Ireland must have an “open and honest” debate on its longstanding military neutrality and the possibility of joining Nato, foreign minister Micheál Martin has said ahead of a public forum on the matter next month.
The war in Ukraine has raised questions about the island nation’s security in the face of 21st century threats, which include cyber security and attacks on undersea cables.
“We will discuss what our current policy of military neutrality means, whether it is fit for purpose in the current global security environment and whether we need to define more clearly what we do, and do not, mean by military neutrality,” Martin told the Dáil parliament on Thursday.
“I hope that the forum will provide a space to discuss what other security policy choices may exist for our island, as well as our responsibilities towards other partners,” he said.
But Martin, who is also Ireland’s defence minister, stressed it was not a “simplistic binary choice. Staying as we are today, or immediately seeking to join a military alliance such as Nato, are not the only options”.
Ireland’s military neutrality predates the second world war and is in its constitution. Its defence spending is a fraction of that of EU peers.
But John O’Brennan, a professor of European politics at Maynooth University, said a Russian ransomware attack on Ireland’s national health service in 2021 and incursions by Russian ships into Irish waters amid suspicion that they were mapping infrastructure, meant that Ireland should re-examine its “ostrich-like mentality”.
Ireland has convened citizens’ assemblies in the past to discuss other big constitutional changes, including ending the ban on abortion.
But in this case, the government has opted for a consultative forum involving 1,000 citizens, experts, academic and service personnel who will meet between June 22-27 in Cork, Galway and Dublin.
Its independent chair will be Louise Richardson, former vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, who will present a report to Martin after which he will decide whether or not to recommend policy changes to the cabinet.
Experts from Norway, a Nato member which, like Ireland, has a long history of international peace-building operations, as well as from Finland, which has been cleared to join Nato, and Sweden, which is seeking membership. Longtime neutral Switzerland will be invited to address the discussions.
Martin said it was time to examine the so-called “triple lock” mechanism — the need for Irish government and parliamentary approval, as well as a UN mandate, before more than 12 military personnel can be deployed abroad.
He also stressed that Ireland’s long-held belief that its location on the edge of Europe kept it safe, was being challenged in a globalised age.
“We can no longer rely either on our geographic isolation for our security, nor believe that we can isolate ourselves from world events,” Martin said.
Ireland is home to nine of the top 10 global tech and communications companies with “particular vulnerabilities” because of its position as a “fulcrum” in transatlantic undersea cables that could have “devastating consequences” for Ireland and its partners if attacked, he said.
“Since the attacks on the Nord Stream energy pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September 2022, we cannot ignore the particular vulnerabilities posed to energy and communications infrastructure, across Europe, and most especially in the waters of the North Atlantic, close to our shores,” he said.
Ireland is currently discussing “possible engagement” with a new Critical Undersea Infrastructure Co-ordination Cell at Nato, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.