Ireland, European Security, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
Jack KennedyJuly 27, 2023
In mid-June, Ireland held a "consultative forum" on the future of the country's security policy writ-large, particularly regarding the longstanding policy of military neutrality and whether it should be loosened or even abandoned in favour of greater security cooperation with other European states and NATO.
I can't and won't get into the weeds of the forum and the accompanying public debate. The whole thing was very complex and quite messy, and one could reasonably accuse many involved in the discussion of not operating in especially good faith. The key points are:
- The forum happened. Its structure differed notably from the Citizens' Assembly structure previously used to discuss important policy issues (abortion, marriage equality, other constitutional reform, drug policy) in that it comparatively emphasised the voices of pre-selected experts rather than the public
- The forum was accused of being imbalanced/biased against neutrality and in favour of more assertive security policy, an accusation the government rejected
- Other criticisms were made, most notably by the President, that there is a broad "drift" away from neutrality and towards NATO underway
- The government promised it was not going to change the legal underpinning of military neutrality (the so-called "triple-lock mechanism") despite saying on multiple occasions including at the actual forum that it favoured doing so
- Government also said, in response to protests, that Ireland will "not be joining NATO", but separately did express a preference for military cooperation with NATO
I don't want to discuss the importance of Irish neutrality itself, what neutrality means in a discursive or political sense, the merits and downsides of the misleadingly-named Triple Lock, or whether there really is a covert political project underway to gradually move Ireland towards NATO membership. I have many thoughts on most of these (not really the last one), but there has been plenty of mostly-unproductive discussion on them already, and I don't think my contribution would change much.
I do want to talk about the thing I always want to talk about: nuclear weapons. Namely, how do nuclear weapons – and Ireland's legal and diplomatic position on them – shape the choices Ireland could make on its security strategy? What would the impacts of various policy options be on our international commitments? Does maintaining those commitments mean some policy options are off the table? I haven't seen anyone delve into this yet, nor did it feature prominently in the public debate in June, and that strikes me as an oversight. So I'll do my best.
Ireland's nuclear position
Ireland is a state party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), one of just four such state parties in Europe (the others being San Marino, Malta and Austria). The treaty was signed on 20 September 2017, and entered into force on 22 January 2021. There are 92 signatories in total, of whom 68 have ratified the treaty to become full state parties – almost all of them in the Global South, especially Africa and South America. The treaty does a lot of things, but mostly it's notable because it makes the possession of nuclear weapons illegal. Its first article reads:
1. Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to:
(a) Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or
stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;
(b) Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear
explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or
(c) Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other
nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly;
(d) Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive
(e) Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any
activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
(f) Seek or receive any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in
any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;
(g) Allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear
weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in its territory or at any place under its
jurisdiction or control
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 20 September 2017
Ireland is not just a passive party to the TPNW: we helped to write it and are among its most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Ireland has been pushing for an international ban on nuclear weapons from at least 1998. When negotiations on the TPNW's text began in 2017, we hailed it as "taking the opportunity to write a new history and in so doing to create a new, more stable, more secure and more equal future for all," and at the conclusion said it was a "ground-breaking treaty" and a "truly historic day at the United Nations." The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, named Ireland, Austria, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa as the "core group" of states which led the negotiations to a successful conclusion.
In August 2020, just before Ireland ratified the TPNW, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney wrote an op-ed in the Irish Times in which he laid out Ireland's position on the nuclear issue very clearly:
"Ireland's ratification of the treaty reflects our deep concern about the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear explosion and the sheer impossibility of any adequate humanitarian response. This has led us, as a country, to our deep-rooted conviction that we must ensure nuclear weapons can never be used again under any circumstance. Nuclear disarmament has long been a feature of Irish foreign policy. (…)
Ireland will continue to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons and to ensure the most powerful and most indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction ever invented have no place in the security doctrine of any state. The very existence of nuclear weapons threatens us all. There can be no right hands for the wrong weapons. The only guarantee of protection from nuclear weapons use is their complete elimination."
Simon Coveney* in the Irish Times, 6 August 2020
Since the treaty's signing, Ireland has voted for the annual UN resolution calling on non-participating states to join the treaty. Since the TPNW's entry into force, Ireland has acted as an official facilitator of important discussions on its implementation. In September 2022, we reiterated at the UN that our support is "driven by our concern for the devastating humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls".
Coveney was entirely correct when he noted that Ireland's strong anti-nuclear conviction goes back a long time. The process of negotiating the NPT, probably the single most important and successful international arms control treaty in history, was launched by Frank Aiken – former Anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff, Fianna Fáil TD**, and then-Minister for External affairs – in 1958. Seán MacBride, another former IRA Chief of Staff who later became Minister for External Affairs, launched the Appeal by Lawyers Against Nuclear War and successfully lobbied the International Court of Justice to hand down an opinion confirming that threatening use of nuclear weapons was likely illegal under international humanitarian law.
Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken is the first person to sign the NPT, at a ceremony in Moscow in 1968. (Photo from Frank Aiken Papers, Archives, University College Dublin, item number P106/6942)
Ireland has a proud history of being an international leader on issues of nuclear arms control and disarmament. Opposing ongoing possession of nuclear weapons and pushing for their abolition has been a core tenet of our foreign policy effectively since there have been nuclear weapons. The Department of Foreign Affairs calls it "an historic, long-standing priority for Ireland … motivated by the immense human suffering which would arise from the detonation of a nuclear weapon, whether by accident, miscalculation or design." The TPNW is not just a legally-binding treaty to which we are a member, it's the most recent part of a long, proud Irish legacy of campaigning against nuclear weapons.
Crucially, as the recent statements quoted above make clear, Ireland opposes nuclear weapons not just because we (rightly) believe that nuclear weapons are detrimental to Ireland's own security and interest; indeed, self-concern is notably absent from our rhetoric. Ireland is anti-nuclear we have established as an underlying of our foreign policy that the existence of these weapons is wrong as such. Our anti-nuclear stance is therefore not a means by which our defence goals are achieved, but a goal in and of itself.
This is, to editorialise explicitly, a very good thing and something we should take much more conscious pride in than we do.
Europe, NATO, and nukes
We need to talk about NATO. It is not the only game in town when it comes to European security; the EU has a security policy, sort of, and undertakes its own training and overseas missions, sometimes (and I hear there are even non-NATO, non-EU countries, but we're going to skip those for now). But with the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, there are just four EU states not in NATO: us, Austria, Cyprus and Malta. Thus the nuclear policy of NATO is the nuclear policy of the other 23 EU states, the UK, Norway, Iceland, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Turkey (and the US and Canada). NATO contains a three of the world's nine nuclear-armed nations, two of which are in Europe, and the other of which deploys its weapons on the territory of five European states (Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Italy). Thus, if we are going to talk about Ireland, European security and nuclear weapons, NATO is pivotal.
NATO has been, since its inception, a fundamentally nuclear organisation. It was created to commit the US to the defence of Western Europe in case of a Soviet invasion, which western powers perceived to be a constant risk. Given NATO's inferiority to the Warsaw Pact in conventional forces basically throughout the Cold War, the "nuclear umbrella" provided by the US's weapons was consciously and explicitly a cornerstone of the alliance's strategy, to deter conventional as well as nuclear threats.
But the Cold War is over. So what role does NATO see nuclear weapons as having in the 21st century? The alliance's 2022 Strategic Concept, its core policy document unanimously approved upon by member states last year, discusses this:
28. The fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent
coercion and deter aggression. Nuclear weapons are unique. The circumstances
in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. (…) The Alliance has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.
29. The strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Alliance. (…) NATO's nuclear deterrence posture also relies on the United States' nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and the contributions of Allies concerned.
30. NATO will take all necessary steps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness, safety and
security of the nuclear deterrent mission. The Alliance is committed to ensuring greater integration and coherence of capabilities and activities across all domains and the spectrum of conflict, while reaffirming the unique and distinct role of nuclear deterrence. NATO will continue to maintain credible deterrence, strengthen its strategic communications, enhance the effectiveness of its exercises and reduce strategic risks.
NATO 2022 Strategic Concept, 30 June 2022 (emphasis added)
On the TPNW specifically, we can turn to the joint statement, again unanimously approved by members, during last week's NATO summit in Lithuania:
53. NATO Allies support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons (…) achieved in an effective and verifiable way that promotes international stability and which is based on the principle of undiminished security for all. (…)
54. We reiterate that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) stands in opposition to and is inconsistent and incompatible with the Alliance's nuclear deterrence policy (…) and does not take into account the current security environment. (…) We do not accept any argument that the TPNW reflects or in any way contributes to the development of customary international law. We call on our partners and all other countries to reflect realistically on the ban treaty's impact on international peace and security (…) and join us in working to improve collective security through tangible and verifiable measures that can reduce strategic risks and enable lasting progress on nuclear disarmament.
NATO Vilnius Summit Communiqué, 11 July 2023 (emphasis added)
Finally, the three nuclear-armed states of NATO released a tripartite statement during the negotiation process for the TPNW:
France, the United Kingdom and the United States have not taken part in the negotiation of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it (…) This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment. Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years. (…) A ban treaty also risks undermining the existing international security architecture which contributes to the maintenance of international peace and security. (…) Working towards the shared goal of nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament must be done in a way that promotes international peace and security, and strategic stability, based on the principle of increased and undiminished security for all.
Joint Statement of the United States, United Kingdom and France, 7 July 2017 (emphasis added)
None of this is surprising. If a key role of NATO has always been to provide a nuclear umbrella to European countries and it continues to see nuclear weapons as the "supreme guarantee" of its security, of course it would be hostile to the TPNW – the stated goal of which is to stigmatise the possession of nuclear weapons. Despite the insistence that NATO and the nuclear states within it "support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons", the weapons are a solid plank of allied security policy right now, and the plan is to maintain that indefinitely ("NATO will continue to maintain credible deterrence"). Thus most measures intended to bring a nuclear-free world closer to realisation, such as strengthening norms against nuclear weapons, represent a threat to that security policy. Hence the vehemence of the Vilnius statement (which comes out even more strongly in the full text).
Ireland's future in European security
Where does that leave Ireland? It shapes our options on how we interact with the ecosystem of European security. I want to examine how, by looking at the implications for our TPNW and broader nuclear commitments of three possible future Irish strategies: continued strict neutrality, joining NATO, or something in between.
The status quo is, unsurprisingly, the most straightforward scenario. If we continue being a neutral country with very little military involvement abroad except that sanctioned by the UN Security Council (UNSC), our TPNW compliance and anti-nuclear stance are not impacted. I would argue, and there is some evidence to corroborate this, that our neutrality accords us soft power in general and credibility on the particular subject of international conflict peace. Thus continuing to be neutral does not just not compromise our anti-nuclear position, it significantly increases our potential to continue spearheading global arms control and disarmament efforts. I do not think we would could have led the charge on the NPT in the 60s if we hadn't been a neutral country. While it's certainly possible some other country would have stepped up if we hadn't, we did, and the treaty we helped broker has been (despite its many problems) stunningly successful at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and keeping the world safe. So that's pretty nice.
I am not an expert in international law; I'm not qualified to say whether, legally, Ireland joining NATO would constitute a technical breach of our TPNW obligations. But any common-sense reading of both the treaty and NATO's Strategic Concept shows the two to be incompatible. You cannot sign off on a document that says "NATO will take all necessary steps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness, safety and security of the nuclear deterrent mission" and claim to not "assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone" to "develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons" or "use or threaten to use nuclear weapons". To sign up to be under a nuclear umbrella is to encourage the possession of and threat to use nuclear weapons, on an ongoing basis. In many ways it doesn't matter whether this could be proven to be a technical violation of the treaty; the TPNW does not provide for sanctions for any breaches of its terms. The consequences are purely political, and thus if something is widely perceived to constitute a breach, it is a breach.
Thus if Ireland were to join NATO, we would have to breach the TPNW. Both the preamble of the treaty and the rhetoric Ireland has used in support of it are so forceful, so completely unequivocal, that we would already have supplied the ultimate criticism of our own actions before they happened. We would look pretty bad.
We could try to avoid this by withdrawing from the TPNW. A state may withdraw by giving twelve months' notice "if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the Treaty have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country". Withdrawing would allow us to argue we are not a state that reneges on its international legal obligations. On the other hand, it would be extremely difficult for us to credibly argue that Ireland is dealing with "extraordinary events" which have "jeopardized [our] supreme interests". While the world is more dangerous than it was in 2020 when we ratified the treaty, it is not really sufficiently more dangerous abrogate what we have established as inalienable humanitarian principles. It's also not especially more dangerous than the darkest days of the Cold War, when we were espousing those same principles, so our reasoning would be pretty self-evidently hollow.
Giving a clearly insincere justification for withdrawing is not that much better than breaching the treaty (or inventing a weak interpretation of the treaty with which to insist we're not breaching it) and all the self-criticism still applies. And it might be worse: Ireland would become the first country in the world to withdraw, and in so doing call huge amounts of attention to our backtracking.
The government of Norway commissioned a study on the potential of it joining the TPNW. It contains numerous criticisms of the TPNW, which I profoundly disagree with, but its section on the interaction between the treaty and Norway's NATO obligations constitutes the only such opinion commissioned by a NATO government, and is worth reading:
It is clear that if Norway ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it would acquire new obligations that would be incompatible with its political obligations under NATO. Nato's 2010 Strategic Concept , the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR) and the Nato summit communiqués provide the framework for the political obligations Norway has as a Nato member. These documents have been unanimously adopted at Nato summits by NATO heads of state and government.
These documents establish that NATO supports the goal of creating a world without nuclear weapons, but make it clear that Nato will remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist. (…)
Article 1 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons also prohibits nuclear deterrence as such (Article 1, (d), (e), (f), (g)). This is in direct conflict with Nato's deterrence posture, as expressed, for example, in NATO summit communiqués. It would therefore be difficult for a country that has ratified the Treaty to endorse the summit communiqués as they are worded today.
In the past, there has been open disagreement in NATO about its nuclear deterrence policy. This was particularly apparent in 1979 when Nato made its dual-track decision. The countries that had reservations about the decision expressed this through dissenting footnotes in various subsequent NATO declarations. This footnote policy significantly weakened the influence of the countries concerned on NATO policy, and undermined unity within the Alliance.
In a statement issued on 20 September 2017, the North Atlantic Council made it clear that the Alliance does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Review of the consequences for Norway of ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 28 November 2018 (emphasis added)
These latter two paragraphs are notable. It might theoretically be possible to carve out a space within NATO for countries objecting to and wishing not to be covered by nuclear deterrence; next time a strategic concept is drawn up, Ireland could insist an asterisk be put on the deterrence portion. Certainly, some disarmament advocates hope that existing NATO member states in which there is a strong anti-nuclear movement can be convinced to move into this position.
But there is a vast difference between carving out a space for existing NATO members who have gotten nuclear cold feet (not least because there is no mechanism to kick states out of the alliance, and most major decisions require unanimity) and admitting a member you know will cause that problem and have to be accommodated I would wager NATO wouldn't be willing to do that, for two reasons. First as the Norwegian report acknowledges, the Double-Track issue of late 70s/early 80s is now regarded as having been a time of profound discord, is often described as a "crisis", and is believed by some to have almost destroyed NATO. Second, it's not just that Ireland and NATO don't quite see eye-to-eye on deterrence; Ireland was a lead negotiator on a treaty that NATO went out of its way last week to unanimously, forcefully condemn as totally bad, wrong, and completely opposed to what it stands for.
Based on that, my guess is that NATO would simply make adherence to their nuclear policy a condition of membership. The Swedish government thinks the same. Their report in 2019 said "the accession of Sweden to the TPNW would without any doubt prevent a possible future Swedish membership of NATO. This situation would remain the same as long as NATO remained a nuclear alliance." [emphasis added] It, like the Norwegian report, calls NATO "a nuclear alliance". That's key, I think; even if by some miracle we could get a special exception to join the alliance but have it on record that we don't endorse its nuclear policy, does that mean anything? It's a nuclear alliance. It's always been a nuclear alliance. If we join it anyway, achieving no change to its policy but rhetorically registering our objection to that policy, clearly our objections aren't actually that strong. If the treaty is about political messaging, we would clearly have abandoned the political message.
Not very many people support NATO membership for Ireland (the last poll put it at about 14%), and it is not the platform of any significant political party (though there is a sense that many in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be amenable to it if they thought the political climate was more favourable). It does not seem likely to happen soon. But if and when it is discussed seriously, it must be acknowledged that such an option would require Ireland either to break international law or to withdraw from a landmark treaty we helped write.
Something in between
The compromise option is hardest to analyse, not least because it could manifest in a range of different ways. It probably looks like an Ireland which is not a member of NATO or any other alliance, but has much looser legal limitations on deployment of military force abroad, and is willing to participate in exercises and missions with the EU and/or NATO even when missions are not sanctioned by the UNSC. This overseas activity could be very extensive or very limited. It probably bears similarities to pre-2022 Sweden and Finland; the former participated in NATO missions in Libya, both eschewed the terms "neutral" and "non-aligned", and Finland specifically said: "We are not a neutral country, we have not been so for the past 20 years. And we are not a militarily non-aligned country but we are a country which does not belong to a military alliance."
The fact that both Finland and Sweden are now in (or practically in) NATO suggests that this "in between" position may not be a stable one, but one which tends to push states towards NATO membership. On the other hand, Ireland is small island very far away from Russia and therefore less likely to feel the same sense of danger that prompted these two countries' accession. Defining the bounds of neutrality and the multilateral security options available to non-NATO European states is very complicated, and not something I can or want to comprehensively tackle here, but it's necessary to imagine some of the possibilities to think about how it might intersect with the nuclear issue.
If clear-cut neutrality permits compliance with the TPNW and the chance to continue anti-nuclear leadership, and NATO membership would constitute a clear and gross violation of the TPNW, something in between offers us…something in between. I said above that the TPNW is intended to shape norms, and the effects of compliance with it or violation of it are primarily political rather than legal. In that sense, aligning but not allying ourselves with anti-TPNW states would weaken our pro-TPNW position but not totally reverse it. The extent of that weakening would be dependent on the extent of that alignment. For example, participating in NATO missions would mean Irish forces operating under the command of an organisation which is institutionally anti-TPNW; that would compromise significantly our leadership on the treaty's implementation and, I would argue, come close to "encouraging" the possession of nuclear weapons. Participating only in EU activities would require less compromise but certainly not none, given five of the EU's richest and most influential states own or host nuclear weapons. Irish air units forming permanent integrated command structures with French and German units which also have nuclear missions is probably not a treaty violation, but it's not a good look either.
To move beyond the messaging and into actual legal issues, we must once again acknowledge that I am not a lawyer, and get some help. When Sweden wrote its TPNW report, it was in the "not-neutral but not-allied" position, so it is worth examining here.
Provisions of the Treaty will affect many sectors of society owing to the dual-use nature of knowledge, components and activities related to nuclear weapons that are also of importance in the civilian domain or in the context of conventional defence. More aspects currently prohibited by the Treaty may be of relevance to nuclear weapons than is commonly realised. (…)
The general and global security policy implications alone of the Treaty are likely to have an impact on the conditions for Sweden's security and defence cooperation with partners. The disarmament and defence clusters taken together with the way the Treaty is formulated (broad scope, lack of definitions, etc.) in turn make it more complicated for Sweden to develop a national compliance system that is credible over the long term and provides legal certainty. (…)
Swedish accession would, not least in view of the nuclear umbrella issue, necessarily be perceived as a fundamental criticism of the strategic doctrine subscribed to by almost all of Sweden's neighbours and partners in NATO. In this context, Sweden would no longer be perceived as like-minded (…)
In situations where Swedish participation in exercises or a staff presence abroad is under consideration or when foreign military visits to Sweden are being discussed, uncertainty concerning the interpretation of the Treaty, including on the part of foreign actors, could delay decisions or make them impossible. (…)
Accession may also be expected to lead to a stagnation of current Swedish cooperation with NATO and bilaterally with NATO members. They may be expected to hesitate to maintain the current high level of cooperation with Sweden, should Sweden accede to the Treaty. (…)
The prohibition of assistance is an issue of key relevance to most points in the terms of reference. The prospects of achieving unity on the interpretation of this concept at different levels (in Sweden, in the EU, among States Parties and globally) are currently poor.
Inquiry into the consequences of a Swedish accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, January 2019 (emphasis added)
There are several things to note about this. It highlights the same "dual-use" problem I mentioned in the context of air forces above. It was written in the context of Sweden wanting to keep the door to NATO membership open and is not shy about that fact; discussions of the difficulty of continuing to cooperate with NATO under the treaty may be more to do with that, and might apply less to countries not intending to ever join NATO. I am also not sure that the report is correct to say that NATO would less or unwilling to cooperate with a TPNW state, especially post-2022 – if they would, then this option would require us to withdraw, and we have the same problems as with NATO membership above.
Nonetheless, I am inclined to believe the report when it says that there is a way to interpret the word "assist" so that any state party to the TPNW seeking military integration with a nuclear-armed state would need at the very least to be extremely careful not to stumble into legal trouble. There are, I think, possible versions of international military alignment short of NATO membership that would constitute a violation of Ireland's TPNW commitments. The Irish government would need to put in place a clear regulatory framework to prevent such violations occurring, and Irish civil society would need to keep watch to ensure the state did not accidentally, negligently or cynically renege on those commitments.
Ultimately though, it mostly is about signalling. At the absolute least, abandoning neutrality in favour of closer security alignment with our European neighbours must raise questions about what values that security policy serves. We have stated that our values on nuclear weapons are unequivocally negative, and that this is an urgent humanitarian issue to us. All NATO members have stated that they are irreconcilably opposed to our stance, and that maintenance of nuclear weapons in European defence is, for now, of "supreme" importance to them. What are we saying about the strength of our convictions in that case