In an article published in the Irish Times on April 8th, the paper's former foreign correspondent Patrick Smith claimed that the concept of neutrality was obsolete for Ireland. In a response published on April 14th John Maguire outlines why that is not the case. We reprint his excellent letter in full here.
Patrick Smyth declares Irish neutrality obsolete (Opinion 8th April 2017), a report which manages to be simultaneously old and false news. Despite frequent P45s and applications of the last rites, neutrality just won't bow out. Maybe one reason is that it is endorsed by 78% of Irish people (RedC, 2013).
But maybe we're 78% wrong, and should be guided by Mr Smyth's chosen witnesses? These hail from other non-NATO EU countries, and display 'a pragmatic understanding and a candid discussion of strategic realities.' Such qualities should indeed inform a genuine debate about Irish defence policy - but they might not lead us where Mr Smyth would wish.
He rightly deplores the legal and ethical fudge labelled 'military neutrality', but it is not clear that we should drop the noun rather than the adjective. Nor might we thrive on his alternative product 'military nonalignment', even when obtainable, free from 'particular virtuousness' and 'ideological connotation', through all good think-tanks.
Ideology is in the mind of the beholder. It is not evident what clarity is achieved by Mr Smyth's preferred terms, or precisely how they are better, legally or ethically, than those he deplores. What they certainly do is nudge us towards absorption in NATO-based EU military structures.
I have reread Mr Smyth's article at least three times, astonished that he can discuss our future defence policy without once mentioning the UN. Even the EU's recent Rome Declaration, which he quotes in part, concedes it will be 'engaged in the United Nations'; how very civil of them!
The UN indeed has severe problems, often self-inflicted. But the 'rule-based multilateral system' vaunted by the Rome Declaration is greatly to blame for undermining and side-lining the UN, and the 'rules' it follows are all too rarely those of international law.
Is it 'particularly virtuous' to ask whether that system has made our world better or safer in recent decades? Former President Mary Robinson has called the Afghanistan and Iraq wars 'really very damaging.' The response to that damage through expanding military force has proved catastrophic.
Mr Smyth mentions 'the absence of direct security threats to this island', but argues that we should be motivated by the 'very real threats our partners see' for example in the Baltic. However, such threat-perceptions ignore how far the NATO-based system has played into President Putin's hands by reviving cold-war-era fears of encirclement.
A central strand of Irish neutrality derives from our history of 'great power' domination. Our Constitution commits us to promoting peaceful conflict-resolution under international law. Neutrality in this context is far from indifference: it is a clear commitment to the ordinary lives and communities facing devastation by armed aggression.
Was John F. Kennedy naïve or indifferent when, in the last days of his administration, he insisted against all the mandarins on negotiating neutrality for Laos, and even proudly saw it as a template for the rest of his foreign policy?