Neutrality Debate

Sat, Apr 30, 2022

Read in 7 minutes

I recently participated in a UCD L&H debate on a motion to abolish Ireland's longstanding policy of neutrality. Below is the speech I made outlining why I believe that Ireland's role of peace-maker and keeper in the world is such an important one - with neutrality a central aspect of that. This is all the more important now as Europe faces a new threat from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Neutrality Debate

Thank you to the Literary and Historical Society for hosting this debate and inviting me to speak against this motion. It has been student movements throughout history which have often been the most outspoken and most radical about the cause of peace and I hope that that tradition will continue with the new challenges faced by this generation.  


As was said in my introduction there, I am a Green party Councillor for the North Inner City. Before I was involved in politics, I studied and worked in the Development sector and had the opportunity to participate in peace building projects in Palestine, with Palestinians and to live and work in India and Uganda on development projects. Although my politics is now focused on local issues, I remain passionate about global justice and the global challenges of our time, most especially climate justice.  


I want to start my contribution by paying tribute to the lives lost in the current crisis in Ukraine. This crisis has prompted and renewed many conversations in our society, not least the one we are discussing tonight. And I want to recognise those who have lost their lives in the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Tigray, Palestine and around the world where conflict and militarism are robbing lives and destroying societies. And I want to acknowledge the 40 million people who are currently facing starvation and famine in Afghanistan – the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet right now and one which is going largely ignored by our media. And finally, it is important to remember the tens of thousands who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean as a result of Europe increasingly militarising its borders. The result of this choice is that the Mediterranean is now the biggest mass grave of Africans anywhere in the world, at any time in history. 


I will argue over the next few minutes that neutrality is Ireland’s superpower. It has allowed us to play a significantly outsized contribution to the cause of peace, to conflict resolution and to demilitarisation than would ever be possible if we were to give up our relatively unique international position. And I will also argue that we need to learn some important lessons from history and look at the evidence of the costs of militarisation, in general, to women and to our climate and natural world. 


As Irish people, we can and should be proud of our country’s contribution to global justice. It is not an unblemished record and there are many incidents where we have fallen short of our responsibility to act to uphold human rights and international law. But we should celebrate what has been achieved and acknowledge that it would not have been possible to do this if Ireland did not occupy such a unique role internationally, including the principle of military neutrality. We are a country with direct experience of conflict and of brokering and maintaining peace. We are a country who has a policy not to be militarily aligned or to participate in the projects of empire, imperialism and neo-colonialism which we see among so many of our neighbours. 


I want to mention some of Ireland’s notable achievements:  

Ireland led negotiations to ban cluster munitions – widespread signing with the notable exceptions of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United States. While there are exceptions the treaty increases pressure on others to signing allows for wider condemnation of the use of these weapons and paves the way for their elimination.  

In 1968, Irish Minister Frank Aiken drove the first nuclear non-proliferation treaty and in 2017 Ireland was a leading voice in the negotiations of the UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons which aims to ultimately lead to their complete elimination.  

In Colombia over the past 10 years, Ireland has played a leading role in the peace process with Eamon Gilmore as the EU Special envoy to the peace process and delegations of women’s groups, trade unionists and human rights advocates working together with people in Colombia. 


In all these incidence, Ireland led through diplomacy, negotiations, bringing opposing parties to the table and starting from a place of principle. Some of this work may lack the Hollywood glamour afforded to those who take up weapons but the results yielded by way of lives preserved and a better planet is immeasurably more. We need to think carefully of who we make heroes out of and why.  


Ireland has also been at the forefront of humanitarian aid as a lead negotiator for the Sustainable Development Goals and a leading provider of medical supplies, food aid and life-saving interventions in conflict zones. This is done through our official development assistance at a government level, where Ireland is ranked number 1 internationally on the ODI scale of donor countries, through our NGOs of Trocaire, Concern, Christian Aid who are all leading on important human rights work globally and through individuals – heroes of our world who are rarely acknowledged as such. I’m thinking of Mary Ellen McGroarty, leading the world food programme in Afghanistan and Sean Binder, standing trial for the simple act of pulling people from the water while drowning because Europe has turned its back on humanitarianism and chosen to militarise its borders instead. 


This humanitarian aid is a proud part of our global footprint, of building constructive multilateralism and of leading the world to a more peaceful future. I believe this work and our role as an “honest broker” would be weakened if Ireland were to align itself militarily and with powers who have used their military might to breach international law. 


I think one of the most important questions that we can ask at this time is how does this war end? How does any war end? Almost every war in our history has ended through diplomacy. Through people coming together over a table and talking to each other. And here too, there is evidence, lessons to be learnt and mistakes to be avoided.  


In particular about the role of women and of women’s experiences of conflict. In Palestine and Northern Ireland, I worked with women who have spent their lives doing the grinding and difficult work of peace building in their communities but are too often excluded from the decision making, the treaty drafting and the photo calls for peace deals. UN security Council 1325 recognises the crucial role of women in peace work. It shows that the evidence of history is that the participation of women in peace negotiations and women’s leadership in times of crisis improves the outcome of peace deals, making peace more long lasting, more inclusive and embedded deeper in society.  


Too often in war, we fall immediately into narratives of machismo, of noble fighting and heroes with guns. But in this women’s voices and experiences are often side-lined. On every side of every conflict ever known in our world sexual violence and rape has been perpetrated against women who bear no part in the fighting. And in every conflict, these war crimes have been side lined and erased from the official history told. Only now are the first voices of the women who suffered brutal rape by allies during the liberation of Berlin after WW2 being beginning to be heard. But they remain small voices, silenced by our need to maintain a simple narrative of good guys versus bad guys. We should be cautious as we possibly can be to steer clear of these narratives where millions of lives are brutalised and destroyed in the margins of history.  


Finally, I want to speak about the climate impact of militarisation. Militaries are expected to account for 6% of the world’s emissions at the moment. However they do not have to calculate these in their annual reporting in the interests of national security. The emissions footprint of militaries obviously massively increases as weapons are utilised, buildings destroyed and lives lost. The threat from climate change is real, displacing millions, forcing millions into famine and suffering. The choice to increase militarisation at this time should not discount the suffering that will be caused by climate change. I would argue at this moment in the climate crisis it would be reckless to increase militarisation. All efforts must be directed towards the demilitarisation of the world. 


In conclusion our global footprint is more outsized, and rooted in the principles of humanitarianism than it could ever be if we were to surrender our super power of neutrality. Our solutions, though never simple, lie in our humanitarianism, upholding international law, diplomacy and embracing and amplifying voices for peace most especially those of women and other marginalised groups and turning away from the machismo narrative of militarism and imperialism.