Unpicking the “Triple-Lock” of Ireland’s Defence Green Paper

By: Prof. Ben Tonra

The Minister of Defence, Alan Shatter, has just published a long-awaited Green Paper on Irish Defence – precursor to a White Paper due in 2014. Interestingly, the immediate response from the largest opposition party has been to defend the principle of the so-called ‘triple-lock’. It is perhaps worth taking a moment to unpick this.

The ‘triple-lock’ is a rhetorical trope devised during the Nice Treaty referendum debates in Ireland. Its first recorded use in relation to Irish participation in international peacekeeping that I have found is in the Irish Times on 26 May 2001. Mary Harney, then Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, insisted that Irish military participation in the then proposed European Rapid Reaction Force would be guarded by a “triple lock”. This would, she said, “…require the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas and under our laws we could only participate in UN-mandated operations.” In February 2002, the Minister for the Environment, Noel Dempsey, defined the triple lock during the second Nice referendum debate as being comprised of a unanimous European ministerial decision, a separate decision of the Irish Government and then a ‘UN mandate’. Speaking on 22 March 2002 in the Dáil, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, defined the ‘triple lock system’ as “…a UN mandate, it has to be a decision of this House and it must come within the remit of our Defence Acts.” However, that very same day, in a newspaper interview, the Taoiseach defined the lock somewhat differently, noting that existing legislation stipulated three conditions for sending Irish troops abroad: “They must be part of an operation endorsed by the United Nations, it must be approved by a clear government decision, and it must be approved by Dáil Éireann. These three conditions provide a triple lock on it.”

It’s this last definition that has taken root in the political discourse and which has accreted almost totemic significance within discussions of Irish foreign, security and defence policy. It worth noting, of course, that the triple lock is only formally defined within the national declaration appended to the Lisbon Treaty. The phrase appears nowhere in Irish legislation. Having said that, the roots of UN authorisation for Irish military engagement overseas run deep.

The Defence (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1960 first provided for the deployment of armed contingents of Irish troops to “an international force or body established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations for the performance of duties of a police character.” The legislation stipulated that Dáil authorisation was required when such a contingent consisted of 12 or more armed soldiers. Subsequently, the Defence (Amendment) Act 1993 redefined the scope of Irish deployment to “an international force or body established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations” thereby removing the restriction to operations of a police character. This enabled deployment to operations requiring a more robust military engagement and was designed to facilitate Ireland’s contribution to the 1993 UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II). Legislation was further amended in 2006 by way of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2006 which, again, redefined the parameters of Irish deployment this time as “…an international force or body established, mandated, authorised, endorsed, supported, approved or otherwise sanctioned by a resolution of the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations”. The significance of this revision was to address concerns that in an evolving security environment there were many ways in which the UN had – and might in the future – support or otherwise endorse multilateral peacekeeping missions a) outside the framework of pure traditional ‘blue hat’ UN peacekeeping operations or b) under the command of other multilateral actors (e.g. EU or NATO) or ad hoc multilateral coalitions.

The 2006 Act is also frequently posited as a response to the so-called ‘Chinese veto’ over Irish peacekeeping. In 1992, the UN Preventative Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) was dispatched to Macedonia at the government’s request during the Bosnian war, to prevent the spread of the ethnic conflict. Subsequently, in January 1999 the Government of Macedonia (facing its own difficulties with respect to international recognition) established diplomatic ties with the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan. Beijing promptly cut all ties with Macedonia in line with its ‘one China policy’.  When the re-authorisation of the UN force in Macedonia thus came up at the UN Security Council, the Chinese – for only the fifth time to date – exercised their veto, essentially to punish the Macedonian’s for exercising their sovereign rights in a way the Chinese did not approve. This veto summarily ended a sensitive and successful UN peacekeeping operation.  The Chinese had form here, have vetoed a 1997 UN mission to Guatemala in retaliation for the visit there of a high-ranking political delegation from Taiwan.

In the event, NATO stepped into the Macedonian breach. When, however, it was agreed that the NATO force would be replaced by an EU force (the very first EU-led military operation) in 2003, Ireland faced a quandary. The relevant UN Security Council Resolution 1371 did not itself ‘establish’ a peacekeeping force. It simply welcomed and endorsed EU, OSCE and others’ efforts at sustaining a fledging peace process and, inter alia, supported the presence of international observers. The Government judged that a legal basis did not exist for Irish participation in the EU Concordia peacekeeping mission. Thus, had the 2006 legislation been in place, that would have been enough for Ireland to have participated. This also explains the laundry list language of the 2006 Act “… established, mandated, authorised, endorsed, supported, approved or otherwise sanctioned” designed to cover as many eventualities as possible. Of course what the 2006 Act did not address is the substance of any UN Security Council member vetoing even the most loosely-worded endorsement of a much needed peacekeeping or other mission. Thus, the rather provocative formulation of “triple lock = Chinese veto” still stands.

It is also perhaps worth pointing out that even as a trope the notion of a triple lock is problematic since it is a single key that opens the first two locks. Irish governments within our parliamentary system must maintain a Dáil majority. Thus, while one can imagine extreme exceptions, by and large the will of a government will prevail in the Dáil and if it does not, then the government will usually fall. In truth, the only ‘lock’ that exists in the triple lock is the self-imposed legal requirement for some class of UN authorisation.

The Green Paper invites discussion of this issue, but concludes that “On balance, the advantages of retaining the mechanism can be seen as outweighing the disadvantages.” Really? Why? Here the Green Paper is less assured; highlighting UN primacy in international security, Ireland’s limited military capacity and public support for the notion of the triple lock.  UN legitimacy is the only real ace in that particular hand – and a powerful one. It essentially asserts, however, that if the UN doesn’t authorise something then that something should not be done. In both principle and practice (cf Macedonia above) that assertion is simply not true. UN authorisation may indeed be viewed as the Gold Standard in terms of international legitimacy, but would anyone argue that the decisions of the UN Security Council represent the ne plus ultra of moral and ethical judgement on world affairs?

The Green Paper has called for a debate on Irish security and defence policy – and there are many issues within that paper deserving of debate. The residual need for UN authorisation (support endorsement et al) for Irish overseas military deployments should be an integral part of it.

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