Next year is the centenary of the 1916 Rising, with all of its celebrations, but there is one legacy of that tumultuous event, and the ensuring years of upheaval and war, that is rarely remarked on. And that is how some of its personalities used their experience of violence to create an Ireland that was dedicated to peace, military neutrality and non-alignment overseas. After all, these years saw not just the events in Ireland but also the carnage of World War 1 which so blighted Europe.

This is the legacy of Eamon de Valera who was sentenced to death in the 1916 Rising and who saw men killed and maimed all around him, and of Frank Aiken who as IRA Chief of Staff saw terrible atrocities in the subsequent Civil War, and who told the last remaining die-hards to ‘dump arms’ and make peace.

They were not just nation builders. They were men who never wanted to see war again and who wanted to help the world to do likewise. And they thus made such a mission a cornerstone of the new nation’s foreign policy.


Pictured : De Valera being arrested in 1916 and later sentenced to death

In the 1930s, De Valera passionately supported the League of Nations, even offending Catholic Italy when he condemned it for invading Ethiopia, and Frank Aiken was equally supportive of the successor organisation, the United Nations, and dedicated his life to its principles of negotiation and resolution. These old rebels did this precisely because they had seen the effects of war up close and wanted to see an end to it and to the competing alliances that created it.

Granted our policy of neutrality was galvanised by the famous decision to stay out of the Second World War, which some disagreed with, but it is a genuine and laudable principle. Instead of piling up weapons and fomenting war, Ireland created 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. We even led the way in creating an international Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), personally overseen by Frank Aiken himself.

This is the Irish ‘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 with our current programme of overseas aid, which is still about €800m annually, and goes to a developing and war-torn Africa.  We’ve recently seen the work of our navy in the humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean, saving the lives of thousands of migrants. And now thousands of migrants will be welcomed here.

Granted, some people feel that our principle neutrality is somewhat evasive, since we are effectively sheltering under an EU/NATO umbrella. However, the Irish army is increasingly participating in EU military missions in cooperation with NATO. This is especially important in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, but it needs to be carefully calibrated, precisely because of these dangers and the consequences of us suffering the consequences of provocative NATO interventions overseas.

However, recently there have been some disquieting developments, which fly in the face of this philosophy. Apparently, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney wants to create Ireland’s own fleet of fighter jet craft capable of firing air-to-air missiles.

And there is absolutely no pressing reason that any of us can see for this rash proposal – which could end up costing hundreds of millions- apart from recent reports of incursions of Russian aircraft in Irish air space, Improving radar surveillance capability is one thing but the prospect of air-to-air missiles in Irish airspace is an alarming development. Is this just a case of an Empire-building Minister, wanting to spend more money, now that the purse-strings have been loosened?

Or is it more? Only a few months ago, Minister Coveney spoke about plans to make Ireland a ‘testing zone’ for ‘advanced military and weapons guidance systems, including drones and submarine drones and other such high-tech hardware’. Under this stunning proposal, Coveney said that the international defence industry was to have increased access to our defence forces for ‘product testing’. ‘We are planning to link defence infrastructure and the skillset of the defence forces’ the Minister said ‘with innovators in the private sector, so that actually we can create products that are good for defence. ‘


Yemeni boy and victim of airstrike by Saudi Arabia, which is armed by UK and US

This wouldn’t involve the testing of actual weapons, Coveney assured, ‘like guns or rocket launchers’. But the rest of us might ask: what is the difference between a missile guidance system and a missile? It’s all military hardware, after all, and especially these days when such weaponry has become high-tech and remote – with deadly consequences for the victims.

Among the companies apparently already working with the Irish military is US manufacturer Moog, whose products are used in missiles and military aircraft, and the Reamda company which ‘develops the software and hardware for weapons simulators.’ How does this all square with the philosophy of peace and disarmament?

Coveney blithely described a company which designs unmanned aircraft and drone technology and then added, alarmingly ‘that this type of unmanned drone is also being used in terms of securing targets.’ Securing targets: that sounds like the sort of weapons which pick out Taliban gunmen but which have also killed scores of innocents Pakistanis and Afghans?

The Minister thinks this ‘weapons-testing’ does not compromise Ireland’s long standing neutrality and strong aversion to participating in the arms industry.  He even concedes that ‘there’s a principled view, and it’s been the case in Ireland for a long time, that we don’t develop weapons here. And that we’re not really part of the arms industry in this country’. But he thinks that, given our advanced software industry, we should embrace these opportunities.

But this sounds like a sort of Irish official position where despite a long standing principled view, you actually proceed to do the very opposite?

It is all very alarming and needs to be fully explained by the Government. How can we be against nuclear proliferation and yet support the proliferation of conventional weapons and their technology? How can we be militarily neutral, and be happy with that as a peaceful island, and be yet buying fighter jets, with missiles?

image (2) aiken

Foreign Minister Frank Aiken at the UN, advancing Irish neutrality

It seems we are on a slippery slope into militarisation and it is disturbing. Minister Coveney seems to dismiss our principle of strict military neutrality, just months after returning from the Mediterranean where our navy was bravely rescuing migrants and refugees, a real display of what our military involvement overseas should be all about.

Meanwhile, we hear that the Irish Army Ranger Wing has this week won a prestigious sniper competition in the US, becoming the first international team to do so. The Irish team was up against competition from 36 other teams drawn from the U.S army, and other military groups. No one begrudges the Irish team their success, but snipers do deadly work, picking out targets from far off, and without mercy, and it doesn’t conjure up the image of an Irish army we have come to expect.


Like many, I used to be sceptical about our military neutrality. However, now, in the era of the so-called War on Terror, I’ve very much changed my mind and think it is a valuable and important quality and, while we should continue to do our bit on security, we should avoid any sliding into involvement in wars overseas. It is counter-productive and dangerous. Remember: each increase in military escalation and involvement by us increases the chances of us being targeted by enraged anti-Westerners.

But elements in our military (and political culture!) seem to be gagging for more action and militarisation. It is understandable that our soldiers, who train hard and are prepared for war, should want more action and apparently the Irish Army was very keen to go to the Golan Heights as peacekeepers, despite the obvious dangers there.

However, as a country we should be very wary of such escalation and of giving away something that is unique and keeps us away from international entanglements.

I sat as an Irish delegate in the UN General Assembly in New York for three years and saw the value of our military neutrality. Although we were clearly seen as an EU member, Ireland was still regarded with respect and fondness as a non-aligned military country, a post-colonial country which hadn’t conquered anyone but which worked for peace and disarmament worldwide. We shouldn’t throw that way lightly now.

After all, we are already involved in limited EU-NATO military missions and that is enough. 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.

In a world of increased conflict and division, with Russia invading Crimea and ISIS on the rise, we should work to re-assert the values of the United Nations and of conflict resolution and negotiation and the ‘soft power’ of using our army overseas to rescue people and assist them to get out of the swamp of war. This would not only be a valuable modern thing to do but a fitting honour to the 1916 veterans who shaped Irish policy thus, men such as Eamon de Valera and Frank Aiken, who fought hard against international militarism precisely because they had seen far too many guns in Ireland, and the destruction they could do.  Weapons testing and fighter aircraft armed with missiles do not have a place in that.