Readings in Nonviolence: Irish neutrality – What path are we on?

By Elizabeth Cullen


This paper will discuss the implications of Ireland’s involvement in EU related military activities and discuss an alternative, namely the adoption of an independent foreign policy. Ireland joined the European Economic Community, or “Common Market” as it was referred to then, in 1973 along with the UK and Denmark. At that stage the EEC was portrayed to Irish voters as a large market and the benefits to Ireland of being a part of it were extolled for both farmers and industrialists, who were expected to benefit from the demands of a large European market. The prospect of high farm prices, increased farm exports and higher employment was a big economic attraction of EEC membership, and the entire country was expected to prosper as a result of joining the EEC. However, the story did not unfold as many had expected. This paper relates to the impact on our military policy

Militarism and the EU

There has been a steady but silent progression to participation in military alliances. The Single European Act of 1987 referred to cooperation in a supra-national foreign policy (*1) and the more recent Lisbon Treaty in 2009 led to the “progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence” and thereby the foundation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy6 (*6) It is of concern that unlike Ireland, Denmark obtained an exclusion from participation in military issues before signing this Treaty. A common defence is an army. Ireland joined the European Defence Agency (EDA) six years later. (*2) This agency, established by the Lisbon Treaty, supports the weapons industry. Total spending by the EDA was 198 billion euros in 2020, “the highest level ever recorded” since the EDA records began in 2006. (*3)

There have been two more recent developments in our military related activities, namely PESCO and EU Battle groups. We joined PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) in 2017. PESCO was established by the EU Commission and arose from the Lisbon Treaty and was developed by a policy group known as the “Group of Personalities” (*4). This group included arms industrialists intent on finding ways for EU Governments to navigate around national sovereignty and neutrality clauses in order to foster greater EU military integration (*12).

In December 2017 after just a 2-hour debate in the Dáil, members voted 75 to 42 in favour of Ireland signing up to PESCO (*5). PESCO aims to establish an EU-wide arms industry, and the EU’s European Defence Agency will tell PESCO members, including Ireland, what weapons to buy (*6). Lobbying by the arms industry is shaping the European Union’s approach to security and defence (*7). We also committed ourselves to spending 20% of our total defence budget on military equipment and research (*12). The commitments made by countries under PESCO are legally binding in nature (*8) and include commitments:

– To regularly increase defence budgets in real terms,

– To increase defence expenditure in order to fill “strategic capability gaps”

– To aim for a “fast-tracked political commitment at national level, including possibly reviewing their national decision-making procedures”

– To simplify and standardise cross border military transport in Europe for enabling rapid deployment of military materiel and personnel

– To ensure that all projects “make the European defence industry more competitive via an appropriate industrial policy which avoids unnecessary overlap

– To commit to “agree on common technical and operational standards of forces acknowledging that they need to ensure interoperability with NATO”

In relation to the last point, regarding “interoperability” with NATO, the EU and NATO signed the second joint declaration on EU-NATO cooperation in July 2018 (*9). After this meeting NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg stated: “We just finished a fruitful meeting on NATO-EU cooperation. Over the past two years we have achieved unprecedented levels of cooperation and we have been working together in 74 concrete areas.” (*10) The summit characterised the EU as a “unique and essential partner for NATO,” and agreed that the capabilities developed under PESCO would be available to NATO and be “complementary and interoperable’(*18). Alongside conventional and missile defence forces, nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence (*11).

According to our Irish National Development Plan, spending on defence capital projects will increase from €77m in 2018 to €125m in 2022 (*12). Annual assessments will be conducted by the “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” (a position created by the Lisbon Treaty) (*13) to ensure that Ireland is honouring these commitments. The Lisbon Treaty does not ban weapons of mass destruction and it does not demand that military operations will only be in self-defence or when there is a UN mandate. (*14)

The move to militarism is clear and this is acknowledged by the European Union External Action department, the EU’s diplomatic service (*15),which states that “Collectively, Europe is a very large military spender. But it is far from being a large military power. This is because of inefficiencies in spending and the so far largely untapped potential of working together on planning, procurement or research, to name but a few of the issues” (*16).

This level of ignorance among EU citizens about the EU’s CSDP and PESCO is concerning; only 12% of European citizens claim to be aware of the mutual defence clause and to know what it is. (*14)

An independent foreign policy

The long-standing government definition of so-called “military neutrality” as “non-participation in military alliances” has been described as nonsensical in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty ratification (*17). Can we be reassured by Leo Varadkar’s statement in 2018 that “We are not going to be buying aircraft carriers; we are not going to be buying fighter jets; and we are not going to be shopping around military trade fairs.”? (*20)

Despite Varadkar’s assurance, Ireland’s neutral or independent foreign policy is seriously at risk. Professor John Maguire writes (*18), “let us look at the list of “nothing-to-see-here”: with Irish government acquiescence we have yielded an EU Common Defence Fund; a joint EU military HQ; EU Battle Groups (in which Ireland participates); a centralised EU military budget and research programme, and a European Defence Agency (on whose board Ireland sits) promoting ‘a single market for defence’. And of course everyone signed up to PESCO gets a CARD: Co-ordinated Annual Review of Defence”. In Operation Sophia, which Ireland joined in 2015, 25 EU states combined to return refugees to the hell they have just attempted to escape; Minister Paul Kehoe explained to the Dáil that Ireland was now participating in “a military mission”. (*26)

A further four statements illustrate the intention of the EU to militarize:

– In 2000, Romano Prodi (then president of the European Commission) stated: “When I was talking about the European army, I was not joking. If you don’t want to call it a European army, don’t call it a European army. You can call it “Margaret”. You can call it “Mary Ann”. You can call it any name”.(*19)

– In 2017, Jean Claude Juncker, EU Commission President proclaimed that: “By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union. We need it. And NATO wants it.” (*18).

– In 2018, Angela Merkel stated:But I also have to say, seeing the developments of recent years, that we have to work on a vision to establish a real European army one day.”  (*26).

– And more recently, Ursula von der Leyen, the current President of the European Commission, is reported as saying: “The exit of Great Britain from the EU opens up new possibilities for intensifying military cooperation among the member states”. (*27)

While the Schumann declaration declares a desire for peace, Commission President Romano Prodi stated that “The two pillars of the Nation state are the sword and the currency, and we have changed that” (*22).

The characteristics of “active” neutrality have been outlined by Devine and include the primacy of the UN, peace promotion and maintaining Ireland’s independence, identity, and independent foreign policy25. Sovereignty is the ability of a country to make its own laws and to decide its relationship with other countries. This becomes even more critical when one considers that the former German Defence Minister and now President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has called on a number of occasions during the last year for decisions under the EU’s Common Security and Defence (CSDP) to be made by qualified majority voting (QMV) rather than unanimously. “We are thinking about perhaps moving towards a majority vote in diplomacy and foreign affairs so that we can respond rapidly to crises and speak with one voice, one European voice,” she said recently; ‘and so you cannot be blocked by one country”. (*23)

The question has to be asked why we have not gone down the road of using the United Nations as a mean of addressing international conflict issues. The UN Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It has 15 members, and Ireland is one such member. The Security Council is mandated to take the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or an act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of settlement. It may resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security (*24) .

We need to strengthen and support the UN. It is of paramount importance that we call a halt to the creeping militarization of the EU, or at least Ireland’s role in it. And there is support for this. An MRBI poll in June 2001 showed 72% of Irish people supported Irish neutrality (*25). While a Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll (*26) in March 2022 revealed that 49% of the population agreed with the statement that “the original concept of Irish neutrality was out-of date”, nevertheless, 63% of the same sample agreed with the statement that “Ireland should remain militarily neutral in the war waged by Russia against Ukraine”. More recently still, an Irish times/Ipsos poll (*27) in April 2022 found “overwhelming support” among the Irish population to retain our current model of neutrality, with two thirds of voters not wanting to see any change.

What needs to be done?

Three things need to be done.. Firstly and most importantly, we must stand up for what we believe in. As Devine states, “Neutrality is not for the faint-hearted; rather, it is a courageous non-aggressive stance in a world in which most small states simply “bandwagon” with an aggressor, as opposed to striking an independent path for peace”.25 (*25) It is vital that we incorporate a constitutional provision on neutrality into our constitution and a referendum has been called for to enshrine the Triple Lock (*28) in that; as Farrell states, (*23) Not to do so leaves the way open for a future Irish government to try to dispose of the requirement for a UN mandate, leaving only cabinet and Dáil approval, a foregone conclusion in the current political set-up”.

Secondly, we could reject being part of the military development of the EU and obtain a defence opt-out like Denmark has done i.e. the Danish people support the “opt-out” clause that prevents Denmark being involved in the militarization of the EU. The Irish Government could utilise the simple process, namelynotify its intention to the Council, which shall take note that the Member State in question has ceased to participate.”. (*18). The Danish taxpayer does not pay for EU military projects, and Danish soldiers do not wear EU uniforms or participate in EU military operations (*22). Saying NO to the EU defence policy does not prevent Ireland from being a responsible independent nation that works for peace globally. Ireland can still participate in the UN’s peace missions around the world. We can help to remove land mines in former war zones and we can stop the weapons trade to countries that constantly violate human rights (*22). Bring neutral does not mean being silent.


It is of vital importance that we review the impact that membership of the EU is having on our foreign policy, and our membership of military alliances. Doing nothing about our current situation will allow Ireland to drift into an EU super-state over which it will have no control. In effect, EU membership has fundamentally subverted the national independence of Ireland and is in direct opposition to the proclamation of “unfettered control of Irish destinies” in 1916. Democracy can only exist at the level of the nation state, where there is solidarity and mutual interest.

When we were warned not to let Ireland be in the “slow lane” of Europe, and to vote for several European treaties, we were not told where the fast lane of Europe was leading to. There is no shame in admitting a mistake. These is however, dishonour in knowingly and wilfully bringing Irish people down a path that they do not wish to be brought.

(*1) Summary of the Single European Act Accessed 9th Feb. 2021.

(*2) “The road to the EU army” Accessed 9th Feb. 2021 and Article 5 of the NATO Pact says countries have a defence pact to go to war if one member state of NATO is attached. A more specific mention of the use of nuclear weapons can be read via the NATO Nuclear Policy Directorate.

(*3) Accessed 14/5/2022

(*4) “PESCO, Industry and War!” Thomas Pringle TD in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*5) PESCO and Militarisation. Mick Wallace TD in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*6) “PESCO is not about peace, it is about preparing for EU wars”. Accessed 9th Feb.2021

(*7) Accessed 9th Feb.2021

(*8) Accessed 9th Feb.2021

(*9) Accessed 9th Feb.2021

(*10) The Militarisation of the EU! Frank Keoghan. in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*11) Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*12) “One year on – the price of joining PESCO, Paul Cunningham Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*13) Notifications on PESCO to the council and to the High Representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*14) “Denmark has rejected participation in the militarisation of the EU. Hopefully Ireland will do the same!” Lave K. Broch, in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*15) Accessed 9th Feb.2021

(*16) Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*17) Dr Karen Devine of Dublin City University, Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*18) “A vivid impression: The repressed potential of Irish neutrality” John Maguire in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*19) Independent, 4 February 2000 quoted in

(*20) 9th Feb. 2021

(*21) Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*22) “1916 values diverted”, The Village magazine, Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*23) Niall Farrell in Clare Daly et al, PESCO: Irish Neutrality and the Militarisation of the EU (Dublin 2019). Available from

(*24) Accessed 9th Feb. 2021

(*25) Accessed 9th Feb. 2021



(*28) The Triple Lock was to ensure that, where the size of a Defence Forces contribution was more than 12 personnel, Irish soldiers would not serve abroad unless there was a UN Security Council mandate, along with Dáil and government approval. But it has effectively been abolished by the Irish government so as to ensure full participation by the Irish Army in the EU Battlegroups.

– This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in People’s News, the newsletter of the People’s Movement