Ireland has been neutral in international relations since the 1930s. The nature of Irish neutrality has varied over time, and has been contested since the 1970s. Historically, the state was a "non-belligerent" in World War II and has never joined NATO, although during the Cold War it was anti-communist and aloof from the Non-Aligned Movement. The compatibility of neutrality with Ireland's membership of the European Union has been a point of debate in EU treaty referendum campaigns since the 1990s. The Seville Declarations on the Treaty of Nice acknowledge Ireland's "traditional policy of military neutrality", reflecting the narrow formulation of successive Irish governments. Others define Irish neutrality more broadly, as having "a strong normative focus, with a commitment to development, United Nations peacekeeping, human rights and disarmament".
Ireland's concept of neutrality
There are notable differences between Irish neutrality and traditional types of neutral states:
- Traditionally, neutral states maintain strong defence forces, Ireland has a relatively small defence force of approximately 10,500 personnel
- Traditionally, neutral states do not allow any foreign military within their territory, Ireland has a long history of allowing military aircraft of various nations to refuel at Shannon Airport. Under the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order, 1952, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, exceptionally, could grant permission to foreign military aircraft to overfly or land in the State. Confirmation was required that the aircraft in question be unarmed, carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and that the flights in question would not form part of military exercises or operations.
After the September 11 attacks, these conditions were "waived in respect of aircraft operating in pursuit of the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368". Irish governments have always said that allowing aircraft to use Irish soil does not constitute participation in any particular conflict and is compatible with a neutral stance, instancing the transit of German troops between Finland and Norway through neutral Swedish territory during World War II.
A neutral state may also allow its citizens to serve in the armed forces of other, possibly belligerent, nations. Ireland does not restrict its citizens from serving in foreign armies and significant numbers of Irish citizens serve or have served in the British and to a lesser extent United States armies and the French Foreign Legion.
- The State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that common defence would include the State.
This was originally inserted by a 2002 amendment ratifying the Treaty of Nice, and updated by a 2009 amendment ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon. An earlier bill intended to ratify the Treaty of Nice did not include a common defence opt-out, and was rejected in a 2001 referendum.
The Defence Act 1954, the principal statute governing the Irish Defence Forces, did not oblige members of the Irish Army to serve outside the state (members of the Air Corps and Naval Service were not so limited). A 1960 amendment was intended to allow deployment in United Nations peacekeeping missions, and requires three forms of authorisation, which since the 1990s have come to be called the "triple lock":
- A UN Security Council resolution or UN General Assembly resolution;
- A formal decision by the Irish government;
- Approval by a resolution of Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Oireachtas or parliament, to which the government is responsible).
These provisions were modified in 1993 to allow for Chapter VII missions and again in 2006 to allow for regionally organised UN missions.
Before the creation of the Irish Free State, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801 to 1922; the pre-1801 Kingdom of Ireland was separate from but subordinate to the Kingdom of Great Britain (and before 1707 the Kingdom of England). While Irish unionists supported political integration with Britain, Irish nationalists were divided between those who envisaged some continuing link with Britain and the "advanced nationalists", mainly republicans, who wanted total independence. Separatists generally envisaged an independent Ireland being neutral, but were prepared to ally with Britain's enemies in order to secure that independence, reflected in the maxim "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity". Irish leaders in the Nine Years' War (1594–1603) allied with Spain. Wolfe Tone's 1790 pamphlet Spanish War claimed that Ireland was not obliged to support Britain if the Nootka Crisis started a war with Spain; Tone later sought France's aid for the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. At the outbreak of the First World War, James Connolly was president of the Irish Neutrality League and was prosecuted for a banner reading "We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland"; Connolly and the other leaders of the 1916 Rising sought military aid from Germany, and some countenanced a German prince becoming king of independent Ireland. In the 1921 negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Erskine Childers envisaged the Irish Republic having a neutral status guaranteed in international law on the model of Belgium and Switzerland. However, the Free State established under the Treaty as signed was a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, with the UK retaining responsibility for Ireland's marine defence as well as three naval bases, the "Treaty Ports".
The Free State joined the International Committee for Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War (Non-Intervention) Act, 1937 made it an offence to travel from Ireland to Spain to fight for either side. This applied both to Irish citizens and nationals of other countries on the Committee. Nevertheless, there was Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War on both sides by private individuals and groups. Another statute related to the Committee was the Merchant Shipping (Spanish Civil War) Act 1937, which restricted Irish shipping's access to Spain until 27 April 1939.
World War II
Ireland remained neutral during World War II. The Fianna Fáil government's position was flagged years in advance by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and had broad support. James Dillon was the only member of Dáil Éireann to oppose it during the war, resigning from Fine Gael in 1942 and demanding that Ireland assist the Allies (while not necessarily declaring war on the Axis). However, tens of thousands of Irish citizens fought in the Allied armies against the Nazis, mostly in the British army. Senators John Keane and Frank MacDermot also favoured Allied support.
De Valera stated in his wartime speeches that small states should stay out of the conflicts of big powers; hence Ireland's policy was officially "neutral", and the country did not publicly declare its support for either side although in practice, while Luftwaffe pilots who crash-landed in Ireland and German sailors were interned, Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) pilots who crashed were usually allowed to cross the border into British territory (although some Allied personnel were also interned). The internees were referred to as "guests of the nation". The German embassy had to pay for their keep. If they were on a non-combative mission they were repatriated. While it was easy for Allied pilots to make that claim, it was not realistic for Luftwaffe pilots to make a similar claim. Towards the end of the war, the German embassy was unable to pay, so the internees had to work on local farms. Strict wartime press censorship had the effect of controlling a moral reaction to the war's unfolding events and reiterated the public position that Irish neutrality was morally superior to the stance of any of the combatants.
Allied aircraft were allowed to overfly County Donegal to bases in County Fermanagh. Many of these aircraft were manufactured in the United States, to be flown by the RAF. This was known as the Donegal Corridor. Navigational markings are still, faintly, visible on mountains, such as Slieve League. There were many unfortunate crashes into these mountains. The bodies of dead airmen were handed over at the border. At the border the Guard of Honour performed a drill with reversed arms, a Bugler sounded the Last Post and a Chaplain gave a Blessing. An Allied officer, embarrassed that the coffins' journeys were being continued in open lorries, thanked the Irish for the "honour". The reply was: "Ours is the honour, but yours is the glory".
USAAF aircraft en route to North Africa refuelled at Shannon Airport, flying boats at nearby Foynes. A total of 1,400 aircraft and 15,000 passengers passed through Foynes airport during the war years.
In the course of the war an estimated 70,000 citizens of neutral Ireland served as volunteers in the British Armed Forces (and another estimated 50,000 from Northern Ireland, and this figure does not include Irish people who were resident in Britain before the war (though many used aliases). Those who had deserted the Irish Army to serve in the British Army, on returning to Ireland were stripped of all pay and pension rights, and banned for seven years from any employment paid for by state or government funds. Some 200,000 Irish migrated to England to participate in the war economy— most of them stayed after the war. Those who went without proper papers were liable to be conscripted. Irish military intelligence (G2) shared information with the British military and even held secret meetings to decide what to do if Germany invaded Ireland to attack Britain, plans which were formulated into Plan W, a plan for joint Irish and British military action should the Germans invade. However the Commander of the Irish Second Division based on the Northern Ireland border General Hugo McNeill had private discussions with the German Ambassador Edouard Hempel about German military assistance in the event of a British invasion from the north. De Valera declined Germany's offer of captured British weapons. The Germans did have a plan to simulate an invasion Ireland called Operation Green similar to the Allies Operation Bodyguard but it was only to be put into operation with the plans to conquer Britain, Operation Sea Lion.
Irish weather reports were crucial to the timing of the D-Day landings.
On Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, 180 Luftwaffe bombers attacked Belfast. De Valera responded immediately to a request for assistance from Basil Brooke, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Within two hours, 13 fire tenders from Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to assist their Belfast colleagues. De Valera followed up with his "they are our people" speech and formally protested to Berlin. Joseph Goebbels instructed German radio not to repeat their report of the raid as Adolf Hitler was surprised at the Irish reaction, which might influence Irish Americans to bring the United States into the war. Although there was a later raid on 4 May, it was confined to the docks and shipyards. (See Belfast blitz).
Ireland wanted to maintain a public stance of neutrality and refused to close the German and Japanese embassies. Unlike many other non-combatant countries, Ireland did not declare war on the near-defeated Germany, and therefore did not seize any German assets. Other neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland expelled German embassy staff at the end of the war, as they no longer represented a state, but the German legation in Dublin was allowed to remain open.
Irish neutrality during the war was threatened from within by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who sought to provoke a confrontation between Britain and Ireland. This plan collapsed however when IRA chief of staff Seán Russell died in a U-boat off the Irish coast as part of Operation Dove; the Germans also later came to realise they had overestimated the abilities of the IRA. The American Ambassador, David Gray stated that he once asked de Valera, early in the war, what he would do if German paratroopers 'liberated' Derry. According to Gray, de Valera was silent for a time and then replied "I don't know". De Valera viewed the IRA threat to the authority of the state as sufficiently significant to intern 5,000 IRA members without trial at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the war.
Many German spies were sent to Ireland, but all were captured quickly as a result of good intelligence and sometimes the ineptitude of the spies. The chief spy of Abwehr was Hermann Görtz. In 1983 RTÉ made Caught in a Free State, a dramatised television series about Görtz and his fellow spies.
As Ireland was neutral, Irish cargo ships continued to sail with full navigation lights. They had large tricolours and the word "EIRE" painted large on their sides and decks. At that time, Allied ships travelled in convoy for protection from the U-boat 'wolfpacks'. If a ship was torpedoed, it was left behind since the other ships could not stop for fear of becoming a target. Irish ships often stopped, and they rescued more than 500 seamen, and some airmen, from many nations. However many Irish ships were attacked by belligerents on both sides. Over 20% of Irish seamen, on clearly marked neutral vessels, lost their lives, in the Irish Mercantile Marine during World War II.
Winston Churchill, the British wartime Prime Minister, made an attack on the Irish Government and in particular Éamon de Valera in his radio broadcast on VE Day. Churchill maintained that the British government displayed restraint on the Irish state while the de Valera government were allowed to "frolic with the Germans". Churchill maintained that the British could have invaded the Irish state but displayed "considerable restraint" in not doing so. De Valera replied to Churchill in a radio broadcast:
Mr. Churchill makes it clear that in certain circumstances he would have violated our neutrality and that he would justify his action by Britain's necessity. It seems strange to me that Mr. Churchill does not see that this, if accepted, would mean that Britain's necessity would become a moral code and that when this necessity became sufficiently great, other people's rights were not to count….this same code is precisely why we have the disastrous succession of wars… shall it be world war number three?
Ireland applied to join the United Nations in 1945, but this was blocked by an objection by the Soviet Union in the security council. Sean MacBride considered that the UN boycott of Ireland was originally agreed at the 1945 Yalta Conference by Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Despite MacBride's belief, the United Kingdom fully supported Ireland's applications to join the UN.(Ireland eventually joined the United Nations in 1955.)
The Cold War
During the Cold War, Ireland maintained its policy of neutrality. It did not align itself officially with NATO – or the Warsaw Pact either. It refused to join NATO because Northern Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom. Ireland offered to set up a separate alliance with the USA but this was refused. This offer was linked in part to the $133 million received from the Marshall Aid Plan.
However, secret transmission of information from the government to the CIA started in 1955. The link was established by Liam Cosgrave via a Mr Cram and the Irish embassy in London, and was not revealed until December 2007. In 1962–63, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Seán Lemass authorised searches of aircraft that stopped over at Shannon en route between Warsaw Pact countries, and Cuba, for "warlike material".
Peace-keeping actions as a United Nations contingent
Irish Defence Forces have seen active service as part of United Nations peacekeeping activities – initially in the early 1960s Congo Crisis, and subsequently in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and the Lebanon (UNIFIL).
- The majority of the Irish people have always cherished Ireland's military neutrality, and recognise the positive values that inspire it, in peace-time as well as time of war. Neutrality has been the policy of the State in the event of armed conflict and has provided the basis for Ireland's wider efforts to promote international peace and security.
It recommended joining NATO's Partnership for Peace and participating in humanitarian missions of the Western European Union (WEU), but opposed joining NATO or the WEU as incompatible with military neutrality.
In February 2006, the Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea announced that the Irish government would open talks on joining the European Union battle groups. O'Dea said that joining the battlegroups would not affect Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality, and that a UN mandate would be required for all battlegroup operations with Irish participation. Green Party foreign affairs spokesperson John Gormley condemned the decision, saying that the government was "discarding the remnants of Irish neutrality".
2001–present Afghanistan War
Despite its policy of neutrality, Ireland has supplied the NATO-led ISAF mission in the 2001–present Afghanistan War with a running total of 120 Irish troops as trainers. The troops are provided under United Nations mandate. As at 8 June 2011, there were seven personnel there.
2003 invasion of Iraq
The Irish government did not take a position on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. United States Air Force planes were allowed to refuel at Shannon Airport during the conflict. As a member of the UN Security Council, Ireland voted yes to Resolution 1441 which threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq did not comply with weapons inspectors.
A 2004 report by Forfás noted that the policy of neutrality is a factor in Ireland's lack of an arms industry and strict export controls on weapons. The latter are currently enforced by the Control of Exports (Goods and Technology) Order 2009, a statutory instrument made under the Control of Exports Act 1983. The 2004 report noted concerns about dual-use technology and the use as weapons components of products from major Irish export industries such as chemicals, telecommunications equipment, computer chips and software. The state is also bound by EU regulations and international arms control treaties.
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