The Neutrality Bill


On 24 November 2016, Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Seán Crowe, Sinn Fein defence and foreign affairs spokesmen, jointly tabled a Neutrality Bill in Dáil Éireann.  This provided for a referendum to amend Articles 28 and 29 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution)


(1)   to ensure that Ireland is prevented from aiding in any way a foreign power in preparation for or during a war without the assent of Dáil Éireann, and


(2)   to assert unequivocally that Ireland is a “neutral state”, which will not join military alliances.


To give effect to the first of these the Bill sought to amend Article 28.3 1 of the Constitution, replacing


“War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.”




“War shall not be declared and the State shall not participate in any war or other armed conflict, nor aid foreign powers in any way in preparation for war or other armed conflict, or conduct of war or other armed conflict, save with the assent of Dáil Éireann.”


And to give effect to the second, the Bill sought to add the following new Article 29.3


“Ireland affirms that it is a neutral state. To this end the State shall, in particular, maintain a policy of non-membership of military alliances.”



US use of Shannon


This proposal to amend Bunreacht na hÉireann was prompted by Ireland’s support for the West’s wars of intervention in the Middle East by allowing the use of Shannon airport (and overflight rights) to US aircraft carrying military personnel and equipment to battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Since 2002, approximately 2.5 million US troops have passed through Shannon Airport.  This aiding and abetting of aggressive wars occurred despite repeated claims of “neutrality” by Irish Governments.


The pamphlet Shannon Airport and 21st Century War provides details of this US military use of Shannon in the past 15 years and the opposition mounted against it.  The pamphlet is published by Shannonwatch and the Peace & Neutrality Alliance (PANA), the groups that have led the opposition and are responsible for this proposal to amend the Constitution.



Ireland aids and abets US aggression


The proposed amendment to Article 28.3 1 is an attempt to ensure that, without the consent of the Dáil, Ireland will not provide military or other assistance to a foreign power engaged in (or about to engage in) armed conflict.  Obviously, the framers have in mind the provision of landing and overflight rights.


In fact, the Fianna Fail-PD government led by Bertie Ahern did force a motion through the Dáil on 20 March 2003, which agreed to the US having landing and overflight rights – on the spurious grounds that this was merely the continuation of normal practice.  The motion “recall[ed] the long-standing arrangements for the overflight and landing in Ireland of US military and civilian aircraft” and “support[ed] the decision of the Government to maintain those arrangements”.  It was opposed by all the other parties in the Dáil, including Fine Gael.


Now, it’s one thing for Ireland to allow the US overflight and landing rights in peace time, but it’s an entirely different thing for Ireland to do so when the US is engaged in aggression against a sovereign state.  This had begun the day before when US troops crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq.  That US action was not taken in self-defence, nor was it authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, so it was aggression.


By allowing US overflight and landing rights at Shannon, Ireland was aiding and abetting US in the crime of aggression (which in the words of Justice Robert H. Jackson, the United States chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, is ”the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”).


Strangely, the Government effectively admitted that the US was engaging in aggression, never pretending that the disarmament resolution 1441, passed unanimously by the Security Council on 8 November 2002, authorised military action against Iraq.  Ireland had a seat on the Security Council at that time (until 31 December 2002) and speaking to the Security Council afterwards, the Irish Ambassador to the UN Richard Ryan said:


“This is … a resolution about disarmament, not war. It is about removing all threat of war. As far as Ireland is concerned, it is for the Council to decide on any ensuing action.”


Bertie Ahern himself told the Dáil a few days later on 13 November 2002 that resolution 1441 “is not a mandate for military action”.  On 20 March 2003 he told the Dáil that Ireland “cannot participate in a military campaign without an explicit, further UN mandate”.   So, in Ireland’s view, the US military campaign was not mandated by the UN and was therefore aggression


The motion passed on 20 March 2003 expressed Ireland’s commitment to the UN system “as the appropriate forum for the resolution of disputes threatening international peace and security”.  Nevertheless, it contained no criticism whatsoever of the US for overriding the will of the Security Council, which wanted the peaceful disarmament of Iraq to continue – and proceeded to grant the US continuing assistance in its aggression by allowing it overflight and landing rights in Ireland.


(And the Government voted down a Fine Gael amendment which stated bluntly that Ireland “opposes and cannot participate in, or support, in any manner, the war which has commenced”.)


The proposed amendment to Article 28.3 1 extends the range of circumstances in which Dáil consent is required, which could only be a good thing.  Bertie Ahern claimed in the Dáil on 20 March 2003 that “the provision of landing and overflight facilities to foreign aircraft” did not constitute “participating in a war”.  At the end of the day, that’s for the Supreme Court to determine, but if it is so then under the present Article 28.3 1 Dáil consent was not a requirement.  However, under the proposed amendment Dáil consent would be required for providing landing and overflight facilities to assist a belligerent.



Ireland and NATO


The purpose of the new Article 28.3 1 was to enshrine neutrality in the Constitution – it isn’t mentioned in the Constitution at present – and to prevent Ireland joining NATO without a referendum.


Ireland embraced NATO in 1999 by joining its so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP).  In opposition, Fianna Fail had opposed joining and promised a referendum about joining, but it did a U-turn when it came into government and with enthusiastic support from Fine Gael, it was approved overwhelmingly by the Dáil.  Sinn Fein and Labour opposed.  Absent a constitutional ban on joining military alliances, as proposed in the new Article 28.3, Ireland could become a full member of NATO without a referendum.


Ireland may not be a full member of NATO, with obligations to come to the aid of fellow members if they are attacked.  But as a NATO “partner” it can hardly dissociate itself from its actions in the world.  NATO is a Cold War relic which should have been disbanded 25 years ago and which, having promised at the end of the Cold War not to move an “inch” eastwards, now has members on the western borders of Russia and “partners” in Central Asia thousands of miles away from the North Atlantic – and it is now building up military assets on Russia’s western borders, on the grounds that Russia is a clear and present danger to Europe.  If the Irish Government concurs with this view of Russia, it should become a full member of NATO and play its full part in countering this threat (including spending 2% of its GDP on its armed forces).  If it doesn’t concur, then it should cease being a “partner” to an organisation that engages in fantasy in order to justify its existence.


Ireland may not be a full member of NATO but Irish troops have served under NATO command.  However, deployment in these operations are supposed to be governed by a so-called “Triple Lock” principle.  Under this, the operations must have been mandated by the UN Security Council and the decision to deploy troops must be approved by the Government and, if more than 12 personnel are to be deployed, by the Dáil as well.  This also applies to the deployment of troops on UN peacekeeping missions, for example, to UNIFIL in South Lebanon where 379 troops are currently deployed.



“Argument” against


The Government opposed the Neutrality Bill entirely on the grounds that under the amended Constitution a government would be unreasonably restricted in its exercise of foreign policy, specifically, that its “capacity to fulfil its obligations to support United Nations, UN, mandated actions, in particular peace enforcement missions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter”. 


Fianna Fail argued against the Bill in the same terms, but you will search in vain in their speeches for examples of circumstances in which this might occur.   Even if it did occur, it isn’t the end of the world if Ireland was constitutionally constrained from taking part in some UN mandated operations.  After all, there is no obligation on Ireland, or any other state, to take part in any UN operation.



The outcome


This was the third attempt by Sinn Fein to introduce these amendments to the Constitution.  The two previous attempts (in 2003 and 2015) failed because Fianna Fail and Fine Gael both opposed.


Only 25 TDs supported the 2015 Bill and it was defeated by 85 to 25 on 6 March 2015.  This time 42 TDs (Sinn Fein, Labour Party, Green Party plus independents) supported it and it was defeated by 52 to 42, when the vote was taken on 1 December 2016.  Fianna Fail spoke against the Bill but abstained in the vote.


Three non-Fine Gael members of the Government – Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan – voted for the amendments in 2015 and would have done so again this time, had they been free to do so.  This would have taken the total vote for the Bill to 45.  However, Fine Gael refused to allow them a free vote.