DUBLIN - Irish diplomats won plenty of kudos from governments across the world over the past week for brokering a ban on cluster bombs during an international conference in Dublin. It may seem ironic, then, that despite having a decades-old tradition of military neutrality, Ireland has deepened its involvement in the arms trade in recent years.
Two years ago, Michael Ahern, then the country's minister for commerce, claimed that "Ireland does not have an arms trade nor do we wish to promote one." A 2007 report by Amnesty International suggests otherwise. It cited estimates that the value of export licences issued by Ireland for goods with a military application rose from 1.3 billion euros (2 billion dollars) in 2004 to 2.4 billion euros in 2006.
Among the components for military goods manufactured by Data Device Corporation in the southern city of Cork are electronic devices fitted into Apache helicopters. Boeing, the U.S. firm that makes Apaches, has sold the helicopters to Israel, which used them during its 2006 attacks on Lebanon. Apaches are also known to have been used for carrying cluster bombs.
"We are in the arms trade and there's no trade lower than that," said Dennis Halliday, an Irish anti-war campaigner who served as assistant secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1990s.
Because of the requirements of its national constitution, Ireland is alone among the European Union's 27 countries to call a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which the bloc's presidents and prime ministers signed in the Portuguese capital last year. The Irish poll will take place Jun. 12.
Some campaigners against the treaty are perturbed by how it effectively obliges Ireland to become even more entangled in the defence industry than it now is.
The treaty says that EU governments "shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities." And it empowers the Brussels-based European Defence Agency to undertake "any measure" it deems necessary to "strengthen the industrial and technological base" of Europe's arms industry.
Alexander Weiss, the EDA's director, denied last month that his agency is seeking to militarise the European Union. "We do not militarise the European Union, we are just enhancing the military capabilities of EU member states' armed forces," he said.
Opponents of the treaty say, however, that the clauses relating to the EDA are virtually identical to those proposed by arms manufacturers who lobbied the convention chaired by ValÃƒ©ry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president. His body drew up a proposed EU constitution, about 90 percent of which is contained in the Lisbon treaty.
Patricia McKenna, chairwoman of the People's Movement against the treaty, said the provisions allow arms companies to determine the EU's policies on defence procurement. "This is like asking the pharmaceutical industry to tell doctors what to write on their prescriptions," added McKenna, a former member of the European Parliament.
Even though Ireland is not a full member of a formal military alliance such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), it has been actively participating in the EDA's activities. Admissions by the Dublin government that representatives of Enterprise Ireland, the state's industrial development body, have taken part in EDA meetings have fuelled suspicion that firms based in Ireland are eager to win lucrative defence contracts.
The EDA has been actively promoting higher defence expenditure in Europe. In a 2006 'vision paper' it argued that EU governments "must take to heart" how the U.S. is outspending them on weapons.
Willie O'Dea, Ireland's defence minister, claimed recently that the proportion of national income spent on the military shrank from 4 percent at the beginning of this century to 1.8 percent today. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that defence expenditure is to rise under a commitment contained in the programme for government agreed last year between the ruling coalition of Fianna Fáil, a centrist party with roots in the country's struggle for independence from Britain, and the smaller Green Party.
Ireland's military spending is more than three times what the country, still known as the Celtic Tiger because of its robust economic growth since the 1990s, allocates in development aid to the world's poor.
Andy Storey, a lecturer in development studies at the University College Dublin and a board member of the international justice campaign group Action from Ireland, said that at the very least the treaty exhorts EU countries to further increase their defence budgets. It is instructive, Storey added, that while Lisbon mandates countries to boost their military capabilities, "the treaty makes no such reference to improving, say, educational or healthcare capabilities."
The provisions on military expenditure, he said, "constitute a further advance towards the militarisation of the EU."
While the government argues that Irish neutrality will be unaffected by the treaty, Storey countered: "The EU is already to some extent militarised. Under this treaty, it is adding new powers and resources to its military wing."
© 2008 Inter Press Service