Contestation and Confusion: Irish Consultative Forum on International Security Findings  

Strategic Insight 027/2023

Ben Tonra

25 October 2023

Contestation and Confusion: Irish Consultative Forum on International Security Findings  

In her report on the Irish government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy , the chair, Professor Dame Louise Richardson, has succeeded in crystalising the confusion and contestation surrounding Irish foreign policy in the area of international security and defence. The report offers no specific policy recommendations but it does usefully identify a few areas of consensus and sets the scene for Government to begin to make necessary choices in foreign and security policy. These are indeed urgently required if we are to begin to see Ireland’s adaptation to a new and much more dangerous global security environment.

Much of the report – arguably too much – is scene setting and a summary of the Forum itself. This is perhaps useful for those that did not follow the work of the Forum and is a resource for the casual reader. The pencil sketch summaries of the individual panels give an accurate and balanced appreciation of the areas covered over the four days and eighteen panels of expert contributions. The report is also generous to a fault to those that opposed the establishment of the Forum, that questioned the bona fides of those contributing to the Forum’s work and even those that sought to disrupt the Forum. All of this is ascribed to the passion of debate, the openness of the process and the need for a wide democratic conversation in making potentially seminal foreign and security policy choices.

Where the report begins to make a substantive contribution is in its identification of areas of widespread, if not, general agreement. The report highlights the widespread support for Ireland’s ‘values-based’ foreign policy; its commitment to UN Peacekeeping; for increased defence spending to meet prevailing and new threats; for strengthening Ireland’s multilateral security within the EU; as well as for the urgent need for UN reform. Critically, the Chair also highlights the fact that notwithstanding unsupported, if fervent allegations to the contrary, there is no pressure, internal or external, for Ireland to abandon its current traditional policy of military neutrality.

The report proceeds to dive more deeply into the areas of confusion and contestation surrounding security and defence policy. Interestingly, the so-called ‘triple lock’ is featured first among these issues. The report unfortunately misstates the nature of the lock in ascribing UN authorisation only to the UN Security Council when in fact – at least theoretically – the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 also allows for such authorisation through the UN General Assembly. Nonetheless, the report accurately frames the nature of the debate surrounding the triple lock, highlighting the fact that it cedes control over the international deployment of Irish troops on peace support missions to external actors – or “[t]hree members of NATO and two authoritarian governments” as the report memorably cites one participant. Noting that the political roots of the triple lock are to be found in mistrust and misinformation, the report perhaps comes closest to making a policy recommendation when it states that “the preponderance of views, especially among the experts and practitioners, is that it is time for a reconsideration of the Triple Lock as it is no longer fit for purpose.”

The report also highlights disagreement over NATO. This is not a disagreement over whether or not Ireland should join the Alliance – the report makes it clear that there is no significant political constituency making such an argument. Instead the disagreement is over what attitude to have towards NATO: as a defensive alliance of democracies or as a U.S. tool of imperial expansion. While such a ‘debate’ may appear quixotic to many, it clearly underpins political attitudes towards European security and defence issues in Ireland.

The bulk, however, of the report’s focus is on differences over ‘neutrality’: what it implies for the practice of foreign policy; whether it should be embedded in the constitution; and what its future holds. Usefully the report spends some time in breaking down bitterly contested understandings over how to define neutrality and noting that confusion in debates on the topic often revolve around them. While the report’s own definition of the practice of Irish neutrality (as political alignment with military non alignment) is deeply problematic, the report fairly and accurately highlights how Irish understandings of neutrality often fail to map onto well established legal, political or institutional definitions or practice anywhere else in the world. The exceptionally unique nature of Irish neutrality is thus fully revealed here in all its inconsistent glory. Critically too, the report challenges the link between neutrality and a values-based foreign policy. While it was passionately asserted by some that neutrality is the bedrock of a progressive foreign policy and the foundation of Irish peacekeeping, the report starkly concludes that “Ireland’s policy of neutrality is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Ireland’s global standing as a force for good in international affairs.” The report addresses the question as to whether or not neutrality should be written into the constitution by way of referendum, to copper fasten its role. Here, too, the report presents a range of opinion but, again by way of the preponderance of argument, offers the conclusion that “…it would be reasonable to conclude that the imposition of rigid constraints, like a constitutional amendment, is likely to have a negative impact on the state’s ability to act effectively in the international arena.”

The report’s formal conclusions highlight again the exceptionally wide breadth of the security challenges facing Ireland, the speed at which change is occurring and the very real dangers that all of this poses to the Irish state and its people. Its major point of reference concerns defence spending and the overwhelming evidence for public support “…to increase significantly expenditures on the Defence Forces across land, sea, and air, and to invest in cyber security and protection of critical maritime infrastructure.” The report also notes – albeit in passing – that Ireland’s changing demography will have an impact on the shape of Irish security policy into the future; potentially adding new resources and new perspectives to Ireland’s security profile. The report’s final appeal is again for flexibility and adaptability in the face of inevitable and potentially seismic security change.

Through this report, Professor Dame Louise Richardson has executed a challenging task, shining a mirror on Ireland’s fractious national debate surrounding international security and defence as well as the ad hoc, often contradictory and perennially confused ‘traditional policy of military neutrality’. Having sponsored this as an urgent exercise in public consultation in the face of new and accelerating insecurity, it is to be hoped – contrary to almost all historical experience – that the Government seizes this opportunity to make necessary policy change.

Ben Tonra, MRIA is Full Professor of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations and a Distinguished Fellow of the Azure Forum.

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The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy is Ireland’s first and only independent think tank dedicated to providing recommendations on peace, security and defence. As Ireland’s first national security research institute, the Forum aims to contribute to national and international security analysis and strategic studies for a more peaceful, secure, resilient and prosperous future nationally and globally at a time of emerging global risk.