The war in Ukraine should be a “catalyst” for an “honest rethink” about Ireland’s security and defence policies, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
It comes after President Michael D Higgins called for an “informed and respectful” debate on the future of Irish neutrality.
Speaking after an address to the Dáil by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday, Mr Coveney said Ireland and other EU countries will go through a “fundamental review” around security policy in the coming months.
“I think what’s happening in Ukraine today, effectively war at the heart of Europe with over four million people having to flee that war into the European Union, and probably about another six million internally displaced within Ukraine, that is and should be a catalyst for an honest rethink and discussion around security and defence issues here in Ireland and how we approach that from a from a European perspective as well.”
“Neutrality is something that Ireland has been discussing and considering for years, we have a separate foreign policy around military non-alignment. That’s a foreign policy that I think is still relevant today. But undoubtedly Ireland, like every other country in the European Union and on the continent of Europe, is going to go through a very fundamental review and debate and discussion around security and defence policy.”
Mr Coveney said he will bring recommendations around the future funding of the Defence Forces in a memo to Cabinet in June.
“I am open of course to how Ireland considers the security of this State and its people and Ireland’s place in Europe in terms of the partnerships that are now there around security and defence policy.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has previously said a citizens’ assembly should be convened to discuss the future of Irish neutrality.
Mr Martin said Ireland needed a debate on its neutrality but “not now” while the war in Ukraine was ongoing.
Mr Coveney also described as “extraordinary” a decision by People Before Profit TDs not to applaud an address in the Dáil by President Zelenskiy.
“I think anybody who listened to President Zelenskiy’s address this morning and who decided not to applaud his contribution, (they) don’t reflect the views of the vast, vast majority of our people.
“His country is going through hell right now and he’s witnessing a lot of that in terms of the the areas that he’s been visiting in the last number of days.”
“The idea that you wouldn’t stand and applaud his courage, his bravery, his leadership, but also out of respect for what his country is going through, to my mind, is extraordinary. I’m glad to say that the vast majority of TDs and senators…today stood and applauded in respect.”
“We have almost 20,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Ireland because of conflict in their own countries who are waiting at the end of the phone to find out whether their loved ones are still alive. And we have people in the Dáil today standing up trying to make a point by not applauding. I think that says a lot about those people.”
Mr Coveney was speaking at the launch of the ‘Be Summer Ready’ 2022 public safety information campaign.
Meanwhile, Mr Higgins, speaking in Vienna, Austria, said: “Everybody would benefit from an informed debate about neutrality.”
Mr Higgins said the debate must be “respectful”, noting his belief that Irish people had experience of such debates.
The President went on to tell an Austrian journalist that it would be useful for Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Malta – the five EU member states which are neutral – to begin a dialogue about the future of European security and defence.
He said the concept of “positive neutrality” had come to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s, seeing non-aligned countries engaging in an active fashion with international issues. Taoiseach Micheál Martin had recently referred to this, Mr Higgins noted.
“This is not a demonstration of weakness or absence of aggression, but what you can do with positive neutrality as an instrument of diplomacy,” Mr Higgins said.
The issue of Irish neutrality must be discussed in the context of a future role for the European Union, he said, adding that an evolving EU security policy need not be “heavily militarised”.
Mr Higgins condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and said there should be international investigation of potential war crimes.
However, he said, despite the horrors of war, diplomacy must not be abandoned and neutral countries could help.
There were times when the direct protagonists in conflict could not find remedies. He said he thought the talks between Ukraine and Russia needed new entrants, “and there is intelligence among the neutral groups, which is not exclusive, but is one of the instruments available for bringing matters home”.