When an angry protester smashed a truck through the iron gates of the Russian Embassy in Dublin on March 7, he summed up many Irish attitudes toward Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In Ireland, we like justice,” said the protester, Desmond Wisley, after climbing down from the truck to immediate arrest and meme immortality. “I’ve done my bit, lads,” he added. “It’s about time the rest of Ireland done their bit.”
Yet exactly what that “bit” should consist of remains a troubling question in Ireland, even if sympathy and support for Ukraine is widespread and deep.
Soon after the war started in late February, Ireland offered visa-free entry to Ukrainian refugees, estimating that around 200,000 would arrive over the course of the conflict. By March 28, nearly 13,500 had already arrived. Demonstrations against the invasion have also been noisy and large, while the government has strongly condemned Moscow’s war and ramped up humanitarian aid.
Going further than that, however—such as by sending military assistance to Ukraine—is a lot more controversial. Even as Russia’s war has triggered a surge of support among the country’s fellow European Union member states for a stronger common defense policy, providing military aid to Ukraine runs up against a key foundation of Ireland’s independence: the country’s long-standing principle of neutrality.
Irish citizens have largely supported staying out of foreign wars throughout the country’s modern history, leading to both its neutrality in World War II and its decision to stay out of NATO. Now, though, that policy is under growing pressure, and Ireland’s taoiseach, or prime minster, Micheal Martin, has even said that neutrality is “a policy issue that can change at any time.”
Shifting opinion has coincided with a realization in Dublin that Ireland’s own military capabilities are woefully deficient. A government defense review in February found that Dublin potentially lacked “a credible military capability to protect Ireland.”
For some, that has wide implications. “We’ve become the weak link in European defense,” said Michael Kennedy, a historian at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. “We’re here on the North Atlantic, between the U.S. and Europe, and we have major air, sea, and cyber lanes going over and around us—and we simply can’t defend them.”
Indeed, just prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow announced it would conduct naval exercises in Ireland’s exclusive economic zone—which Ireland, lacking any active military radar systems, couldn’t even track, let alone deter. As Kennedy put it, “the door is open to anyone who wants to go right through.”
Neutrality and nonalignment have been key pillars of Ireland’s foreign policy since it won independence more than a century ago. “Neither king nor kaiser, but Ireland!” was a key slogan for many Irish nationalists as they fought against British rule in the 1916 Easter Rising while Britain was also fighting the German Empire in World War I.
“The slogan was an assertion of Ireland’s identity as a nation,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of Irish politics and history at the University of Liverpool. “Independent Ireland wasn’t going to align with Britain or anyone else.”
“The general principle of neutrality has always been seen as kind of sacred,” said Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times. Ireland is so nonaligned, in fact, that it is not even part of the 120-country Non-Aligned Movement. And this principle has long been upheld across party lines. The current coalition government is led by Fianna Fail, the party that first pushed for neutrality a century ago, while the main opposition party, Sinn Fein, is now one of the policy’s strongest supporters.
Furthermore, since a 1960 amendment to the 1954 Defence Act, a legal “triple lock” has been in place that prohibits any Irish military deployment overseas without the explicit approval of the Irish government, parliament, and the United Nations Security Council—a body on which Ireland has no permanent representation.
Dublin has generally resisted repeated moves by Ireland’s EU partners, including France, to establish joint EU defense and security arrangements. “Every time there is mention of such a thing,” Kennedy said, “the bogeyman of a European army is brought up by pro-neutrality parties and media—in other words, ‘My son isn’t going to die for Brussels.’”
Ireland has thus opted out of EU efforts to create a European defense force, with its nonparticipation even explicitly stated in the EU’s 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. And, as of 2002, the Irish Constitution states that Dublin will “not adopt” any decision of the EU’s European Council on common defense.
Meanwhile, Ireland has had little incentive to join NATO. Thanks largely to its key geographical location in the Western Approaches, the country has been sheltered under a de facto NATO umbrella, even while remaining outside the alliance.
When NATO was founded in 1949, anti-communist, pro-Western Ireland was willing to sacrifice its neutrality to join—if Britain would only give up Northern Ireland. But since Britain was a NATO founding member, London vetoed any deal, while the existing NATO members calculated that, “as long as NATO had bases in Northern Ireland, they didn’t need the rest of the country,” Kennedy said. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy and air force regularly moved into waters and airspace off Ireland’s North Atlantic coast, and mainly British NATO planes and ships ended up patrolling Irish waters and skies—something they still do, if without any formal agreement.
“All this time,” Kennedy said, “we’ve been, in effect, a free-rider on NATO.”
With naval and air security thus effectively left to its more powerful neighbors, for many years, Ireland’s own defense forces have focused on land-based, domestic security. A light infantry force of around 9,000 soldiers now constitutes the bulk of the Army, while the Irish navy and air force have received little funding. This has left the former with just nine ships—three of which are currently being decommissioned due to old age—while the latter has no jet fighters or long-range transports.
“Last summer in Kabul you saw the effect of that,” Leahy said. When the Taliban stormed into the Afghan capital last August, and Irish citizens working with humanitarian organizations were still there, “we were hitching rides on other country’s planes in order to get our people out.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized moves already underway within Europe—and within Ireland itself—to boost defense budgets. The Irish government is currently considering doubling its $1.2 billion annual defense spending, with a renewed focus on air and sea.
Yet even this may not be enough. “As a small country, you only have two ways to defend yourself,” Kennedy said. “There’s collective defense—joining an alliance—or there’s a massive defense budget.”
For instance, other neutral European countries, such as Finland and Switzerland, spend substantially on their militaries, have conscription, and have made long-term investments in defensive infrastructure. For Ireland, however, more spending has often been politically stymied by “the guns-or-butter argument,” Kennedy said. “Why spend on defense when we need to spend on housing and health?”
As for collective defense, the war has boosted moves to establish a European defense force. The EU’s new defense strategy, the Strategic Compass, which was released in March, contains plans for a 5,000-soldier rapid deployment force, increased joint training exercises, and a variety of other common actions, including enforcing arms embargoes and supporting counterterrorism operations. Yet if the Strategic Compass ends up requiring Ireland to participate in military activities, Leahy said, Dublin might not be able to meet such obligations without a constitutional referendum.
“A referendum is a big deal—and a big risk for the government,” Leahy said, as it is unclear, based on recent polling, how it would turn out.
An early March poll by the Sunday Independent newspaper and Ireland Thinks showed that 49 percent of respondents thought the original concept of Irish neutrality was out of date, versus 44 percent who didn’t. Yet, the poll also showed 63 percent thought Ireland should stay neutral in Ukraine. In addition, 37 percent thought Ireland should join NATO—a figure “very, very high by historical standards,” Leahy said, but still far short of a majority. Another March poll, by Red C for the Business Post newspaper, did, however, show 46 percent of respondents in favor of Ireland contributing to an EU defense force, despite the potential constitutional prohibition.
“How these proportions might change in a referendum campaign, once a proper debate is held, is hard to say,” Leahy said. “What is clear, though, is that the ground is shifting in terms of the public’s attitudes.”
Yet this shift—and Martin’s suggestion that Ireland’s position could change—have also galvanized pro-neutrality parties.
On March 14, Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, warned the Irish online news site the Journal that it was “a mistake” to try to use Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to “shift Ireland away from our traditional policy” of neutrality.
The left-wing People Before Profit party then advanced a bill on March 23 calling for a referendum on writing neutrality into the constitution. This was defeated in parliament on March 30, but the resolution received support from Sinn Fein and a coalition of independent deputies, losing by just 14 votes in the 160-member assembly.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed EU leaders by video at a Brussels summit on March 24, he listed the 27 member states’ positions on his country. “Lithuania stands for us,” he said. “Latvia stands for us. Estonia stands for us. Poland stands for us.”
When it came to Ireland, however, Zelensky could only say that the country “almost” stood with his country.
That “almost” may be how Ireland’s position rests, too, for the foreseeable future as the country tries to come to grips with the true meaning of one of its founding principles, in a world much changed from the days of king and kaiser.