Labour supports military neutrality
Remarks on the Thirty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Neutrality) Bill 2018
9 April 2019
The policy of the Labour Party is unambiguously to support Ireland’s longstanding policy of military neutrality.
And by debating this Bill, we have a useful opportunity to re-state our perspectives on what Ireland’s neutrality means today.
That’s perhaps the real purpose of this Bill’s introduction.
I will return to the text of the Bill, but I want to first of all elaborate on the core issue of our military neutrality.
Labour’s perspective on Ireland’s neutrality has a number of dimensions to it. I would like to focus on just three of them.
Firstly, Labour’s role in the long history of opposition to conscription and violent conflict in Ireland.
Secondly, the adequacy of our current Defence policy in terms of maintaining military neutrality.
And thirdly, the need to redefine neutrality as an active concept that can and should be promoted across Europe and abroad, including as a response to new forms of warfare, as well as a response to conventional warfare.
On the first point, Ireland’s people have a long history of rejecting armed conflict as a means to achieve political or economic ends.
Ireland adopted neutrality as a policy during the Second World War, and that has been maintained as our national policy.
But decades in advance of that, Labour’s leader Tom Johnson was a prominent pacifist.
Recently we recalled that he was the primary author of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
But Tom Johnson also called Western Europe’s first successful general strike, when he mobilised Ireland’s working people against conscription during the First World War.
After the death of Connolly, Johnson became the leader of the labour movement. He and labour associates worked to achieve national independence.
Crucially, Johnson was a constitutionalist, guided by the rule of law.
When the anti-treaty faction of Sinn Féin refused to recognise the Dáil and the Civil War began, Johnson spoke out against the Army Mutiny and in favour of civilian control.
This is all relevant to today’s debate, because we are talking about the deep roots of Irish people’s antipathy to war and violence.
Ireland’s working people were mobilised by the labour movement against conscription in the First World War.
Labour sought to hold together the fledgling Irish state, and Johnson was the leader of the Opposition in the Dáil for the crucial period of 1922 to 1927, including for all but three months of the Civil War.
After that conflict, it was Labour who helped ensure the reintegration of the Civil War enemies into the Dáil – albeit as bitter rivals – and it was ultimately the constitutionalist, civil tradition that won out over violent factionalism in the establishment of this State and its traditions, including our tradition of military neutrality.
On my second point, we have a range of defence policies and relationships in place that respect Ireland’s military neutrality.
The “triple lock” arrangement means the Army will only be deployed when there is a UN mandate, a Government decision and a Dáil vote.
Ireland’s military neutrality is respected by our European Union partners.
The Lisbon Treaty has its “Protocol on the concerns of the Irish people”.
Among other things, the Protocol states that:
“The Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army or for conscription to any military formation.”
“It will be for Member States – including Ireland, acting in a spirit of solidarity and without prejudice to its traditional policy of military neutrality – to determine the nature of aid or assistance to be provided to a Member State which is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of armed aggression on its territory.”
Defence spending in Ireland is the lowest in the European Union, at 0.3% of GDP in 2017, compared to an EU average of 1.3% and spending as high as 1.8% in France or 1.9% in the UK.
That is as it should be.
We should not be spending a lot of money on Defence, although I would like to see us spending more when it comes to the pay and conditions of our Defence Forces personnel, many of whom are on shockingly low wages, as Labour has stated many times in this House.
If these policies are currently working to maintain our military neutrality, the question that arises for Sinn Féin is what, if anything, requires us to modify the Constitution at this time?
From Labour’s perspective, we do not want the Army involved in warfare.
However, Ireland has a proud record of UN peacekeeping, where we make a unique contribution.
The Army is recognised as having world-class expertise in countering improvised explosive devices.
As part of UN peacekeeping work, Ireland has been involved in the destruction of mines, the removal of dangerous chemicals and the destruction of ammunition for small arms in the Balkans and Ukraine.
Participation in UN-mandated peacekeeping operations do not challenge our military neutrality.
The third substantive points I want to make is that neutrality is not a concept that is fixed in time.
There are different traditions of military neutrality around the world and within Europe.
Switzerland has a long history of neutrality, but it is a form of neutrality underpinned by mandatory military service for its citizens and a convincing military capacity to repel invasion.
That is not at all the type of neutrality that we want for Ireland.
We want to promote peace and to share our antipathy to the use of violence to achieve political ends.
We do not want a large military.
But we do want to be able to defend ourselves adequately, including against terrorism and new forms of warfare like cyber-attacks.
That requires us to have some engagement with military alliances to access the technology and shared intelligence we need to protect our citizens.
In relation to the proposed legislation, it does not support our current tradition of military neutrality, but seeks to make fundamental changes to it.
The proposed changes to Article 28.3.1° could potentially make it impossible for Ireland to continue to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, as it rules out any participation in armed conflict except to defend the State.
The proposed changes to Article 28.3.1° would certainly tie the hands of any Government and Dáil if we wanted to offer some assistance of a military nature to another European country that was invaded or that suffered a major terrorist attack.
If something did happen, the proposed text would not only rule out direct involvement in any mission, but it would prevent Ireland from taking any action at all, even sharing anti-terrorist intelligence with our European partners.
At an extreme, the modified Article could also rule out a whole range of normal civilian co-operation if that co-operation also had a benefit or alternative use for military operations.
So while I have great sympathy with the intent behind the amendment, it would appear to promote an isolationist and uncooperative form of neutrality that would not respect our current traditions.
On the proposed additional text for Article 29.3, I can certainly agree with adding the text that “Ireland affirms that it is a neutral state.”
Perhaps it should say “militarily neutral and committed to non-aggression” in order to spell out exactly what we mean by neutrality in our own context.
But the additional text is more problematic, depending on how it might be interpreted.
If the Constitution did state that the State shall “maintain a policy of non-membership of military alliances”, that would seem to rule out our membership of the Partnership for Peace, and possibly rule out co-operation with NATO on UN mandated peacekeeping missions.
Could that text even rule out membership of the European Union itself?
After all, the European Union does have mutual defence as part of the Treaties, even though Ireland has an opt-out in the Protocol to the Lisbon Treaty.
Again, this text would appear to have unintended consequences that would disrupt our existing tradition of military neutrality without any obvious benefit.
So while Labour, of Ireland’s political parties, has unquestionably the longest and clearest commitment to non-violence and military neutrality, we have difficult with elements of this Bill.
Sinn Féin’s Bill proposes to amend Articles 28.3.1° and 29.3 of the Constitution.
Article 28.3.1° War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.
Article 29.3 Ireland accepts the generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct in its relations with other States.
The December 2018 edition of the Constitution of Ireland is here: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html
Sinn Féin’s proposed text would read as follows:
Article 28.3.1° War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war or other armed conflict, nor aid foreign powers in any way in preparation for war or other armed conflict, or conduct of war or other armed conflict, save where it is immediately necessary in defence of the State and with the assent of Dáil Éireann.
Article 29.3 Ireland accepts the generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct in its relations with other States. Ireland affirms that it is a neutral state. To this end the State shall, in particular, maintain a policy of non-membership of military alliances.
The Ireland Protocol, following the Lisbon Treaty, states in black and white that “The Treaty of Lisbon does not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality”.
It also states the following:
“It will be for Member States – including Ireland, acting in a spirit of solidarity and without prejudice to its traditional policy of military neutrality – to determine the nature of aid or assistance to be provided to a Member State which is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of armed aggression on its territory.
“Any decision to move to a common defence will require a unanimous decision of the European Council. It would be a matter for the Member States, including Ireland, to decide, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon and with their respective constitutional requirements, whether or not to adopt a common defence.
“Nothing in this Title affects or prejudices the position or policy of any other Member State on security and defence.
“It is also a matter for each Member State to decide, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon and any domestic legal requirements, whether to participate in permanent structured cooperation or the European Defence Agency.
“The Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army or for conscription to any military formation.
“It does not affect the right of Ireland or any other Member State to determine the nature and volume of its defence and security expenditure and the nature of its defence capabilities.
“It will be a matter for Ireland or any other Member State, to decide, in accordance with any domestic legal requirements, whether or not to participate in any military operation.”