Neutral Ireland likely to get more involved in EU defence policy - Deputy PM

DUBLIN, March 1 (Reuters) - Ireland is likely to reconsider its tradition of military neutrality in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and may get more involved in common European Union defence policy, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday.

"This does require us to think about our security policy," Varadkar told RTE radio. "I don't see us applying to join NATO, but I do see us getting more involved in European defence."

The government will not make any "knee-jerk response" to the crisis, however, and will consider its options carefully and allow a thorough debate in a country where the policy of neutrality has long been very popular.

"We've always made the assumption in Ireland for the past 70 years, that our military neutrality would protect us and it has, and that if we were attacked that NATO countries like the U.S. and the UK would come to our aid in any case, but we will have to ask ourselves, can we assume that," Varadkar said.

He mentioned the EU's Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) pact, which aims to deepen defence ties, as one route to "deeper involvement in European defence."

He also said Ireland would need to reconsider a law that prevents it from getting involved in any military action without a UN mandate, considering Russia's Security Council veto.

Before the invasion, an Irish government commissioned report found that Ireland was at risk of being left without a credible military capability to protect the country if it did not increase defence spending significantly.

Russian military exercises off the southwest coast of Ireland last month also triggered debate about Ireland's lack of investment in its defence forces.

Ireland will put no limit on the number of refugees it will welcome from Ukraine, Varadkar said, predicting the number could be in the thousands or tens of thousands.

He called for an acceleration of EU enlargement, mentioning Albania and Macedonia, Serbia and Moldova. Accepting Ukraine as a candidate for membership would be "a real meaningful gesture of solidarity," he added.

Reporting by Conor Humphries, Editing by William Maclean

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