Ending the Triple Lock—A Recipe For Incoherence

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Dave Alvey is chair of the Roger Casement Summer School. This year the school takes place on the evening of Friday 26th April and all of Saturday 27th April in the Eblana Club in Dun Laoghaire. The cost of a ticket is €15 (€17 includes the booking fee) which entitles you to admission to all events, complimentary tea and coffee, a free lunch (sandwiches) and free refreshment (food and water) at the social.

Some very interesting talks on foreign policy include:

  • Publication Launch - 'Misunderstanding Islam, Misunderstanding Al Aqsa
  • 'A Multi-Polar World Order? Vijay Prashad

For more information, please go to their Facebook.

Ending the Triple Lock—A Recipe For Incoherence

Given its stated intention of removing the Triple Lock—the policy by which Irish troops cannot be despatched abroad without agreement by the Government, the Dáil and a United Nations mandate—the present Irish Government is simultaneously defending the UN and preparing legislation to undermine it.

The case for ditching the Triple Lock rests on two contentions.  The first is that, by depending on a UN mandate, Irish sovereignty is being compromised since any of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (known in diplomatic circles as the P5) can exercise a Veto on UN operations.  Theoretically, Government representatives are arguing, Russia or China could block an engagement abroad by the Irish Defence Forces, even if such an engagement had the enthusiastic support of the Irish people through their public representatives.

The problem with that argument is that it betrays a lack of understanding of how the UN works.  Granting the major Powers a Veto is a precondition for having a United Nations Organisation.  Having a powerful international body requires a balance between the wants of the major military Powers and the wishes of the multiplicity of smaller States.  Following World War I, a clear international consensus emerged that international security should not be left in the control of the Great Powers.  The League of Nations was formed, but its effectiveness was severely curtailed through the machinations of Britain and France.  After World War II the League was replaced by the UN, and that body was designed to avoid the pitfalls that had hampered its predecessor.  But the victors of that war were still given a privileged status, expressed in the power of Veto granted to them individually as the P5.  The principle underlying the UN as an important international body is that the big Powers are prepared to put up with interference from the smaller States, expressed as international opinion, provided they can protect their interests.  In a word, no Veto, no UN.

(None of these points should obviate the need for reform of the Security Council—at the very least, India should be added to the P5.)

Now Ireland could accept that the existence of a power of Veto by each of the P5 is essential to having the UN and still choose to make a policy change that would allow Irish peacekeeping missions to operate abroad without a UN mandate, but such a decision would have significant consequences.  It would represent a vote of No Confidence in the UN system from a State that has been exemplary in supporting it for nearly seventy years.  That last sentence is an understatement.  Throughout those years Ireland has been a leading proponent of the basic concept of the UN, in words and deeds.

A weakness in the Government’s argument about the Veto is that Russia has never used it to block a peacekeeping mission.

China did block a mission to Macedonia in 1999 (Ireland was to have been a participant) because Macedonia had opened diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but that represents a rare exception.

In general, the Veto has not been used to block peacekeeping missions;  the Government is proposing a radical change on the grounds of an abstract and unlikely theoretical possibility.

The second contention behind the Government’s case against the Triple Lock is that the UN Security Council has become dysfunctional, and that no peacekeeping missions have been authorised since 2014.  This argument has some substance but it appears that little attempt to analyse why the UN is beset by these problems.  

One important reason is that, following the end of the Cold War, the US moved back from the UN and began undermining it.  It regarded itself as the sole Super-Power and saw no need to take account of the interests of lesser members!

Attempting to run a large international organisation without the support of the Superpower has not made for smooth operational development.  It is also the case, and Irish diplomats and military leaders know this more than anyone, that running a UN peacekeeping mission requires exceptional competence at the political, diplomatic, and operational levels.  Working through the UN is not easy but that is not a reason for giving up on it.

And what would be the result of making the momentous change in foreign policy that ending the Triple Lock would signify?  Irish troops fighting Russia in Ukraine under the guise of defending international law, as laid down in propagandist terms?  Or perhaps Irish military involvement in North Africa, defending French commercial interest under an EU flag?  Or maybe Irish forces might be required to assist German forces on the borders of Israel?

Impressive Irish Support for the UN

In just the last month, Ireland has intervened in support of the UN on at least two occasions.  On February 15th the Government announced it was donating €20 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an action for which the Commissioner General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzerini, travelled to Dublin to express his agency’s gratitude.  And, on 22nd February, the Irish Attorney General, Rossa Fanning, made a strong case in the Hague before the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) challenging the legality of Israel’s long-term occupation of Palestinian territories.

(The case against the Israeli occupation before the ICJ should not be confused with South Africa’s case, accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza—even though the two cases are increasing international pressure on Israel.  The former arises from a UN resolution passed by the General Assembly in December 2022 that was strongly opposed by the US.  It is a request to the Court for an advisory opinion on the Occupation.  Fifty-seven submissions from States and international bodies, mostly sympathetic to the Palestinians, were lodged last August.  In recent weeks 30-minute oral submissions have been given by all 57—this included the presentation from the Irish Attorney General.

Notably the UK submission ran along the lines that the question of the occupation should be left to the two parties in conflict:  Israel and Palestine!

Which other States, one wonders, could argue such an untenable position!  

While it can certainly be argued that neither of the two cases can have enforceable outcomes and are therefore substantially pointless, they are being conducted under an international spotlight at a time when Israeli transgressions against the Palestinians are undeniable and when movement away from US hegemony is progressing.

Some observers are saying that Israel is pulling down the dominant position that the West has enjoyed in international affairs.

These are both significant interventions that have been recognised as such in international media.  Al Jazeera reported the countries which were continuing to support UNRWA as follows:

“Countries including Belgium, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and, of course, Ireland, have decided to continue supporting the UNRWA” (Aljazeera, 17 Feb 2024).

Referring to the long list of Western countries that are pausing or suspending their contributions to UNRWA, the same report quoted Ilan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007), as follows:

“…the Global North following blindly here the Israeli cue on UNRWA”.

The report was subtitled, “Ireland is the latest to pledge funds for the stricken UN agency, the main source of humanitarian aid to Palestine”, and quoted Taoiseach Varadkar to the effect that Israel has become blinded by rage.  Attempting to explain why the Irish have an affinity for the Palestinian cause, the report included a historical summary of the Irish struggle for independence.

A report in another Middle Eastern publication, a United Arab Emirates daily paper, The National, gave prominence to Rossa Fanning’s oral presentation at The Hague.  It stated:

"Ireland, which was represented by Attorney General Rossa Fanning, said Israel had committed “serious breaches” of international law during its five decade-long occupation of Palestinian territories.

In addition to encouraging settlers to move illegally to occupied territories, Israel has applied domestic law in illegal settlements and transferred administration in certain areas from military to civilian control.

In its continuing war on Gaza, which has killed more than 29,400 Palestinians, Israel has “exceeded” its right to the use of force in self-defence following Hamas-led attacks on Israel on October 7, said Mr Fanning.

“This is manifest from the spiralling death toll, the extensive destruction of property including homes throughout Gaza, the displacement of up to two million people and the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe,” he said…"  (The Nation, “China tells ICJ that Palestinians have the right to armed struggle”, 22 Feb 2024).

The report led with a summary of China’s oral presentation, which was itself significant and indicative that international law may be taken more seriously as US hegemony declines.  But the importance attached to the Irish submission underlines how it contained points of law which the Court will need to take note of.  It also shows how Ireland continues to punch above its weight in international affairs.

Ireland’s reputation as a small State that has actively supported the UN over the decades gives the State an advantage at the UN and internationally, and in the current Israel-Gaza war our traditional foreign policy orientation of support for anti-colonialism through the UN has come to the fore.

Why then is the Government preparing to pivot Ireland’s alignment away from the UN?  Why undermine the increased standing that has been achieved by supporting UNRWA and the Attorney General’s legal challenge to the Israeli occupation?

Changes are currently afoot in the balance of international power relationships and no one can predict where those changes will lead.  At the very least this is the worst possible time for a break from the traditional policy.

Much more can be said on this subject.  The Irish political system is sharply divided on the proposed change.  Sinn Féin has been leading opposition to it, but the rest of the Opposition—the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, and influential Independents like Catherine Connolly—are equally incensed by it.  

Inside the ranks of the Coalition there is deep unease among the Greens about ending the Triple Lock;  that party has a record of involvement in peace activism.  Given the huge involvement of Fianna Fáil in defending Irish neutrality and supporting the UN over the decades, it would be unrealistic to assume that the ranks of that party are united behind what will be a further weakening of the foreign policy that was so important to Eamon De Valera, Sean Lemass, Frank Aiken and Charles Haughey.

Even Fine Gael should not be assumed to be gung-ho about weakening the traditional connection with the UN:  Rossa Fanning who performed so creditably at The Hague along the lines of the traditional foreign policy was nominated as Attorney General by Taoiseach Varadkar.

Ending the Triple Lock was not proposed by any party in the General Election campaign;  nor was it mentioned in the Coalition’s Programme for Government.  Given the implications of this major change in foreign policy, it would make sense for the Opposition Parties to signal in the impending Dáil debate that they will undertake to revoke any legislation ending the Triple Lock in their manifestos in the General Election whenever it is called.

By pushing through legislation to end the Triple Lock, the Government will be introducing an element of incoherence into Irish foreign policy.  Why undermine a policy tradition that has strengthened the cause of multi-lateralism through the UN and won international respect?  

And why do it at a time of tumult in international affairs?

Dave Alvey

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