Irish liberals are mounting a loud campaign for the state to abandon its neutrality and join NATO. Their agenda has minimal public support — and ignores Ireland’s potential to do good in the world as a nonaligned state.

People listen to speeches during the third day of the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy in Dublin, Ireland, on June 26, 2023. (Niall Carson / PA Images via Getty Images)

It’s not immediately clear what prompted the Irish government’s “Consultative Forum on International Security Policy” held in June. Polling consistently indicates that military neutrality is one of the country’s most popular policies, with polling sentiment in favor of joining NATO only around 15 percent. So, there’s hardly some organic swell in public opinion that explains the sudden interest in changing Ireland’s “Triple Lock” against overseas military deployments.

Even just three years ago, the center-right/Green ruling coalition issued a government program agreeing that this approach would remain unquestioned. Yet, while Irish media duly played down the idea that the Consultative Forum sought to erode the state’s historic neutral stance, the press in Europe reported things more straightforwardly: Ireland, we read, was questioning its “traditional policy of military neutrality.”

In fact, it has emerged not only that the Irish state has spent just over €1.19 million on a “liaison” office in Brussels over the last three years, but 130 members of the Irish defense forces are undertaking a NATO capability assessment. The fact that I was expelled from the forum’s first meeting in Cork — I had dared to raise a point of order about its format — indicates how serious an attempt at “national conversation” it was. The removal of an elected city councilor from a visiting roadshow on national geopolitics — at that, one chaired by a dame of the British Empire — did not seem to strike the organizers as potentially bad optics.

President Michael D. Higgins, whose limited role is to defend the constitution, described the discussion on neutrality as “playing with fire” in the geopolitical hothouse that Europe has been since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the idea of Ireland’s “neutrality” as purely a military question is an abstraction that demands scrutiny. The Irish Army has scarcely seven thousand full-time personnel and separating the military aspect of neutrality from its economic, political, and cultural position as a clearing house between regional blocs, as the forum did, is myopic.

Pressure From Who?

It was ironic enough that President Higgins’s words were denounced as “intemperate,” even though he only defended a long-established status quo. But even more paradoxical is that Ireland’s “drift toward NATO” will also endanger the niche role that it has established in the neoliberal era. That is, its place as a global middleman for tech, finance, and other footloose industries, since its in-earnest conversion to tax haven status, starting in the late 1980s.

The forum took place amid NATO expansion in Europe: Finland has become a full member and Sweden is set to follow suit. Yet, the discussion in Ireland is not driven from abroad. Britain, the neighboring former colonial power, has provided its defense capacities to Ireland for a century and is not asking for a rethink. Readouts from Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland in April did not report any expectations for a change in Ireland’s existing rather qualified form of neutrality. Even this status sees the United States’ military aircraft routinely use Shannon Airport for military supply, as in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

In the policy wonk zeitgeist, neutrality is presented as a waning anachronism of a pre-1991 world. But this can hardly explain the impulse to move away from Ireland’s brokering, processing, and “pass-through” alchemy — the very source of its wealth and relevance to global flows of capital, information, people, and commodities in the twenty-first century.

Arguably, this rather flexible neutrality makes the tax haven Ireland an attractive host not just for the headquarters of major tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, but also increasingly Chinese brands such as TikTok, aviation leasing for the majority of the world’s commercial aircraft, and even Russian arms companies using s110 of the Irish tax code to launder war profits.

Organic Crisis

Rather than asserting an air of confidence, the episode gives a stronger impression of crisis among an introverted ruling class, making rash moves in a polarizing world. These are the self-described “grown-ups” in the room, to whom the value of neutrality ought to be obvious. The pressures at play are internal to Ireland’s postcolonial ruling class, which is undergoing what the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci would have called an “organic crisis.”

Long-established elements of ruling-class hegemony urgently need shoring up, including the decayed Fianna Fáil party, which Foreign Minister Micheál Martin has led ever since its post-crash electoral rout in 2011. The histrionics of its current power-sharing with old right-wing rivals Fine Gael — a pact that requires the support of the Green Party to govern — have done little to distract from the electoral arrival of Sinn Féin, a still-untested steward of the Celtic Tiger estate.

Some of the responses of Ireland’s ruling class to their organic crisis have been rational, including an increasing acceptance of Sinn Féin in exchange for promises that their program will not threaten an economic model premised on attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and other permanent relics of the postcolonial state. But some responses have been deeply irrational. Chief among these are the maintenance of a permanent housing crisis and the non-use of a €26 billion budget surplus, despite huge gaps in public investment.

These irrationalities come so frequently it can be difficult to keep pace with them. This summer, the justice minister blithely announced the carte blanche blanket retention of all private telecommunications data for no specified purpose following an in-camera judicial hearing highly likely to be contested as a bizarre overreach of a panicking state.

But such convulsions of patrician paranoia have been intense since at least January 2023, when a farmer protesting against a bio-gas plant in the western town of Gort symbolically tossed two small-sealed pouches of dried cow manure at the feet of two visiting ministers. An exaggerated version of the story saturated the national airwaves for two full days, warning of the moral danger of any protest that disrespected or endangered “our democracy.”

The sanctity of “our democracy” was also invoked when peaceful protesters were forcibly removed by police on unlawful grounds from the first meeting of the forum on neutrality. The forum stands in this recent tradition of ham-fisted outward displays of hubris, which inadvertently show the nerves of a ruling class in crisis.

Of all the elements of the status quo, what above all has to be shored up amidst this organic crisis is Dublin’s position as a magnet for FDI, whether it is closer to Boston or Berlin. Emblematic of this is the huge growth in the territorial footprint of the original 11-hectare “special economic zone” in Dublin’s Docklands, the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) established in 1987.

Standing in the center of the capital, this unprecedentedly urban (rather than national) positionality took neutrality as a foundation for its relational, connecting role in the then new capitalist hegemony taking shape, i.e., one that operated on globalizing and financializing principles. Yet though it was new for Ireland, such a situation has historical precedent: the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century, whose incredible wealth was built on the same basis of neutral middleman entrepreneurialism and mercantilism.

The Irish ruling class’s primary achievement of the last forty years has been the establishment of a modern version of this city-state through a shortcut development path providing a conduit for international capital and a hub for financial services in Dublin. This strategy of transformation is frequently downplayed, for example by one pro-NATO voice at the forum, as some kind of naturally occurring “benign geographical position.”

But if Ireland has repeated such city-states’ rise, it might resemble their fall. For just as the Italians succumbed to their own irrational responses to the world changing around them, the Irish ruling class’s moves to consolidate its waning popularity show an obliviousness that risks undermining its own national project. For countries like Ireland, silver bullets like shifting geopolitical orientation in response to the zeitgeist will never provide what the ruling class so craves: insulation from the risks inherent to a polarizing world.

Neutral Power

Rather than simply watching this edifice crumble, socialists need to take the opportunity to advance an alternative. Socialism is neither about insulating nor isolating, but about connecting and empowering. The opportunity that missteps like Ireland’s forum on neutrality present to socialists is not only about opposing the more hawkish elements of the ruling class. Rather, it allows us to programmatically articulate how this neutrality and connectivity is a building block for an alternative, socialist political economy.

The Irish military’s humanitarian work in the Mediterranean during “Operation Sophia” saw some eighteen thousand refugees rescued by the Irish naval service up to 2020. Irish members of the European parliament (MEPs) who voted for the ending of the rescue operation were pilloried for their reactionary position, given the popular support for the role the Irish naval service had been playing until then.

In Ireland, the present NATO-leaning military’s resource problem is essentially an HR issue — they don’t pay enough to perform the operations to which they are committed. We already live in a world of mass displacement of populations. As such, missions to rescue refugees, for example, can be restarted, in opposition to the European Union’s despicable “Fortress Europe” policy, which relies on mass drownings at sea.

Neutrality allows for such transgressions, which might very well stick in the craw of EU leaders. But in this case the opportunity was missed — and Ireland filed obsequiously behind the EU’s pathetic capitulation to far-right anti-migrant sentiment.

Further to such usefully demonstrative transgressions, a world changing through climate crisis requires proactive stabilizing efforts such as siting key energy and water infrastructure in states that currently lack it. Ireland already has a presence in Lebanon as a UN peacekeeping force. But it would have much more to offer that infrastructure-poor country if it reoriented itself to become an exporter of this kind of social goods.

There are also ecological boundaries that neutral states need to enforce, such as patrolling marine-protected areas or recovering areas from invasive species or wildfires. The Irish army and navy, underpaid as they are, are already called in to perform various duties on an ad hoc basis. Why not formalize and develop these, as an actually neutral state?

This reasonable prospectus stands in stark contrast to the irrational hyperbole on display at Ireland’s neutrality forum. Its fear-based argumentation evokes that of a pamphlet produced in 1970 by British Tories asking if Ireland as “our Cuba.” That other island nation has emerged since as a case-study in sustainable development and as an exporter of public goods across much of the world, despite the continuing economic blockade. We can imagine the possibilities, if a neutral country with the relations that Ireland has would choose to do something similar.

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