Minister Flanagan outlines Government's commitment to Ireland's military neutrality
Check Against Delivery
Dáil Private Members’ Bill - Thirty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Neutrality) Bill 2016
Reply by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade,
Charlie Flanagan, T.D.
24 November 2016
A Cheann Comhairle,
I will be making the closing intervention this evening on behalf of the Government.
Although I am strongly opposed to the Bill, I acknowledge that it had been valuable to have the debate and, in particular, I am grateful for an opportunity to make it abundantly clear that the Irish Government remains committed to Ireland’s longstanding policy of military neutrality.
During the last Government’s term in office, this was reinforced again and again. For example, my own Department’s statement of foreign policy, The Global Island, approved by Government in January 2015, states clearly that “Our policy of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy”.
This was further reinforced in the ten year strategy on defence policy set out in the White Paper on Defence, approved by Government in July 2015 and committed to in the 2016 Programme for Government, as set out in the Reasoned Amendment.
So, that makes clear the policy that Fine Gael has consistently pursued in Government – I myself brought the Global Island policy to Cabinet while my colleague, the then Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, brought the White Paper on Defence to Cabinet.
In shaping these policies we were operating in a robust constitutional and legal context.
As is made clear in the Reasoned Amendment moved by Government this evening, Article 29 of the Constitution provides a framework for our policy of military neutrality. It clearly commits the State to uphold “the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations” and to “the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes.”
In respect of EU law, the Treaty of Lisbon contains a legally binding protocol, negotiated by the Irish Government, which recognises “Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality.”
In terms of primary legislation, the Defence Acts provide for the Triple Lock principle which governs the deployment of Irish Defence Forces overseas. It mandates that:
· Deployment for overseas peace support operations may only be made if that operation is mandated by the United Nations.
· Deployment must also be approved by the Government.
· If it is proposed to deploy more than 12 personnel, a Dáil Resolution must also be approved.
The Triple Lock provides for strong parliamentary oversight of deployment of Defence Forces Personnel.
Ireland’s strong commitment to the policy of military neutrality is complemented by a strong commitment to the United Nations and its work around the world. Irish troops participate in peacekeeping and, where necessary, peace enforcement around the world. Our Defence Force personnel have a well-deserved, high reputation internationally for their contribution which extends, unbroken, over more than fifty years.
We are all immensely proud of our peacekeepers and, as the House is aware, there are currently 573 Irish Defence Force personnel serving with UN missions.
If the provisions before us today were to be inserted into our Constitution, a question mark would be placed over whether Ireland could continue to fulfil its obligations to support UN mandated actions, in particular peace enforcement missions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
But, Ceann Comhairle, I submit that there is a more fundamental point. Being a member of the Executive of any State is an immense responsibility. It requires Ministers to take often quite difficult decisions in what they determine to be the public interest at the time. The fundamental responsibilities of Executive branch of the Irish Government are set out in Bunreacht na hÉireann. These are solemn duties to be discharged with care and diligence and not to be lightly transferred to another branch of Government as an unintended consequence of an unnecessary Constitutional amendment. It would, in my view, be wrong for the Executive to abdicate its responsibilities under Article 29 of Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Moreover, in cases where the UN Security Council has adopted a resolution mandating action to maintain or restore international peace and security all UN Members States, including Ireland, may be obliged under the terms of that resolution to offer appropriate assistance – this Bill could constrain the Executive’s ability to fulfil these obligations.
In other cases, a decision by the Dáil itself to respond positively to a UN request for support could end up before the Courts should the provisions proposed in this Bill be inserted into the Constitution. Because, Ceann Comhairle, the grounds for challenging a decision of this nature would be significantly expanded by the Bill before the House tonight. And that goes to the heart of my opposition to this Bill. The Constitution mandates that the Executive power of the State in its external relations is conferred on the Executive branch - not on the judicial branch. These are the solemn duties and responsibilities of those of us who have the privilege of serving in Government. We take those responsibilities extremely seriously as I know all Members of the Oireachtas take their responsibilities as elected representatives very seriously.
I am satisfied that Ireland’s longstanding policy of military neutrality is sufficiently safeguarded through existing constitutional provisions, through the protocol to the Lisbon Treaty, through the Defence Acts, and through long-term policy strategies adopted by Government. Moreover, the policy enjoys widespread public support and, all democratically elected governments can only govern with the support of the people.
I thank all members who contributed to tonight’s debate.
24 November 2016