Identity politics, neutrality and the Single European Act referendum: Lessons for modern Ireland

Jack McCarthy | 03 March 2021


Jack McCarthy argues that identity politics and extreme nationalism have once again emerged as challenges to modern democracies. He writes that for extreme actors and for the uninformed public, the Irish foreign policy of military neutrality is inextricably linked to a traditional concept of Irish identity. However, identity politics and the hijacking of neutrality has precedent in past Irish political discourse, with negative consequences for Ireland’s relationship with the EU at the time. This commentary summarises key arguments of his thesis on ‘Irish Identity Politics and Opposition to the Single European Act Referendum of 1987’, applying these findings to modern challenges.


Challenges to western democratic processes today have not been as alarming since the Second World War. In dealing with these contemporary challenges to the foundational aspect of our society, many of us will look to the past for lessons about how to deal with such difficulties.

Among those issues that confront us as a society are disinformation and electoral interference, extreme nationalism and populism and the politicisation of global emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Of these modern challenges, one of the principle threats to emerge in the last decade is the rise of identity politics. Principally concerned with the patriotic protection of traditional national identity that is usually tied to religion, race or ethnicity, elements of this populist method found spectacular success in the 2016 Brexit Referendum in the UK and in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016. However, identity politics is not a new phenomenon or strategy.

The Single European Act ratification as an historical example of identity politics in Ireland

A number of similarities to today’s environment can be found in the opposition to the ratification of the Single European Act (SEA) in Ireland over the course of 1986 and 1987, where disagreement and hostility to EU integration was centred on the supposed threat to Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. The neutrality reservation is explained as a product of the country’s ‘own historical experience, geopolitical location and domestic political debate’ and is deeply embedded in the national political culture of Ireland going back to the foundation of the State. Ireland’s confusing commitment to the neutrality reservation can be summarised as a gap between the Irish government’s attitude to neutrality and the Irish public’s attitude to the policy. Past Irish governments have made the disposability of neutrality very clear. In the Second World War, Ireland  consistently broke the policy with support for the Allies and in 1961, as the State applied to join the European Economic Community Ireland’s policy of neutrality was made heavily conditional. Irish governments have had an essentially instrumental view of the neutrality policy whereas the Irish public tends to have a broader, quasi-ideological view of neutrality.

The SEA was intended to be a framework to galvanise the European Economic Community (EEC) to become a more cohesive Union economically and politically and sought to create a more consistent foreign and defence policy across the EU Member States. Even though the Act was passed in January 1987, the legislation was successfully challenged by an economics lecturer, Raymond Crotty, and a referendum was subsequently put to the public in May 1987. However, the Irish Supreme Court’s judgment was surprising insofar as the court did not rule that the SEA was unconstitutional because it overstepped what was authorised by the electorate in the referendum on accession to the EEC in 1973.  Surprisingly, the Supreme Court ruled instead that the provisions on political cooperation in the Act were unconstitutional as they were a significant step along the path to a single European foreign policy.

A rancorous public debate arose over the meaning of neutrality and Ireland’s relationship to the European Community that spanned the political and social spectrum. Inaccurate rhetoric from opposition groups and a negligence of foreign policies by successive governments, as well as the already evident misunderstanding in the judiciary, meant that confusion reigned in the public and government of the day. After the announcement of the referendum, the opposition groups that came to the fore spanned traditional and conservative Catholic groups and radical left-wing organisations. Many of the groups principal concerns over the SEA and its possible consequences was that it would undermine Irish sovereignty, not only through threatening Ireland’s foreign policy status but that the Act constituted a threat to Irish Catholic values such as the importance of family values and the respect of the right to life of the unborn – even though it would do nothing of the sort. The groups also seemed to have a vision of the external role of Ireland, in that the Irish government should maintain neutrality at all costs and not be bound to anything resembling a military alliance.

The disinformation and populist politics emanating from these opposition groups meant that when the issue did come up for debate, it became a partisan issue for the political parties. The combination of the confusing and ambiguous definition of neutrality that was sparked and fostered by the pragmatic approach of parties to the neutrality policy; the disinformation from opposition to the SEA; and parochial issues clouding debate on matters of foreign affairs, resulted in bewilderment. As a result, the Irish public came to confuse neutrality with pacificism. The policy of military neutrality became an ambiguous legal issue that the public did not know the true meaning of, but which they categorically saw as an expression of the nation’s sovereignty.  

This confusion over the actual meaning of neutrality and its probable misperception with pacificism became an issue the State could not ignore after the spectacular judgment of the Supreme Court in 1987. Much of the misunderstanding of neutrality in the public manifested itself as a retaliation against the European Community. The unbalanced and inaccurate arguments of the ‘No’ side and a lack of engagement from the Government with the Irish public on foreign policy issues created a belief in some sections of the public that traditional Irish identity would be diluted by the foreign and secular European community. Moreover, mistrust of the political system in Ireland and Brussels stemming from high unemployment, ambiguity surrounding neutrality, and previous governments’ approach to the policy also contributed to this suspicion of the European Community.

Nonetheless, the SEA was ultimately passed in the referendum on 26 May 1987 and the neutrality reservation was manifested in the official declaration of Ireland’s neutral status that was attached to the instrument of ratification.

Implications for modern Ireland and its place in the EU

This episode in Irish history illustrates the power of identity politics, showing that the impact of the spread of disinformation and emotional rhetoric, as well as  populist politics are nothing new in modern society. Furthermore, in addition to the re-emergence of identity politics nationally and internationally, Ireland’s official status as a neutral state remains ambiguous and instrumental. Foreign military aircraft continue to use Irish airspace and airports for refuelling and Ireland’s defence forces remain chronically under-funded. One of the key tenets of neutrality is a credible deterrent, and the capability of Ireland’s defence forces certainly do not meet this principle. An Oireachtas Committee report from February 2016 on the use of Irish airspace and facilities by U.S. military aircraft identified this gap, stating that ‘the Joint Committee note the lacuna between what is understood by the citizens by neutrality and what is the de facto position.’ To this day, the Irish public are ‘rightly proud’ of the Defence Forces participation in UN Peacekeeping missions. However, when it comes to EU peacekeeping or security and defence missions, there is a hesitancy in public discourse around whether Irish military personnel should participate.

The ‘lacuna’ identified by the Oireachtas Committee between the de facto position of the State and the ideological view of much of the Irish public has the same potential for exploitation and disruption from identity politics that occurred with the ratification of the SEA. Ireland must therefore adopt a clear and defined position on neutrality and impart this to a well-informed public.

At the time of the SEA referendum, there was notable frustration vented towards Ireland from other EU Member States which were eager to proceed with further integration. In more recent years, the Irish state has received considerable support from the EU, and Britain’s exit from the Union means that Ireland has also lost its closest partner on the EU stage. Ireland must now take up a proactive position and ‘constructively contribute to the future of the EU’.

Where the EU is continuing on a path toward further integration in security and defence, Ireland will surely be expected to support further legislation and the implications for Ireland of maintaining its current ambiguous status of neutrality, with its potential for exploitation and disruption by populist and right-wing rhetoric, would be significant. If Ireland wants to keep its current considerable standing in Brussels, it will have to address its position of neutrality and begin to constructively contribute to EU security and defence developments.


Jack McCarthy is a Junior Analyst at The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy, Ireland. Having graduated from University College Cork with an MA in International Relations, he undertook traineeships in the European Committee of the Regions and the EU Institute of Security Studies (EUISS). His research interests include identity politics, European integration, and digital technology/cyber risks for humanitarians and civilians in conflict and disaster situations.

Authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of The Azure Forum.