It’s pointless pontificating about Ireland’s neutrality while the Defence Forces are so short of members


One of the great political fallacies of the past half century is that the “triple lock” is some great obstacle to the participation of our Defence Forces in international peace and security operations.

The triple lock has, as the name suggests, three components: (i) government decision, (ii) Dáil approval and a (iii) UN mandate. These are set out in legislation, dating back to the 1960 Defence Act.

In reality, only one element of the triple lock mechanism, the third one, actually locks or unlocks anything. The first, the government decision requirement to deploy troops is a basic tenet of democratic control.  We are not going to see our Defence Forces heading off without a cabinet decision… and if we are then that government has much bigger problems than the triple lock.

Indeed, the second element, Dáil approval, is the logical extension of the government decision one. It is reasonable to assume that any government deciding to send troops overseas would only do so knowing they command a workable majority in the Dáil.

Which brings us to the requirement for a UN mandate – and it is important to note that the 1960 Act refers to a force “established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations”.

I mention this as one of the biggest empty arguments against this third part of the lock is that this gives Russia and China a veto on our deployments due to the veto power retained by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. But this ignores the fact that the law underpinning the triple lock has – since 1960 – also referred to the UN General Assembly.

Other advocates of dropping the triple lock – and this appears to include many sitting around the cabinet table – is that the third element of the triple lock means abdicating our sovereignty. That is not the case.

The triple lock is a deliberate policy of Government. It is an exercise in sovereignty, not an abdication of it. Sovereign Irish government, including several in which I was honoured to serve, decided that we believed in the principle of multi-lateralism and that we would not dispatch troops abroad without a United Nations mandate.

This was a point I made strongly when I acted in 2006 to update earlier Defence Acts. That Act gave greater legal clarity about our participation in international training for such missions and also allowed armed troops deploy on emergency and disaster relief missions. We did this as the UN Security Council does not pass resolutions for humanitarian operations as they do not generally represent a threat to international peace and security.

This was a non-controversial reform. It was only opposed by the usual suspects, namely the parties of the far left and Sinn Féin and… curiously… the Green Party.  The then leader of the Greens, John Gormley accused me in the Dail (July 4th 2006 Dáil Report Vol 623 No 1) of trying “to undo our traditional foreign and defence policy”  and of creating “a form of secondary conscription”.

His claims were soon shown to be baseless. As we all knew they would. Yet today the same Green Party that once excoriated me for allegedly weakening the triple lock is now plotting to do away with it entirely.

In its sixty plus years of operation the third element of the triple lock has only prevented us from participating in one mission, that was the 2003 mission to Macedonia.

Today’s chronic problems with defence force recruitment and retention limits our capacity to participate on a range of missions. Two decades ago, we had over 800 troops serving overseas at any one time. Back then we had a permanent defence force strength of 10,500. Defence force numbers today are, thanks to a decade of political neglect, at just 7,800… and falling.

My view is that the wisest and best course of action now is for ministers to stop spinning and speculating about the triple lock and focus instead on getting our Defence Force numbers back up over 10,000 as soon as possible and get to the 11,500-figure recommended 18 months ago by the excellent Commission on the Defence Forces. Anything else is just empty talk.



(First published in the Sunday Independent 28-05-2023)

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It’s pointless pontificating about Ireland’s neutrality while the Defence Forces are so short of members

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