Narratives about war are shaping Ireland’s views on Neutrality

Claire Cogan

09 December 2022

Research conducted this summer shows that narratives about the war in Ukraine are shaping Ireland’s views on neutrality. Since 24 February 2022, the international and Irish domestic context have been dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Every day, news media updates us on the conflict, and its wider consequences including forced migration, unstable supply chains and the rising cost of energy and food. These consequences are brought home to us in tangible ways, in the rising cost of fuel and food and in the refugees living among us. Narratives emerge through various news media channels and explain what is happening and why. We are exposed to these narratives on a daily basis. Some narratives take hold and become dominant. We shape these prevailing narratives, and we are in turn shaped by them.

Narratives matter because they shape our perception and influence how we think. In July 2022 we set out to explore whether prevailing narratives about the war in Ukraine were having any effect on the historically broad consensus behind Ireland’s military neutrality.

To measure the effect of narratives, two narratives were chosen that linked to the war in Ukraine and were in public circulation in July 2022: one on the theme of military conflict, a consequence of the war, and one on food insecurity, a risk generated by war.

An online survey was conducted among 1,845 adults aged 18+ and resident in the Republic of Ireland.  Participants were randomly split into three groups. The first two groups were asked to read a short paragraph either on military conflict or food insecurity before completing the survey, while the third group acted as a control group and was not asked to read anything beforehand. The question was whether those asked to read a narrative about either military conflict or food insecurity would respond any differently to the survey than those in the control group. Research of this kind helps identify and measure the impact of narratives on peoples thinking.

The survey asked whether, if people were offered a choice, they would choose for Ireland to join NATO, or an EU army if one existed. The research explored attitudes to other aspects of Ireland’s defence policy, including the level of military investment and understanding of the key purpose of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

Research Findings 

The results of the survey showed that the narrative about military conflict had an effect on responses to questions about joining NATO, joining an EU army, and the level of Ireland’s military investment. By contrast, the narrative about food insecurity did not, despite food insecurity being a risk associated with military conflict generally and the war in Ukraine particularly. Those that read the food insecurity paragraph may well have been moved by it, but not in a way that affected their views on joining NATO or an EU army, or Ireland’s level of military investment.

The key finding to emerge from this research was that those who read a narrative about military conflict were more likely to agree that Ireland should join NATO (56% vs. 49% for the control group) or an EU army (60% vs. 51% for the control group).

Those who read the paragraph about military conflict were also more likely to agree, compared to those in the control group, that Ireland would be safer as part of an international military alliance, and less likely to agree that Ireland remaining neutral was important to them.

Context and prevailing narratives shape our thinking. Ireland’s policy of military neutrality, characterised by non-membership of military alliances, is long-established. It is seen as complementary to Ireland’s role in promoting international peace and stability and it has historically had broad support among the Irish population. However, evidence suggests that the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine and prevailing narratives about it are influencing how some in Ireland view neutrality.

Claire Cogan is a practicing behavioural scientist and founder of BehaviourWise which was established in early 2020 to help people and organisations understand human behaviour and what drives it. Prior to this, Claire built an international career in the corporate sector where she headed insight teams, advised boards on strategic issues and led organisational behaviour change programmes. She worked for Unilever, Britvic and Kerry Group, and for global market research agencies GlobalData and Kantar Millward Brown. On 3 November 2022, Claire was a discussant at the Azure Forum’s public discussion on: ‘Are Ireland’s views on neutrality and NATO changing?’ as part of the Forum’s ‘Irish Security Debates’ series.

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