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Irish government to scrap “Triple Lock”

8 January 2024

Jon Morris

Irish army personnel on a NATO evaluation exercise.

Last November the Irish government announced plans to scrap the so-called Triple Lock on the deployment of Irish military personnel.  Legislation is expected to be brought before the Dáil early this year to bring this decision into effect. Despite government denials this move is viewed as a significant shift in the Irish state’s long standing convention of military neutrality.

Triple Lock

While the Triple Lock is rightly seen as being bound up with neutrality, and while its legislative basis dates back to the Defence Amendment Act of 1960, it was only in 2001 that the phrase entered public use in the context of defence policy.  It came to prominence following the rejection of the Nice Treaty in a referendum in which concerns over Ireland being drawn into a military alliance were seen to be decisive to the outcome. To address these concerns, and to get the Treaty passed in a second vote, the Irish government and EU issued a declaration that would supposedly copper fasten neutrality.  The central element of this was the Triple Lock mechanism under which any deployment of the Irish military overseas would require the consent of the Government, the Dáil and also be mandated by the United Nations.

The Irish government is now proposing to do away with the requirement for a UN mandate reducing the Triple Lock to a Double Lock.  This is a significant change and opens the scope for military deployments quite widely.   It would allow the Irish state to deploy military personnel to multilateral missions overseas “where these are organised by a regional organisation such as the EU or African Union – or where the host country is requesting such support from the international community.” Much of this response will likely take place through the newly revamped EU Battlegroup system which is intended to act as the bloc’s rapid reaction force to crises. The Irish state has already committed 182 troops to the 2,000-strong German-led Battlegroup.  It will also be able to contribute to missions led by other bodies such as the African Union or NATO.

The Irish government has presented this change as an assertion of sovereignty and a signal that it will not allow the five permanent members of the Security Council to veto its actions.  However, a closer examination reveals it to be a move primarily directed against Russia and China.   The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, stated this quite openly when he accused opposition parties of “being soft on Russia," and said that "we cannot allow Russia and China to dictate what we do''. After noting the already existing Irish military co-operation with NATO and the EU through various projects such as Partnership for Peace (PfP) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco) he expressed his hope that “we should go further and do more.” While not providing any specifics it can be expected that Irish troops may be deployed to various theatres under these banners whether or not the UN agrees. The traditional presentation of the role of the Irish military solely as a peacekeeping force will increasingly give way to peace enforcement and ultimately fighting wars. Indeed, with the involvement of its personnel in the training of Ukrainian soldiers in mine laying/clearance and the use of weapons the Irish military has already gone some way down that road.

On the domestic front, Martin also announced the establishment of a National Security Authority which will be responsible for issuing security clearances for officials and the protection of EU classified information. He also announced the development of a maritime security strategy which will have a focus on subsea infrastructure.  (This is particularly ironic given that the biggest act of sabotage of such infrastructure was the explosives attack -widely believed to have been the work of the CIA- on the Nord Stream pipeline which carried natural gas from Russia to Germany).  These changes follow from a commitment by the Government to increase defence spending by 50 per cent.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary Martin can still make the claim there is “no intention of taking any steps towards NATO membership, or altering our policy of military neutrality.”

The myth of neutrality

The confusion around the Triple Lock, and neutrality more generally, is another indication of how weak the concept is, in both a political and military sense.   Most people believe that neutrality is a clause of the Irish constitution when in reality it never has been.  It is no more than a convention, supported by a number of legal rulings, that has been gestured towards over the years.

In Ireland neutrality has taken on the status of an official myth, something that is widely believed and repeatedly proclaimed but never practised. Politically the Irish state has never been neutral.  Since the creation of the Free State/RoI its political leaders have unambiguously declared their affiliation with imperialism, whether that be with Britain or more laterally with the United States.  The Irish state held a fervent anti-communist position from the 1920s up to the collapse of the Soviet Union seventy years later and is currently fitting itself into the ideological framework of the developing Cold War with the People’s Republic of China.

Ireland’s record on the narrower ground of military neutrality is also rather patchy.  Much of the mythology around this arises from the stance of the state during WWII.  At that time, and even more so in the period that followed, the political class were keen to promote the narrative that the Irish government had maintained Ireland’s neutrality in the face of intense pressure from the British.  However, the reality, confirmed by historical research published in the 1960’s, was that significant military assistance was provided to the Allies during WWII.  This included intelligence; transit rights for Allied ships and aircraft; the rapid repatriation of POWs; and the unhindered recruitment of tens of thousands of Irish citizens into the British military.  The Irish state was officially neutral but it was a neutrality that favoured the Allied side, with the British being the most obvious beneficiaries.  This continued in the immediate post war period.  While Ireland did not join NATO, the United States and Britain felt no need to push the issue of membership as they were already satisfied with the level of cooperation they were receiving.

For the most part this has been the story of Irish neutrality.  Rather than a bold assertion of independence it has actually been a very conservative position, primarily designed to reassure imperialism that the Irish state would not upset the international status quo. The concept of neutrality took on a more radical gloss in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of an increasing number of post-colonial states and the establishment of organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).  While Ireland was not part of this, there were forces within the country, mainly under the banner of Irish Republicanism, that strongly identified with these new anti-colonial struggles.  It was the revival of Irish Republicanism in that period, and the anti-imperialist sentiment it represented, that gave weight to a more radical vision of neutrality.  The Irish political class never subscribed to this but given its prominence in the mind of the population they had to make some gestures towards it.

However, as Irish Republicanism, in the form of Sinn Féin, has become increasingly incorporated into existing political structures, anti-imperialist sentiment and by extension radical neutrality has gone into decline.  The increasing militarism of the Irish state, which really stepped up a level in 2003 with the Iraq War and the establishment of a de facto US military base at Shannon airport, runs parallel with the development of the peace process.  If the central proposition of the peace process was true, that imperialism was no longer a factor in Ireland, and could even play a progressive role, how could it be objected to elsewhere?

With the collapse of Sinn Féin, first into the politics of community identity, and then into presenting themselves as a responsible party of government, the opposition to the militaristic drive has been getting weaker. That is not to say that the anti-war sentiment within the population no longer exists, polling shows that it does, but beyond the occasional statement by President Michael D Higgins, it is no longer represented in any meaningful political form.  The duplicity of the Irish Government, as it declares adherence to neutrality but pushes for military alignment with NATO and the EU,  goes largely unchallenged. Gestures towards neutrality, such as the Triple Lock, that were once thought necessary to placate the population are openly discarded.

All this is evidence that we are in a new historical period where military confrontation, up to and including WWIII, is an increasingly likely occurrence.  We see this in NATO’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine and in the US/EU backed ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza.  We see it in the Biden Administration's $100 billion plan for war which has the destruction of the Peoples’ Republic of China as its ultimate aim.   These are all features of an era defined by the relative decline of the United States and its increasing reliance on the use of military force to maintain itself as the world’s hegemonic power.


We already know where the Irish state stands.  Politically and economically, it is fully integrated into the bloc of US led imperialism.  It has also gone a long way towards military integration despite not being a full member of NATO.  Within this framework a defence of neutrality, even in its radical form, does not offer an adequate basis for opposition.  What’s required is the building of an anti-imperialist movement which understands that imperialist influence over Ireland exists not just on a military level (which is actually the smallest part) but across every element of society, across politics and the economy.

In every struggle, from housing to health, and in opposition to war the working class will inevitably run up against the imperialist interests that underpin the Irish state.  It is the imperialist domination of Irish society that makes even the most modest reforms impossible. This points to not only the need for a revolutionary approach but also to the potential for mobilisations around reforms to take on a more racial character.  We have seen glimpses of this in the recent past around housing (the Apollo House occupation) and within the current solidarity movement with Palestine. However, it must also be recognised that the biggest barrier to this is the leadership of these movements.   Largely drawn from the trade unions they are acutely aware of the potential for mobilisations around such issues to “get out of hand”. They are also aware of their own role, within the framework of social partnership, as the dampeners of any sparks of militancy.  This is why the building of a movement for social change and against war is completely bound up with challenges to the existing leadership of the Irish working class, whether that be in political parties or the trade unions. They can’t be bypassed or tail ended as some left groups would have us believe. Their leadership has to be completely overturned.

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