our neutrality, defend and monitor our skies and seas, and protect ourselves from modern threats, including cyber attacks.
Deputy Carthy also criticised the structure of the Consultative Forum saying that it is less about public discussion than it is an attempt to reshape public opinion.
He told the Dáil:
“Sinn Féin’s vision is for Ireland to play a constructive role in the wider world, committed to diplomacy, humanitarianism, peace building, and cooperation with other states on global challenges including poverty, world hunger, climate change, conflict resolution and migration.
“An independent foreign policy and military neutrality are crucial to allow Ireland to play that important role in the wider world.
“We should be proud of our military neutrality, and resist attempts by some in government to recast it as a weakness or a failing.
“The legacy of Irish neutrality is our role in working for nuclear non-proliferation, humanitarianism, contributing to the drafting of the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, peace keeping, and the proud record of our United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon, in the Congo, in Chad, South Sudan and elsewhere.
“It has been our contribution to making the world a better and a safer place.
“Being proud of our neutrality means being proud of those who served on UN peacekeeping missions, including those fought and died in the Niemba Ambush, those who fought, and whose bravery was long unrecognised, in the siege of Jadotville, all those who died on UN Peace Keeping duty including Pte Sean Rooney who was killed in December last year.
“Sinn Féin are proud of those who have served this country and we are proud of Ireland’s role in seeking peace rather than conflict.
Lack of Public Debate
“We therefore welcome any opportunity to participate in a public discourse on foreign, security and defence policies. Such debate has been sorely lacking over the past number of decades.
“Irish governments have made important, often crucial decisions, with very little engagement with the Irish public and often even with minimal Oireachtas debate. Indeed, governments have had to be taken to court in order to allow the Irish people to have their say on fundamental foreign policy shifts.
“Sinn Féin welcomes debate because we believe that Ireland has a positive story to tell and still has an important impact to make.
“The starting point to any such discourse must be a recognition that military neutrality has served this state well. It is for this reason that we want to enshrine the principle of neutrality in the Irish constitution and in the EU treaties.
“Of course, it’s easy to say that we support neutrality. Most members of this house would claim to do so, albeit an increasing number of government deputies are willing to acknowledge that this is not their position.
“It is less easy to define what neutrality actually means for a country like Ireland in the 21st century.
“That needs to change. Those of us on the left and others who value neutrality have, over the past two decades been very good at articulating what we are opposed to, not so good at setting out the positive and constructive role that neutrality can help Ireland play internationally.
Legacy of neutrality
“It is arguable that no government has clearly articulated Irish neutrality since the time of Frank Aiken.
“Aiken, of course, was a leading figure during the revolutionary period whose later work defined Irish foreign and defence policy for generations.
“The position of neutrality adopted by Aiken and many others from that revolutionary era should not surprise us. For they understood and appreciated the words of General Sherman who said that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
“It was Ireland’s position as a neutral, as well as our unique experience of colonialism that has allowed Ireland to earn a reputation as one of the pre-eminent contributors to peacekeeping in the globe.
“Because, Irish neutrality has never meant isolationism, disengagement or disinterest in the world.
“It has been a positive force for good, it has allowed this small country to play a bigger role in the world than many others with much greater wealth and much bigger military machines. That is the legacy of those who first defined neutrality.
“Our objective must be to build on that legacy for generations to come.
“That is why Sinn Féin welcomes increased public discussion on Foreign, Defence and Security policies.
“It is why we are disappointed that the government’s proposed forum is less about public discussion than it is an attempt to reshape public opinion.
“Government does not intend to provide a role for the opposition in the Tánaiste’s proposed so-called Consultative Forum.
“This is an important point because decisions on Foreign Policy are different to other areas. When one government sign up to international agreements, for example, a successor government cannot always simply change position without damaging our international reputation. Therefore, government cannot simply exclude opposition from important information and discussions that could have an impact for generations to come.
“Of course, in any public discussion we will vociferously advocate for neutrality and in doing so will follow the long-standing position of republicans, trade-unionists and other progressives over successive generations.
“That is not to deny that the world and the international security context has changed. The illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the world, and changed it forever.
“In the midst of this world-defining moment it is not only right, but it is incumbent upon all of us, in this House and beyond, to reflect upon our responsibility to safeguard our country and our citizens; to reflect on how we uphold the principles of democracy and the rule of law, and on how we contribute positively to the world beyond our borders throughhumanitarian and development aid, peacekeeping, and acting as agents and facilitators of peace where conflict does exist.
“And it is here that opinion diverges – for my part, upon reflection, I am as convinced in the imperative of Irish neutrality as I was prior to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine.
“I remain as committed to Irish participation in UN peacekeeping missions and enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
“I remain as proud as before of Ireland’s humanitarian record, a record reinforced by the non-lethal aid and wider support that we have provided to the Ukrainian people.
“Others see the invasion of Ukraine as justification to take another course. Many of those already conveyed a sense of embarrassment or shame in Irish neutrality.
Governments have undermined Neutrality
“The truth is that over the past two decades, at least, governments have undermined Irish neutrality. They did that in three ways in my view
“Firstly, governments have moved us away from having an independent foreign policy.
“So it is that the strong, rightfully so, rhetoric and actions regarding Ukraine – being as they are in tune with those of larger Western states – are not matched in other areas where they are equally deserving, such as Palestine.
“Independent Foreign Policy meant this country led the way in the international pressure that brought the downfall of apartheid in South Africa. Independent Foreign Policy must mean that we do the same to end Israeli apartheid in Palestine.
“Secondly, successive governments have overseen the systemic underinvestment in our Defence Forces. We are unable to monitor, never mind defend, our own airspace or seas, and we are unable to secure ourselves against modern threats.
“Numbers within the Defence Forces have reached critically low levels. The decades-long undermining of our defence forces is a scandal.
“And, thirdly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments have usedmembership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and PESCO, as mechanisms to further undermine neutrality.
“These actions impact on each other. When Irish Ministers sign us up to international missions, even those with UN mandates, they often do so at the cost of Irish defence. When the Irish navy rightfully participates in the upcoming mission in the Mediterranean, there will be periods when there will be just a single navy vessel operating in Irish waters.
“The government responses, sometimes contradictory responses, to media reports of a secret deal with the British government to have the RAF secure our airspace again starkly points to an ongoing policy of signing up to international military missions while ignoring the incapacity to address our own domestic defence needs.
“Sinn Féin understands the obligations of government in respect of agreements made with international partners. That is why I have said that, in government, we will not withdraw Irish forces from pre-committed operations and exercises.
“But, in terms of future decisions, we will take a different approach than the current government.
“That approach will have the unequivocal starting point being that we are a neutral and independent state, and with the objective of building upon our proud tradition of participation in UN Peace Keeping missions and in supporting conflict resolution across the globe.
“The alternative trajectory is one that would place Irish Defence Forces personnel under the command of an EU military structure whose deployment could occur without the approval of the Dáil, government or UN mandate as required by the Triple Lock.
“That has been the ambition of some within the EU, long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and is the natural outworking of the stated position of those within Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who want to undo our traditional military neutrality.
“It is the ongoing failure of government parties to accept the premise that Irish neutrality has served us well that has led to much cynicism in the proposed Consultative Forum on International Security. Many, myself included, fear that the forum is a blatant attempt to undermine that neutrality.
“Should government wish to establish a consultative mechanism for debate, outside of a referendum, the appropriate format would be a Citizen’s Assembly.
“The proposed format of the Consultative Forum minimises the input of the public and opposition parties. Those contributing will be appointed by government, and their contributions will lead to a report authored the forums chair, also appointed by government.
“Sinn Féin will engage with the forum and we will outline our clear positions on Irish international security policy, including:
– Reiterating that the public should be consulted via the provenframework of a Citizen’s Assembly leading to a referendum to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution.
– That further entangling of the Irish State or Defence Forces in international security organisations or frameworks should be referred by the Dáil to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence for considered and detailed scrutiny.
– That the rebuilding of our Defence Forces is a priority obligation on government, and that a pre-requisite to doing so is addressing the recruitment and retention crisis. That requires the immediate implementation of the Working Time Directive.
Ireland’s ‘moral authority’
“There are always those who seek to misconstrue commitment to neutrality with isolationism. What they miss is that it has been our neutrality and our independent foreign policy that led President Biden,in this chamber, to recognise Ireland’s ‘moral authority’ around the world.
“That moral authority is something worth cherishing because it is the legacy of people such as former Minister Seán MacBride, a man who also bore witness to our own revolutionary period and who was laterInternational Chair of Amnesty International, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Those of that generation will have recalled that famous banner hanging from Liberty Hall that ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland’.
“And it is with that ethos, Ireland as an independent state, operating an independent foreign policy as endorsed and respected by the international community, that we can advance the Irish legacy of delivering humanitarian aid to countries under brutal and callous invasion such as Ukraine; build on the renowned reputation of our Defence Forces in UN Peace Keeping missions; and make a stand for the Palestinian people and others repressed through occupation and apartheid.
“This is the vision of neutrality that Sinn Féin will bring to this and every debate, and it is a vision I am proud to champion.
“Because looking across this chamber at those parties who have been in government for all of my life, I see no clear vision for Irish neutrality because none has been espoused since Aiken.
“And I see no vision for foreign policy or international security other than to follow the lead of others.
“We, on the other hand, want Ireland to lead the way.
“We want to rebuild our Defence Forces so that we can protect our neutrality, defend and monitor our skies and seas, and protect ourselves from modern threats, including cyber attacks.
“We want to give our defence forces the respect they deserve so that they, and our diplomatic corps, can continue to be missionaries of a small nation that makes a big difference for the better all over the world.
“We want Ireland to be a voice against oppression, poverty and war. To be the international champion for peace and disarmament and multilateralism.
“We want Ireland to use our history to ensure that this planet has a better future.”