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Irish neutrality has been a policy of the Irish Free State and its successor the Republic of Ireland since independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. The exact nature of Irish neutrality in practice is a matter of debate.
Ireland's concept of neutrality
There are notable differences between Irish neutrality to traditional types of neutral states:
- While most neutral states maintain strong defence forces, Ireland has a relatively small defence force, and would have to rely on neighbours in the event of a conflict.
- While most neutral states do not allow any foreign military on their soil, Ireland has a long history of allowing various nations to refuel at Shannon Airport. Particularly in recent times this has led to protest from anti-war activists who say that such a policy supporting military operations. Irish governments have always said that allowing aircraft to use Irish soil does not constitute participation in any particular conflict.
A neutral state may however, allow its citizens, even if they only hold a passport for this particular state, to serve in the armed forces of other, possibly belligerent, nations if the laws of the countries concerned permit them to do so. For example, the Republic of Ireland, even though the Irish Free State became independent from Britain in 1922, still permits its citizens to serve in the British armed forces today. (Switzerland operates a similar policy, allowing its citizens to serve in the armed forces of France, Germany or Italy.)
World War II
During World War II, which the Irish government referred to as The Emergency, Ireland decided to remain neutral. At the time anti-British feeling was still high, but neither could the government support Nazi Germany.
It was also decided that there was no way Ireland could handle a major war due to the economic problems of the time and the total neglect of the military since independence, the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera also decided, based on his experence of the failed League of nations, that small states should stay out of the conflicts of big powers. Ireland's policy was officially "neutral", and the country did not publically declare its support for either side – although in practice, while Luftwaffe pilots who crash-landed in Ireland were interned, RAF and USAF pilots who crashed were allowed to leave.
Irish military intelligence shared information with the British military and even held secret meetings to decide what to do if Germany invaded Ireland in order to attack Britain. Irish weather reports were crucial to the timing of the D-Day landings, and positions of German submarines were regularly reported to the Royal Navy through secret messages,
However Ireland wanted to maintain the idea of neutrality publicly and refused to close the German and Japanese embassies and the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera even signed the book of condolence on Adolf Hitler’s death in an attempt to appear neutral.
Irish neutrality was threatened from within by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who wanted to contact Germany and organise an invasion of Ireland which would install IRA chief of staff Sean Russel as a puppet leader. This plan collapsed however when Russel died in a U-boat off the Irish coast, the Germans also later came to realise they had overestimated the abilities of the IRA.
Many German spies were sent to Ireland, but all were captured fast as a result of either good intelligence or sometimes the stupidity of the spies sent.
Irish neutrality during World War II had broad support with only one vote against it in Dáil Eireann from a Fine Gael TD that demanded Ireland side directly with the Allies. However, thousands of individual Irish citizens fought on the Allied side against the Nazis.
The Cold War
During the Cold War, Ireland maintained its policy of neutrality. It did not align itself officially with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact. It refused to join NATO because at the time Ireland still claimed Northern Ireland territory which was part of the UK. Ireland offered to set up a separate alliance with the USA but this was refused.
Ireland supported the campaign known as Operation Allied Force to stop the genocide in Kosovo and the invasion of Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks known as Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Irish government did not take a position on the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, although most of the population were against it, and USAF planes were allowed to refuel at Shannon Airport even if they were on their way to Iraq. As a member of the UN Security Council, Ireland voted yes to Resolution 1441 which threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq did not comply with weapons inspectors.
It is inaccurate to describe Ireland as a neutral state in the same way as Sweden or Switzerland, it would be more accurate to describe it as a non-aligned state which takes conflict participation on a case by case basis.
Neutrality in Ireland is generally taken to mean non-participation in a conflict unless approved by the so called triple-lock (The Government, Dail Eireann, and the UN Security Council), when Irish leaders say Ireland is a neutral country, it is this triple-lock that they are referring to, the dispute arises in two ways:
1. Some disagree with participation in any armed conflict even with UN approval.
2. There is disagreement over what constitutes participation in a war, supporters of the triple-lock policy would take it to mean active military support or a declaration of war, some however say that allowing military forces to refeul on Irish soil if they are on their way to a conflict is participation.
Today, the Republic of Ireland is not a neutral country in the same way asSweden, Switzerland and Japan, and could join any war it pleases in theory through an Act of the Oireachtas. Although the Irish state has not been involved in an actual "war" since its own civil war the Republic of Ireland has been a leader in peace-keeping and peace-making missions around the world, much like Canada. It is a member of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace, after Ireland became a member the Minister for Foreign Affairs said Ireland would never join the main NATO organisation, this was to calm the fears of those who said that PFP was a "backdoor to NATO", as many of its past members had eventually joined NATO.
Irish soldiers have begun to be involved in offensive operations in recent times such as the special forces Army Rangers in operation in East Timor and the peace enforcement mission in Liberia, both missions were in accordance with the policy of having UN approval.
Politically, Irish neutrality is now opposed by Fine Gael who want Ireland to join a European Common Defence which allows the country to choose on a case by case basis what to be involved in but signs up to collective security in case of actual attack.
Neutrality in its literal sense, in a way similar to Sweden and Switzerland, is supported by the Green Party, Labour Party,Socialist Party and Sinn Féin, however they have diffrent ways of defining neutrality.
The Progressive Democrats have generally not supported the idea of neutrality in all circumstances. Party leader Mary Harney has stated "you cannot be neutral between democrat and dictator, you can't be neutral between right and wrong"
Fianna Fáil supports the traditional policy, the "triple-lock".
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