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Contemporary Irish Neutrality: Still a Singular Stance

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Neutrality is both a specific form of foreign policy and a little understood issue in international relations. Neutrality is also a relatively new concept, only as old as the current international order. The decline of empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in the era of nation-states and their ideological complement, nationalism. The rise of nationalism has led to foreign policies directed by the governments of each nation-state in the name of protecting sovereignty, primarily by protecting the nation's borders. Each state engages in the international order in an attempt to increase its main realist aim, security. While the modern form of neutrality traces back to Swiss neutrality in the sixteenth century, its current nationalist incarnation goes back only as far as the Concert of Europe (1815), the Hague Agreements (1907), and the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Since then, only a small number of states have pursued neutrality, most of which have been small European states—for example, Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland.1

The Republic of Ireland, too, belongs to the group of European neutrals, and has pursued neutrality since World War II. Ireland's geographic isolation from the European continent—shielded by the bulk of the English mainland—provided it with a natural barricade from the last century of European conflict. In addition, Ireland's lack of any true capability to project power beyond its shores, [End Page 74] and perhaps its inability to protect its shores from external threat, rules out belligerence as a foreign policy choice. With the exception of its hegemonic neighbor, Great Britain, Ireland has known no longstanding enemies and no international intrigues. It seems, then, that one would be hard-pressed to find a more uninteresting story than Irish neutrality. The Republic of Ireland has neither the ability nor the desire to engage in conflict and, thus, pursues neutrality out of necessity and prudence: end of story.

But the story of Irish neutrality is far more complex. Irish neutrality wraps itself in its historical relations with Britain, in the continuing separate status of Northern Ireland, and in notions of independence and sovereignty, party politics, and the continuance of myths in Irish public opinion. Trevor Salmon's 1989 study of the policy labels Irish neutrality "unprincipled non-belligerency," with "a certain consideration" toward its neighbor Britain.2 Patrick Keatinge labels the unique Irish neutrality a "singular stance"; he contends that most international observers underestimate the contributions of domestic factors to the establishment and maintenance of Irish neutrality.3

Irish neutrality has "morphed" from its World War II form into something much more ambivalent and pragmatic, a form that can both engage in NATO's Partnership for Peace and, simultaneously, the European Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy. Ireland's singular stance contains the core element of nonparticipation in military alliances, while also promoting activity in international peacekeeping operations, particularly under the auspice of the United Nations. Irish deviation from the form of neutrality based on international law that other European neutrals follow—that is, withdrawal from any international commitment that would place the neutral country in a position to have to choose sides in the event of the escalation of conflict—assigns it to a unique place. Moreover, the unarmed Irish version of neutrality sets it apart from its contemporary counterparts in Europe: Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria.

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New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua

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