This post isn’t meant to summarize the fascinating conceptual cloud that is Irish neutrality, and believe me it is a fascinating concept wrapped up with questions of identity, history and politics (with an extensive literature exploring each facet at length).
Instead, I write this because I am intrigued by the visceral reaction which questions of neutrality seem to raise amongst my Irish colleagues. It seems to have blended with the Irish identity in a way which makes its importance so great as to be impossible to disentangle from the Irish psyche. While I remain inquisitive regarding the changing Irish identity (if only to help me better understand my wife) I must remember that we are not many generations removed from the establishment of the Irish republic, and in many ways that the political party landscape in modern Ireland remains divided along the lines of that establishment. In other words, on this island the weight of history feels ever present.
On slightly firmer ground, I am also intrigued by Irish neutrality because I believe that the importance it holds with the electorate is not reflected in the substantive policy of the state.
To rephrase, and perhaps to incite, I would argue that Irish neutrality means very little in the context of the modern world. Setting aside the issue that an island surrounded by democracies and ocean doesn’t seem to have many immediate external, military threats, I instead choose to emphasize two facts. First, that the Irish military is engaged across the globe, playing vital roles in missions under the auspices of both the UN and NATO. And second, that Irish governments have participated quite extensively in the international organizations which exist to guarantee peace and security.
The link above summarizes, ever so briefly, Irish participation with NATO through the Partnership for Peace Framework. What is interesting is that the Irish leadership must recognize the importance of the neutrality issue to their constituents because the document repeatedly refers to neutrality in the sense that it is both fundamental and unaltered. However, this repeating of the phrase stands in stark contrast to the extensive cooperation which is ongoing as the IDF is involved with both the strategic planning for conflict and in providing soldiers and materials toward the actual operations of such a conflict.
The question remains, how different would Ireland’s use of the military and cooperation with NATO be if neutrality were not the salient issue with the people that it seems to be? I would argue that it wouldn’t be.