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Before Christmas, the Dail agreed to our joining Pesco – the Permanent Structured Co-operation – a treaty-based framework designed to deepen defence co-operation among those EU member states which are ‘capable and willing’.

The vote, passed by 75 votes to 45 against, got little attention in the wake of the renewed health crisis and continuing Brexit uncertainty, but it represents a significant moment. The 45 votes against the measure are not inconsiderable, but there was a sense of a ‘fait accomplit’ among even these opponents.

At the core of opposition, TDs Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Coppinger and others tried to mount a legal challenge but this got nowhere, and nor will it.

In fairness, these left-wing TDs are the last bastion of parliamentarians who are trying to preserve the remnant of Irish neutrality and are motivated by their deep distrust of US-led militarism, an unease shared by many non-left observers in recent years in the wake of the ill-fated US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention liberal American use of drone assassinations.

But in truth, notwithstanding such reservations (and indeed these actions have ironically created their own momentum for more security) the tide is firmly against our left wing TDs on this. Even as it is, the Irish public has never supported these politicians’ demands for a stop to the extensive stopover facilities the US military use at Shannon airport, for example.

The reality is that we are now living in a very changed and challenging, not to say unpredictable, world, and though most of the Irish population would be happy not to see us join NATO – just yet – they would be agreeable to us joining a more militarised cooperation component of the EU itself. We are in the club, so we have to pay and play our way. These are dangerous times, and our friends can look after us.

The spectre of Islamic terrorism has changed the nature of military threats and requires constant and wide cooperation at the highest and most sophisticated levels. Such attacks recognise no borders or sovereignties. We also look East now at an increasingly belligerent and devious Russia, an expanding and neo-imperialist China and, most crucially, an unpredictable and withdrawn US, for whom Europe is not a priority.

The Government assures us that the decision to participate in Pesco does not affect our ‘long-standing position on Irish military neutrality’. Pesco is not a new civilian-military arrangement, it argues, but was voted upon, and passed, under the Lisbon Treaty in 2009- articles 42(6) and 46, and protocol 10, to be precise. But it is arguable if the implications were as clear on this when we voted on Lisbon, an EU Treaty which, after all, the Irish electorate first rejected.

The reality is that Pesco is another step away from the traditional political and military neutrality that Ireland has had since before World War 2, and which incidentally was often laudable and worthwhile, in my opinion.  Our political neutrality, meanwhile, is long gone and we have been firmly co-opted since 1990 into the prevailing EU views on foreign affairs.

I saw this when I worked as a starter diplomat in the EU coordination section of the Irish foreign ministry in 1987. Almost every single foreign issue query was referred to the latest demarche or position of Les Douze, or ‘the Twelve’, as the then EU was known.

It was kind of amazing, to be honest. But, frankly, it made sense, and showed strength in numbers. By 1987, not many people abroad wanted to know Ireland’s specific position. They wanted to know the EU’s integrated position.

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However, this was just a political view and Ireland remained outside any military response and outside NATO. They only military actions it supported were United Nations led and approved, which indeed, we often then participated in with our Blue Helmeted soldiers, precisely as part of our important neutral position.

The value of this genuine neutrality was brought home to me when I sat at the UN in New York (pictured above) as an Irish delegate and saw how we were generally perceived, which was in a popular way: yes, broadly pro Western but also non aligned and with links to the developing world through former missions and current aid programmes.

The understanding was that we didn’t colonise anyone, but were instead perceived to be struggling with the effects of colonialism ourselves. Our unique position was epitomised when I sat in the Ireland seat, which for alphabetical reasons was located between Iran, Iraq and Israel. None of them were talking to each other but we were speaking to all three!

However, this was a different era, not so much in terms of these countries, but in terms of how the UN General Assembly looked back then, after the fall of Communism and the euphoric feeling of a possible new global cooperation in building democratisation, prosperity and peace.

Most alarming has been the resurgence of Russian aggression, partly to compensate for the decline of that post Communist period. A bitter and vengeful Putin appears determined to test the West and its defences, in an increasingly military fashion. Full-scale dry run invasions of Western Europe have been carried out as military maneouvres and Russia’s Syrian involvement has served as a brutal training ground for its generals, after which they can be moved towards the Ukraine and other East European target zones. This is not a time for fence sitting by Ireland or other high minded isolationist States. Germany should not be left on its own to face this Eastern threat.

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It’s bad enough that the UK has left the EU political table with Brexit. Granted, the UK is still the bulwark of NATO, but there has been a diminution of energies and an unexpected distraction and division. No wonder people think Putin funded the Brexit campaign! The overlap between the EU and NATO is not as distinct or distant as it was.

This could be a worry for Irish neutralists but actually it should be a reassurance: NATO is a full military alliance and we are not a member of that, or likely to be. That would be huge step but, let’s be honest, it is one we may have to decide on some day.  But the Pesco decision is a long way short of that.

The worry is whether we can afford the increasing costs required by Pesco commitments, but also by growing international military obligations in general. Defence is a huge part of EU countries budgets and given how much we already spend in public monies in Ireland, it is hard to see where the funds would come from to pay for even a fraction of the NATO activity and hardware created by our EU partners. Joining Pesco will be a good way to put this to the test.

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