This week, the LE Eithne was given a hero’s welcome as it arrived back in Ireland, after completing its humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean. The naval vessel was responsible for saving the lives of 3,400 migrants, including almost 170 children, and families cheered as the ship berthed in Cork with parents, wives, children, friends and navy comrades all gathered at the dockside. Among those there meet them at the quayside was our Minister for Defence, and local Cork TD, Simon Coveney.

Meanwhile, Ireland is to accept 600 extra Syrian and Eritrean migrants as part of efforts to ease the terrible migration crisis in the Mediterranean. This is in addition to the 520 migrants that the State is already accepting as part of an EU separate resettlement initiative.

Ireland has a long standing policy of assisting people abroad and helping those in need, from our participation in UN peace-keeping missions, to offering our expertise in conflict-resolution learned from bitter experience in Northern Ireland. It is part of our neutrality: our ‘soft power’ response to war and crisis. It goes back to the missionaries in ancient times and more recently the work of the Catholic missions, feeding the poor. And it continues right up to our present extensive programme of overseas aid, which is still about €800m annually, and goes to a developing and war-torn Africa.

However, Minister Simon Coveney has also said something this month that seemed the complete opposite to all of this. He spoke of his plans to make Ireland a ‘testing zone’ for ‘advanced military and weapons guidance system, including drones and submarine drones and other such high-tech hardware’. Under proposals he has brought to Cabinet, the international defence industry is to have increased access to the Irish Defence Forces for ‘product testing’, no less.

Apparently, the Minister has been working on a White Paper setting out his aims. ‘We are planning to do a lot more of this,’ he said in a rather expansive mode ‘to link defence infrastructure and the skillset of the defence forces with innovators in the private sector, so that actually we can create products that are good for defence. Also we can potentially develop products that can be put to good use in the market for the private sector as well.’

Coveney said the plans wouldn’t involve the testing of actual weapons ‘like guns or rocket launchers’, but what is the difference between a missile guidance system and a missile? This is like saying we only make the gun, or the sun sights, but we don’t make the bullets. It’s all military hardware, after all, and especially these days when so much of military warfare has become high-tech and remote – although the consequences are far from remote for the victims.

Indeed, it is worth looking at the companies that have already been working with the Irish military, such as the US manufacturer Moog, whose products are used in missiles, military and commercial aircraft, satellites and space vehicles and launch vehicles. Our army has also been working with the Reamda company on a project that ‘develops the software and hardware for weapons simulators’, and with law-enforcement agencies and security services from the UK, France, Germany and Spain on a project to develop ‘novel monitoring systems and miniaturised sensors that improve evidence-gathering abilities.’ Really, this means spying and surveillance equipment, possibly welcome in our current climate. But these are all NATO countries. Is there not a slippery slope here?

Minister Coveney has dressed this all up in the language of enterprise. It is about trying to ‘plug in innovators and entrepreneurs’, he said, ‘obviously in a controlled and managed way, to the infrastructure that is there in the Defence Forces, in a way that can help those innovators develop, but also can have a broader application and obviously lead to company growth and job creation and so on.’

He enthusiastically described a company which is designing unmanned aircraft or drone technology to actually use off the deck of ships, to be able to observe what fishing boats or doing. He then added, in a sentence that must surely sound alarm bells, that ‘that this type of unmanned drone is also being used in the army in terms of securing targets.’ Securing targets: like the weapons that pick out Al Qaida militants but which have also killed scores of innocents Pakistanis and Afghans.

Minister Coveney is very excited about all of this and thinks it does not compromise Ireland’s long standing neutrality and strong aversion to participating in the arms industry. However, despite this principled stand- which he actually reminds us of ! –he goes on to talk about our advanced software industry and the exciting possibilities that these the new military developments offer.

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‘There’s a kind of a principled view’ he concedes ‘and it’s been the case in Ireland for a long time, that we don’t develop weapons here. We’re not really part of the arms industry in this country. But we have a very advanced software industry in Ireland – and that’s why you’re seeing IT developments around telecommunications, drone technology, kite technology and power from that, and around improving observation both at sea and in the air. You’re also seeing developments around submarine technology.’

Is this a sort of Irish official position however where despite some long standing principle – or ‘kind of principle’, as Coveney puts it – you actually proceed to do the very opposite?

One doesn’t have to be a dogged defender of full Irish neutrality to be alarmed by this. Many of us feel do admit that our long national principle of neutrality has been too often evasive and even hypocritical as we shield under an EU/NATO umbrella. It dates from our opposition to fighting with the British in World War Two and by now it is outdated as the Irish army increasingly participates in EU military missions in cooperation with NATO. This is especially important in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world.

However, precisely because of such dangers and the consequences of provocative interventions overseas by NATO countries, we should be all the more careful about our military co-operation and about how we preserve our neutrality and support for peacekeeping above the ‘industry of war’.

There is a quite a difference, after all, between limited missions of military cooperation and allowing our army and country to be used as a testing ground for the latest advances in military technology.

The reality is that the Irish policy of neutrality does have a distinct value and service, connected to our UN peacekeeping role, and our contribution to conflict resolution and, for example, to our leading role in developing an international nuclear proliferation treaty (NPT). This was a keystone of Irish foreign policy and goes back the efforts of Frank Aiken and Eamon De Valera, who fought hard against international militarism precisely because they had seen too many guns in Ireland.

So where does Coveney’s weapons testing fit into all this? We are against nuclear proliferation but support the proliferation of conventional weapons and their technology?!

Many of us would have a serious aversion to the modern military industry and its commercial objective of pouring more and more sophisticated and deadly hardware into all parts of the globe. Unmanned drones are an especially sinister development. Is this something we want to be involved in? And bear in mind that once we are in this sphere, of international military development, it will be very hard to reverse.

Has Minister Coveney, in his gushing excitement, checked out all this with his colleagues? How can he square his enthusiasm with our long standing policy of neutrality and not supporting arms development?

And how come our anti-militarisation lobby have not been speaking out about this and asking questions? And what will this do to our potential as a target for future terrorist attack if we are perceived as a testing ground for the drone and missile capability of our US friends, with whom we already offer considerable military assistance with the Shannon stop over? The Minister needs to tell us the full story.