Special Report

Michael D Higgins exclusive: Ireland is ‘playing with fire’ in ‘dangerous drift’ towards Nato

President warns against getting involved ‘in other people’s agendas’ and is critical of the European Union for its increasing military posturing

President Michael D Higgins: ‘Any time that Ireland puts itself behind the shadows of previous empires within the European Union, it loses an opportunity of expanding and enhancing and using its influence for the world.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Ireland is “playing with fire” during a dangerous period of “drift” in its foreign policy and must avoid “burying ourselves in other people’s agendas”, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In an exclusive interview with the Business Post, President Higgins has given a strongly worded warning about deviating from Ireland’s traditional policy of “positive neutrality”.

He said that the country finds itself in a particularly acute moment, noting that “the most dangerous moment in the articulation and formulation of foreign policy and its practice, since the origin of diplomacy, has been when you’re drifting and not knowing what you’re doing”. He added, “I would describe our present position as one of drift.”

Ireland’s traditional policy of neutrality is currently under review, with a four-day debate over the country’s foreign policy set to begin at the Government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy.

The panel is set to discuss a number of issues about Ireland’s international relations, including the country’s long-standing tradition of military neutrality and the possibility of membership of Nato.

President Higgins said that Ireland should avoid the “strutting and chest thumping” of those who would espouse a “hold-me-back version of Irish policy”, and who would want Ireland to “march at the front of the band” into military alliances such as Nato.

“We’re better than that,” he said, adding that Irish foreign policy should be based on the country’s tradition of international cooperation.

The country must avoid abandoning Ireland’s right to belong to any group that it chooses in relation to non-militaristic international policy, he said.

In relation to the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy, he said that the composition of the various panels was mostly made up of “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it”, as well as “the formerly neutral countries who are now joining Nato”. He asked why there was no representation from still-neutral countries such as Austria and Malta.

He was critical, too, of the European Union for its increasing military posturing, citing French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments that “the future of Europe is as the most reliable pillar in Nato”.

He said, “Any time that Ireland puts itself behind the shadows of previous empires within the European Union it loses an opportunity of expanding and enhancing and using its influence for the world.”

The president was speaking in the context of a wider analysis of the need for reform of the United Nations, which he has on several occasions described as the foundation of Ireland’s foreign policy.

President Higgins was ‘despondent’ in relation to the decline of the United Nations, which he said was the result of “an incredible failure of diplomacy and failure of commitment to the United Nations” and “should never have come to this point”, he said.

The future of the UN, he said, lay in the countries of Africa, South America and Asia rather than Europe, because “some of its principal partners are too heavily involved in undermining it”.

“I think the change that will represent the population of the world, the best prospect in relation to globalisation, the best prospect in relation to climate change, in relation to migration, in relation to all of these issues, is going to come from that side.”

Ireland, through its foreign policy, ought to engage in “a more inclusive, deeper, more wide ranging, more self-confident [foreign policy], not just in consultation with the fading imperial powers, but with the emerging populations of the world”, he said.

Ireland’s freedom to join any group that could “break the impasse of the decline of the United Nations has to be incredibly important”, he said.

President Higgins also expressed reservations about further investment in the Irish Defence Forces while it had yet to resolve the cultural issues revealed by an independent review group of substantial institutional problems with sexual misconduct, bullying, discrimination and career obstruction.

“We haven’t put in place any guarantees yet to say that when we invite young women and men to join to serve Ireland we will offer you a career in which you will be treated with dignity, you will be upskilled, when you decide to leave you will be a person with confidence,” he said.

“I have to say I am absolutely heartbroken at the fact that people have had to wait for justice.”