'Nato likely wouldn’t want Ireland as a member anyway.' (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

October 27, 2023   8 mins

Over the summer of 1951, there were so many visitors to a remote Irish Army facility in County Donegal, known as Finner Camp, that traffic jams were common. The crowds were trying to catch sight of a strange new aircraft, a Westland Dragonfly: one of the first helicopters to operate in Ireland. The presence on a nearby beach of an amphibious DUKW truck painted in Irish Army colours stirred similar curiosity. Especially because the Irish Defence Forces did not, at that time, have any such equipment in its inventory: the military would not receive its first helicopter for another 12 years.

The poorly concealed truth was that the helicopter and DUKW belonged to the British armed forces. They had been disguised as being Irish to avoid starting a riot.

The vehicles were in Ireland with the cooperation of the Dublin government as part of Operation Sandstone, an attempt to create military maps of every part of the Irish shore. This was taking place at the request of the US, in case Soviet troops overran both the UK and Ireland and Washington needed to launch a counter-invasion. It is a little-known episode in Anglo-Irish relations that neatly demonstrates Ireland’s ambivalent and highly flexible attitude to military neutrality. The government was allowing, and assisting, what was essentially a Nato military operation on its shores — just two years after Ireland had refused an invitation to be a founding member of the Alliance.

Irish neutrality has been in the spotlight over the last two years. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2020 raised the question of just how much assistance Dublin can provide Kyiv without rendering neutrality completely meaningless. More recently, and more in keeping with the principle of neutrality, Ireland, unlike most western countries, urged Israel to comply with international law in responding to the Hamas terror attacks. Of course, an independent foreign policy stance does not always go hand-in-hand with military neutrality — but more on that later.

For the strongest defenders of Irish neutrality, it is a concept that predates the foundation of the state — and is a key motivation for the revolutionary leaders of the early 20th century. But this is a distortion. Neutrality was chiefly a way of distinguishing a new Irish State from Britain, rather than an ideological principle. Irish men should no longer be sent to die in British wars, Ireland’s founders argued: “Ireland cannot,” declared the section of the Irish Volunteers which went on to carry out the 1916 Easter Rising, “with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a National Government of her own”. But a Dublin Government should be able to join whatever military alliances it saw fit. Indeed, one of the foundational documents of Irish statehood, the Proclamation of the Republic — which was issued during the Easter Rising — pays tribute to “our gallant allies in Europe”: a reference to Germany, which helped arm the rebels. Some of the main leaders of the Rising even favoured an Ireland with a German prince as its head of state. Some neutrality.

When the War of Independence ended in 1921 with a ceasefire, the Irish side went to the negotiating table in London with some aspirations to neutrality. But these were quickly dropped when it became clear that the British side, at the insistence of Winston Churchill, would not countenance an Ireland with an independent defence policy. On too many occasions, Ireland had been used by Britain’s enemies in attempts to open up a western flank. This could not be allowed to happen again, Churchill said.

The final settlement, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, denied the new Irish Free State the right to a navy and left three of its major ports in the hands of British forces. Britain would remain responsible for the external defence of the fledging state, rendering the question of neutrality largely moot for the next 15 years. But with the dismantling of the Anglo-Irish treaty by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera in the Thirties, neutrality again became a viable prospect. As the failure of the League of Nations became apparent and war clouds gathered over Europe, de Valera declared “we want to be neutral”.

But his decision was practical rather than ideological: he judged neutrality to be the best way to protect Irish lives and sovereignty. Then, as now, Ireland’s military was entirely incapable of fending off invasion or making any contribution to the war effort. And joining the war on the Allied side could have reinvigorated support for the IRA and potentially even led to civil war. But most important for de Valera, a declaration of neutrality was a way of announcing to the world Ireland’s final and complete independence from its former colonial master.

Still, de Valera knew that the neutrality employed by Ireland would have to preference the Allies. Otherwise, there was a very real possibility that Churchill could order a pre-emptive invasion to deny the island to the Germans. (In fact, Churchill had ordered his generals to prepare plans to do just that.) And so, Ireland allowed crashed Allied airmen to cross into Northern Ireland. Sometimes the Irish would even fix up Allied airplanes and send them back, too. Crashed Germans, on the other hand, were interned until the end of the war, as per international neutrality law.

Then there was the almost complete cooperation in intelligence between Ireland and the Allies. After the war, MI5 concluded that Irish “neutrality” actually helped the war effort, as it freed up tens of thousands of Irish workers to enlist in the British war effort while allowing Dublin to covertly collaborate with London in almost every way short of joining the hostilities. Unlike the policies relating to airmen, much of this assistance remained secret for decades after the war: in the eyes of the world, Ireland seemed much more neutral than it was.

Throughout history, then, Irish neutrality has meant whatever the government of the day has needed it to mean. Sometimes it has meant not taking part in sanctions against an aggressor nation, such as during the Falklands War when the government withdrew from European sanctions against Argentina. More recently, neutrality has been defined by the government in the narrowest way possible: not being a member of Nato.

Ireland’s refusal to become a founding member of the Alliance after the war has been held up as a clear example of the nation’s commitment to neutrality. But the truth is, the government of the day was very keen to join Nato, which it viewed as the best defence against the encroaching threat of godless communism. The only obstacle, it said, was partition. If America would pressure the UK to return the six counties, Ireland would be happy to become a member, Irish diplomats said. The gambit failed. “We simply replied, in effect, that ‘it’s been nice knowing you’,” an American official later recalled.

Over the subsequent decades, neutrality was rarely discussed in the public sphere. This suited the government perfectly, as its definition of the concept was becoming even more muddled. Having no air force to speak of, Dublin was happy to rely on a secret deal with the RAF to defend Irish airspace. It was also more than willing to support the western side in the Cold War when it came to dealing with Soviet spies. Meanwhile, it took comfort from the fact that if war did break out, Nato would, out of necessity, have to defend Ireland to ensure its own security.

The process of European integration only served to intensify the ambiguity. When Ireland voted to join the European Economic Community in 1972, various Irish leaders had publicly stated that the endpoint was likely some form of joint defence league — but the public did not seem to care. The prospect of economic stability and an avalanche of infrastructure funding from Brussels was enough to quieten any concerns about a potential loss of neutrality at some undefined point in the future.

But over subsequent decades, as EU military cooperation became more concrete, neutrality started to factor into decisions by Irish voters. Starting in the Nineties, whenever an EU treaty appeared promising closer union, including in military matters, the public were sceptical. Twice, in 2001 and 2008, Ireland rejected these treaties in referendums. This led to the insertion of significant opt outs for Ireland regarding military cooperation. In the Irish mind, neutrality had become what it remains today: an extremely popular if poorly understood concept.

Even after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, support for a general policy of neutrality remained as high as 70%. Events such as the 2021 cyberattack by a Russian hacking group, which crippled the Irish health service, or the presence of Moscow’s spy ships in Irish waters, have done little to change minds. And yet, other recent polls show a majority in favour of increased EU military cooperation, while support here for military assistance to Ukraine is among the highest in the EU. Trying to explain this contradiction to an outsider is difficult. The simplest and most cynical explanation is that most people don’t really understand what neutrality means or that it offers little defence against modern security threats. A somewhat kinder interpretation is that Irish people see their country as a force for good in the world and are therefore willing to adapt their definition of neutrality when necessary.

Take its response to Ukraine. Ireland has committed to providing millions in military aid but only of a “non-lethal” nature. As a result, it provides fuel for Ukrainian tanks but not ammunition for guns. It is training Ukrainian troops in “humanitarian” areas such as demining, while ignoring the fact that demining operations are a major part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Last month, it emerged that this training also includes basic weapons instruction.

But how much longer can Ireland afford the luxury of ambivalence? Threats are mounting on the horizon, including growing espionage activity by Russia and China. Ireland’s vital subsea communications cables are vulnerable — as is its open, tech-based economy. In 2022, a government-appointed commission found that Ireland is almost entirely defenceless when it comes to military threats. Since then, the situation has only worsened. As it stands, the Defence Forces can only put two of Ireland’s eight naval ships to sea due to a lack of crew. When a helicopter was needed to carry out a maritime drugs bust last month, an air ambulance had to be used.

Some have seen warnings about Ireland’s vulnerability as an attempt to bounce Ireland into Nato against the wishes of the people. This is a conspiracy theory. Applying for Nato membership would be political suicide for any Irish party. While closer EU military cooperation may be palatable to the electorate, joining the Alliance remains deeply unpopular. Besides, the state of the Irish military means Nato probably wouldn’t want Ireland as a member anyway.

But ministers are conscious of the concerns of Ireland’s neighbours, including the UK, that it represents a weak point in European defence. The Government is making some moves to allay these fears. It has promised to increase Irish defence spending by 50% in the next five years, though that would still leave it with one of the lowest defence budgets in the EU. And Dublin has committed to the newly revamped EU Battlegroup system, which will provide an expeditionary force to carry out the EU’s foreign policy objectives overseas. In order to provide enough troops, Ireland has withdrawn from a major UN peacekeeping mission in Syria.

Critics of the Irish government have accused it of incrementally dismantling neutrality. Here they have a point, insofar as Irish foreign policy is now belatedly adapting to 21st-century threats. More is being spent on defence — although not nearly enough — and there is closer cooperation with other militaries, for instance when it comes to cyber threats. At the same time however, national security remains a low priority domestically; the government doesn’t even have a standalone defence minister and soldiers and sailors are leaving the Defence Forces in droves for better pay and conditions in the private sector.

But while neutrality is changing incrementally, the possibility of abandoning it completely and joining a military alliance remains remote. Moves towards a genuine EU common defence pact have stalled; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has convinced many member states that Nato is the best guarantor of their security. This suits the Irish government perfectly. The simple fact of geography means, in protecting its own territory, Nato also protects Ireland without the need for any potentially divisive national debate. For a while longer at least, Ireland can claim a form of neutrality, safe under the security umbrellas of its neighbours.

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times. His book, Is Ireland Neutral? is out now.