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Irish neutrality has changed but it is too early to consider it dead and buried

Nature of neutrality has evolved significantly since 2022 Ukraine invasion with the process of change appearing to accelerate last year

This time last year, officials in the Department of Defence were worried about a missing invitation.

It was to a meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group (UDCG), a US-led alliance where members can pledge the donation of military supplies to the Ukrainian Armed Forces to assist in its fight against Russia.

Until that point, Ireland had been an enthusiastic member of the initiative, informally known as the Ramstein Group after the US airbase in Germany where many of the meetings took place. Ireland had sent officials to every meeting and made announcements about military aid to Ukraine, including body armour, medical supplies and rations.

Irish officials were perplexed when no invite had been received from the US department of defence to the next group meeting, scheduled to take place two days later.

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“I’m not sure whether I missed the invitation or whether there was an oversight on the part of the hosts/organisers,” wrote an Irish defence official to his US counterpart. “I’d be grateful if you could confirm that Ireland has been invited and, if so, perhaps you could resend the invitation.”

The oversight turned out to be no more than an email mix-up and Ireland was represented two days later at the German airbase as allies further discussed Ukraine’s need for artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

Records and documents released following a Freedom of Information request show Irish defence officials have attended almost 20 UDCG meetings since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. It is just one of the many ways, small and big, in which the nature of Irish neutrality has changed in the almost two years since, a process which seemed to accelerate last year.

The Government’s position is that Ireland’s neutrality remains substantially the same. It argues Ireland’s stance is one of military neutrality, a narrow definition which simply means the country is not a member of a common defence alliance such as Nato. But it is undeniable that just a few years ago participation in something like the Ramstein Group would have been unthinkable.

For many, including most of the opposition in the Dáil, neutrality encompasses more than just staying out of Nato. It entails staying out of international conflicts, focusing on dialogue and diplomacy as a means of resolving disputes, and supporting UN institutions.

Participation in the Ramstein Group is just one way Ireland is helping Ukraine’s military. It is also contributing to the EU Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM) which is co-ordinating the training of Ukrainian recruits by EU militaries.

A year ago, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Micheál Martin said Ireland’s training contribution would be in “non-lethal” areas such as demining, combat medicine and engineering and would not impact on neutrality. However, the Government acknowledged six months later there would also be training in basic weapons skills and military tactics. Officials took the view that because Ukraine was engaged in a war of self-defence, the offer was justified.

It was a significant departure from the previous position and led to protests outside the Department of Foreign Affairs by anti-war groups and calls for the Dáil to be recalled (although, notably, there was little criticism from Sinn Féin).

Since then, Irish soldiers have conducted several training missions for Ukrainian personnel, with more planned for this year. Groups such as People Before Profit painted the mission as part of a gradual erosion of neutrality and Ireland’s continuing entanglement in EU military structures, which they fear is a precursor to a full-blown EU defence alliance.

They point to Ireland’s increased participation in Permanent Structured Co-operation (Pesco), an EU initiative intended to increase military co-operation between member states in developing and procuring military equipment.

For years, Ireland had a minimal role in Pesco. Between 2017 and 2022, it was a member of just one project, a Greek-led programme to improve maritime surveillance. In 2022, the Government moved to expand Irish participation to four more projects where Ireland had previously just held observer status. These include a project focused on “cyber threats” and another involving the establishment of a special forces medical training centre.

Ireland has also become an observer on 19 other projects, a step which often precedes full membership, meaning it now plays a role in a third of all Pesco projects. Some of these are of a decidedly militaristic nature, including one to develop a protype Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle and another to develop an EU Patrol vessel.

Crucially, one of these is the “Critical Seabed Infrastructure Protection project”, which aims to mitigate the risk of foreign adversaries interfering with subsea cables and other vital underwater infrastructure.

The topic has created much debate and concern in recent years given the increasing number of Russian naval vessels observed near the locations of these cables. With this in mind, the Government also plans to join the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Co-ordination Cell, a Nato initiative aimed at sharing information on underwater threats.

The Government has also committed about 180 troops, comprising a mechanised infantry company and headquarters staff, to the newly reformed EU Battlegroup system.

These 2,000-strong battlegroups will act as a rapid response force for the EU which, according to the Government, will be used “to stabilise a situation pending the deployment of a follow-on force”.

The idea is soldiers could be on the ground within hours to, for example, prevent a genocide or evacuate EU citizens from a war zone. Whether this will work in practice, given the political disagreements which shackled the previous iteration of the battlegroups, remains to be seen.

Irish troops will train with their EU colleagues in Germany on several occasions throughout this year and will remain on standby for short-notice deployment next year, after which another battlegroup will take over. For neutrality advocates, the move is particularly worrying as, in order to free up manpower for the EU, Ireland withdrew its troops from a major UN peacekeeping mission in Syria.

Battlegroup deployments will be facilitated by what is arguably the biggest development regarding neutrality last year, the Government decision to abolish the triple lock. In simple terms, the triple lock refers to legislation and policy which prevents the deployment of 12 or more Defence Forces troops on an armed overseas mission without approval of the Dáil, the government and UN authorisation.

Since the UN Security Council has not mandated a UN mission since 2014, it is the Government’s view that the last of those locks represents an unreasonable restriction on Irish foreign policy decisions. The five permanent security council members have a veto on any decisions to deploy peacekeepers, meaning countries like Russia and China can effectively decide where Irish troops can be sent.

After Martin announced plans to draft legislation to abolish the need for UN approval, Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty accused him of abandoning “decades of Irish foreign policy”, saying the triple lock “is a core protection of Irish neutrality”.

Martin’s response was that the triple lock has little to do with neutrality. Whether that is true or not comes down to how one defines neutrality. However, given the announcement came on the back of several other major changes in defence policy, including a commitment to increase military spending by 50 per cent by 2028, it is no surprise the accusation was made.

It is too early to consider neutrality dead and buried. The Government has repeatedly stated it has no interest in joining Nato and there is no reason to think otherwise. Applying to join the alliance is a long and complicated process, and there is little sign of Ireland embarking down this road, notwithstanding the closer co-operation in areas such as subsea infrastructure.

And while the Defence Forces are to provide basic weapons training to Ukraine, the Coalition has remained steadfast in its commitment not to supply lethal weapons, in keeping with the programme for government.

Furthermore, the Green Party vetoed proposals to provide more advanced weapons training to Ukraine, such as sniper training, due fears about neutrality.

Even Ireland’s participation in the Ramstein Group comes with an asterisk. Most meetings have been at ministerial level, involving figures as prominent as US sectretary of defence Lloyd Austin. Perhaps worried about the optics, Ireland has never sent a Minister. Instead, it is represented there by senior civil servants and military officers.

The most telling sign that Ireland will remain neutral, or at least a form of neutral, is the current state of the Defence Forces. There is little chance Nato or any other alliance would want Ireland as a member given the current state of its military, which continues to haemorrhage personnel and is 1,500 troops short of its establishment strength of 9,500.

Despite several improvements in pay and allowances last year, the exodus to the private sector continues. This has resulted in the Naval Service only being able to put two ships to sea and the Army facing severe difficulty in finding enough soldiers for the battlegroup.

The Government has announced plans to increase the size of the Defence Forces to 11,500 within four years and boost spending by hundreds of millions of euro. However, even if these goals are met, Ireland would still have one of the smallest militaries in the EU per capita. It would also still have one of the smallest military budgets, far lower than the 2 per cent of gross domestic product mandated for Nato membership.

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