Fine Gael’s triple lock three card trick

In this blogpost I suggest that the latest Fine Gael suggestion that Ireland abandon the UN mandate element of the triple-lock mechanism is just about distracting public focus from its ongoing failure to undo the decade of neglect it has inflicted on Irish defence.     

Minister Coveney waits to respond to Seanad Éireann’s debate on military neutrality

Last Wednesday evening (around 5.30pm) Seanad Éireann debated a Private Members motion on “Ireland’s Military Neutrality.” It is well worth a read (or a viewing) as it is a calm and reasoned discussion of Irish Defence policy and the large gaps that appear therein.

Huge credit is due to the two proposers of the motion: Senators Michael McDowell and Tom Clonan. They crafted a motion that was both measured but frank. The motion, which was passed, ultimately called on the government to:

– properly fund Ireland’s Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and Cyber Capability:

– in order that we can vindicate our sovereign, neutral status and properly secure our land, air, maritime and cyber domains;

– to pay our soldiers, aircrew and sailors a living wage in order that Ireland can meaningfully respond to man-made and natural disasters;

– to appoint a Minister for Defence, with an exclusive portfolio, in all future administrations, to properly lead and advocate for Ireland’s defence, security and sovereign neutral status;

– guarantee Ireland’s status as a militarily neutral state and commit to preserving that neutral status by way of a constitutional guarantee.

Though it is not a hill upon which I am politically ready to die, I have qualms about the final point. I support the intention, but fear that the outcome may not match the expectations, as has been the case in some previous referenda.  I believe Article 29 of the Irish Constitution, which specifically commits us to peaceful resolution of international disputes, is sufficient. Thus, inserting the term “military neutrality” without a clear and concise definition of the term, may be problematic. The other misgiving is that by doing this we are turning a defence policy into a sovereign status – and a unique one at that.

So, leaving my misgivings on point five aside, I wholly concur with Senators Clonan and McDowell on the other four points, as did the members of the Seanad.

The timing of the debate was hardly coincidental, coming only a few days after the Fine Gael Árd Fheis backed a motion from the Dublin Bay South Young Fine Gael branch calling on the Government to remove the triple-lock mechanism and replace it with a double-lock mechanism.

According to the Irish Independent the current Fine Gael Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence said that he

“…would regard that move as a sensible change recognising the limitations of the triple lock in terms of the ability of the Irish parliament and the Irish government to make a decision to be part of a peacekeeping operation and so on,”

He added that getting rid of the UN mandate element of the triple lock (hence moving to a double lock) would be a

 “…response to a changing political environment globally, where tensions within the Security Council right now mean that getting a mandate for peace interventions in different parts of the world is much more difficult and complicated.”

The problem with this argument is that this policy shift can hardly be sold as a response to “tensions within the Security Council right now” when abandoning the triple lock was Fine Gael policy back in the early 2000s when then leader Enda Kenny told a Fine Gael Dublin members forum on June 24, in 2003 that:

“… [Ireland’s] neutrality was defensive, defiant, and even belligerent. In Fine Gael, we believe that a stated and deliberate change of heart on the matter is not only desirable but also achievable and eminently necessary. We believe further that time for that change is now.”

Referencing his party’s Beyond Neutrality policy paper (published Feb 2000) Mr Kenny said that a proposal for mutual defence in the then existing draft EU Constitution meant that Ireland must decide if it was going to accept a defence architecture designed by others or become one of the architects?

Strong words from the Fine Gael leader. But not ones that he or his successors were ever willing to translate into government policy. Fifteen years later in May 2018, just over four years ago, Mr Kenny’s successor as leader and Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was telling the Dáil that:

“On Ireland’s position on military neutrality, Ireland is a neutral country. We will not join NATO or sign up to a mutual defence pact. The Government fully supports the triple lock so that any military operation in which Ireland takes part will require Government approval, approval of the Dáil and a UN mandate, notwithstanding the restraint that puts on us with China, Russia or perhaps the United States vetoing certain things.”

Entertaining and amusing as these Fine Gael flip flops on the Triple Lock and commitment to military neutrality may seem, they are hardly the positions of a party that has a developed a sensible and considered position on Irish defence policy.

This fuzzy and confused Fine Gael thinking is causing problems for its own members. Take Fine Gael’s Senator John McGahon who managed in the course of two consecutive sentences, during his otherwise thoughtful contribution to last Wednesday’s Seanad debate, to go from stating that “we are not a neutral country going by the facts I have from over the past 80 years” to say that: “We should absolutely keep and continue to do what we are doing”, to finally saying that we should be “like a proper neutral country, such as Finland or Sweden…”

Need I point out that both Finland and Sweden have committed to joining NATO, together.  

McGahon’s colleague Senator Barry Ward was forced to similar feats of mental and verbal dexterity in trying to both agree with the motion and back his Minister and his party’s (latest) position. Ward, an accomplished barrister, and advocate, managed this trick by simultaneously claiming that:

I 100% support the neutrality of Ireland. I am totally opposed to the notion that we would ever join an organisation like NATO.”  

Before then correcting course and veering back to the new party line by later adding:  

“The difficulty I have with the triple lock is not to say we should not have it but that we should be looking at it in a more nuanced fashion.”

For nuanced read abolish.

During Priority Questions to An Taoiseach on the day before the Seanad debate, Micheál Martin T.D. was both clear and forthright in stating that:

“The Government has no intention of changing its current policy in respect of military neutrality.”

Adding that:

“It is not in the programme for Government to remove the triple lock. I do not believe in removing it.”

The outgoing Taoiseach generously gave Minister Coveney an escape route from his triple lock cul-de-sac suggested that

The Minister referenced the triple lock more in the context of the need for reform of the United Nations, in particular the veto Russia has at the Security Council… There has to be reform of the UN and the Security Council.”

An Taoiseach then cited the Russian veto of an Irish Security Council proposal linking climate change with security, a proposal which had the backing of an overwhelming majority in the UN, but which Russia blocked and stopped.

The Taoiseach’s point is a fair one.

There are major issues around the power of the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russian Federation, the U.K., and the U.S.) to veto anything. It is not a new debate and there are several interesting proposals to address the problems of the P5 veto (see this IIEA blog).

It will not be changed or altered, however, by a motion at a Fine Gael Árd Fheis or a simple amendment to the Defence Acts.

Frankly, the while Fine Gael “triple lock” motion smacks more of a distraction than a real policy debate.

As most Senators made clear in last Wednesday’s debate, before we get into a serious discussion about whether we keep or scrap the triple lock or even opt to go and join NATO, we first need to commit to having a Defence Forces that has the resources to adequately defend us here at home.

And the sad reality is that we do not have that.

The Defence Forces have endured over a decade of political neglect under a succession of Fine Gael led governments.

The temporary reduction in Defence Force strength of 1,000 personnel required in 2010 by the collapse in the public finances was made permanent in 2015 by… the current Minister.

However, not satisfied with this reduction we today find ourselves with a Defence Forces that should have this reduced strength of 9500 personnel, but it has dropped down to 8,000 – the lowest number in over 50 years.

Even the Minister who presided over the bulk of this decline has stopped pretending that all is well. During Defence PQs on Thursday the Minister said, the:  

Government approved a move over a six-year period to a level of Defence Forces capability equivalent to LOA 2 in the report. This will require an additional 2,000 personnel beyond the current establishment figure of 9,500. Because we are well below 9,500 now, the figure is slightly above 3,000, rather than 2,000, to get to where we need to be by the end of 2028.

The Minister expanded on this point a little earlier in the session, saying:

… we are seeking add an extra 3,000 people to the Permanent Defence Force over the next six years, which means a net gain each year of 500 people. This year, we will probably have a net loss of a couple of hundred people in the Defence Forces. We need to turn the tide. There is a huge focus in the Defence Forces and Department of Defence on doing that across all specialties and ranks and among enlisted personnel.

So, thanks to Fine Gael’s indifference on Defence over the past decade:  

  • the Commission’s LOA2 target of recruiting 2000 more personnel by 2028, needs to be increased by 50% to 3,000
  • And delivery of that ambition is already set to be off target by anywhere between 500 and 1,000 in year one alone.

Small wonder Fine Gael would rather have some pie-in-the-sky discussion on NATO/military neutrality/triple lock than discuss the realities of their political neglect of defence.

It’s a political three card trick from the party that brought us the triple lock treble flip-flop

While the Seanad’s commendable desire to see Minister for Defence, with an exclusive portfolio is unlikely to be delivered in the upcoming reshuffle, we can only hope that it will see the appointment of a new Defence Minister.

A Minister with a fresh outlook and approach and with the political will, energy, and political clout to undo some of the damage inflicted by their most recent predecessors.   

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