By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, (Reuters) – Ireland must explore how to cooperate more closely with partners on international security, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said at a rare public debate that showed how divisive any major move away from a decades-long tradition of military neutrality may be.
While Ireland participates in European Union defence pact projects, United Nations peacekeeping missions and recently served on the UN Security Council, its policy of staying outside military alliances remains widely popular.
A four-day government-sponsored forum heard from security, defence and foreign policy experts while drawing some protest, political disagreement and an intervention by the country’s president who accused ministers of “playing with fire”.
“This isn’t about NATO membership or changing our long standing policy of military neutrality (but) our security and economic well being is being tested in new and more challenging ways,” Varadkar told the forum on international security policy.
Varadkar said that in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine invasion he would favour working more closely within the EU’s enhanced defence cooperation (PESCO) on protecting Ireland from cyber attack, international terrorism and attacks on critical infrastructure, particularly in its waters.
Varadkar and Foreign Minister Micheal Martin’s speeches were interrupted by protesters who accused the government of stacking the panels in favour of pro-NATO speakers. Some protesters were removed from the venue by police.
In a newspaper interview in advance of the forum, President Michael D. Higgins, a mainstay of human rights demonstrations for decades, described Ireland as being in a dangerous period of “drift” in relation to its foreign policy.
Sinn Fein, the opposition party with a wide lead in opinion polls ahead of elections due in early 2025, criticised what it described as a lack of balance on the panels and accused the government of seeking to use this to reshape public opinion.
“We cannot allow neutrality to be recast as a weakness by those who would have us further aligned to NATO,” the left wing party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Matt Carthy said, pushing instead to enshrine neutrality in Ireland’s constitution.
Ireland’s neutrality, justified by prime minister Eamon DeValera in World War Two as allowing the country to avoid becoming a pawn in the games of great powers, was backed by 61% of voters in an Irish Times/Ipsos poll this month.
A majority also supported significantly increasing Ireland’s military capacity.
“I don’t think there is sufficient public support for Ireland to engage in any mutual defence commitment,” Brigid Laffan, Emeritus Professor at the European University Institute told the forum on Tuesday.
“But we can’t get away from geography. We are a member state of the EU and the EU will become a more serious security player over the next decade. In terms of responding to the threats that this state faces, we have to cooperate with others.”
Photo courtesy of the Óglaigh na hÉireann / Irish Defence Forces