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Ireland is Dangerously Negligent on National Security and in Safeguarding its Sovereignty?

Have we truly “taken our place amongst the nations of the World”, as Robert Emmett envisaged?

Ireland and the world of international peace and security affairs

We’re a nation of storytellers, fables being a particular speciality. Fables invade our unchallenged belief of Ireland’s alleged place in the world. On national/international security, defence, and the duties of sovereign states, a fable also endures. This lack of substance in Ireland’s national security reality, and its muddled defence policy, cannot be sustained any longer. We’ve been found out, and we know it now.

Former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and Tánaiste Micheál Martin, both recently made an inaugural visit to the annual Munich Security Conference. That it was our national leaders first ever visit there was of itself, telling. It didn’t go well for either. While in Munich the Taoiseach, unwisely, suggested to an informed audience that our annual Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget was somehow an extension of our paltry, lowest in the EU, defence budget. It was a ‘car crash moment’ and embarrassing.

The Tánaiste was a member of a Conference breakout panel discussion where one of the agenda items was Ireland and Neutrality. Attendees and the press were, as always, invited to attend this session. The derisory number of attendees who were present for the debate, along with the low single figure number of journalists who attended, resulted in it being an embarrassing flop. There is simply no interest in an informed international audience anymore listening to Ireland’s highly flawed subjective take on neutrality.

In 2023, An Tánaiste, and Department of Foreign Affairs, hosted a four-day conference entitled a ‘Consultative Forum on International Security Policy’. It was the first ever of its kind in Ireland with a wide-ranging agenda, formidable panel members, and was open to the public. The intent of this forum was to aerate the issue of defence, security, and neutrality in a public debate. It was a positive ambition.

On its first day at UCC in Cork, an audience member enthusiastically suggested that Ireland should take a leading role in seeking peace in Ukraine by virtue of its success in the Good Friday Agreement and international good standing. Professor Brigid Laffan, a panel member, correctly answered by saying that Ireland could never credibly assume such a lead role as, and I quote, “On international affairs such as this, Ireland is simply not a player”. A truer word on Ireland and international affairs was never spoken.

Ireland and National Security

Astonishingly, for a developed democracy, Ireland has never published a National Security Strategy. It instead took refuge in the fig leaf of issuing a National Strategy Statement as a ‘holding document’. A National Security Strategy is a pillar document of any responsible sovereign state. It was last promised, again, by government, in 2019, but its completion and publication are still awaited. Quite astonishing.

A National Security Analysis Centre exists in the Department of the Taoiseach since 2021. It is tasked with overseeing the development of the Strategy. Its continuing absence matters nationally and internationally. The delivery of our National Security Strategy needs a pivotal role for the Defence Forces. The Force is in disarray, and possibly in terminal decline, further complicating the production of a credible, deliverable, National Security Strategy. Ireland simply doesn’t take national security seriously.

In 2014, Ireland issued its first ever National Maritime Security Strategy. This strategy urgently needs updating in light of existing and other fast approaching additional risks to our maritime security. There are two main, potentially catastrophic, maritime insecurity challenges in Ireland’s Territorial Waters (TTW) and Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). First is the proliferation of undersea fibreoptic cabling in those two maritime domains. These cables are essential to Ireland’s ability to operate an economy, converse with the world, and facilitate as a cable transiting country, world commerce.

In 2023, 47% of Ireland’s energy needs came from imported gas from Scotland using two undersea gas pipelines. This supply enables continuing economic wellbeing and keeps the lights on in our national infrastructure and homes. There are no gas storage facilities in Ireland, and no credible plan to mitigate against interruption in this Scottish pipeline supply. This questions Ireland’s strategic sovereign maturity.

Political, citizen and journalist Ireland never seriously poses critical questions such as; what effect would no internet connectivity have in Ireland, or with the world, for weeks on end from malicious rupturing of fibreoptic cables in waters sovereignty requires us to police; or as starkly, how would industry, commerce, public and private consumers exist were the gas pipelines from Scotland ruptured in a terrorist attack.

A Succession of Ineffective and Uninterested Defence Ministers

A continuing strategic error by the Defence Forces results in its overemphasising and overplaying its role internationally to the detriment of putting front and centre its critical role in national security on land, at sea and in the air at home. Currently, it has 42 government mandated tasks ‘on island’, a significant number being contingency tasks such as the recent ARW fast roping onto a moving ship to interdict a drug shipment. All such contingencies need continuous manpower, training, and operational capability.

Currently, for political, institutional and citizen Ireland, the Defence Forces exists primarily to service overseas missions with the UN, EU, NATO and the OSCE. If the Defence Forces are not seen primarily as having a pillar role in national security it will continue to suffer from a deficit of relevance, budget, prestige, and influence. This belief has been a significant contributing factor to its current demise. It is simply not seen by political, but especially, institutional Ireland, as other than an optional state extra.

The degrading of the Minister for Defence portfolio from 2011 to date should be a cause of great concern, but it is not seen in Irish politics as such. It proves, if any proof was needed, that defence and security as delivered by the Defence Forces has become marginalised and dangerously neglected. As a result, the Defence Forces is edging close to disfunction from which it may never fully recover.

Since 2011, the following ministers have been allocated the defence ministerial portfolio, always as an add on to another ministerial responsibility; Alan Shatter, Simon Coveney (twice), Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and now Micheál Martin. During the premierships of both Kenny and Varadkar, Paul Kehoe had the title of Minister with Responsibility for Defence. He sat at the Cabinet, but as a junior minister.

So, it can be seen that from 2011 successive Taoisigh, a Tánaiste, and two ‘heavy hitter’ senior Ministers have been lead ministers in Defence. All have utterly failed by the only true metric of success in the portfolio, that is, solving the Defence Forces recruitment and retention crisis. The rote deflection response from all when challenged by this failure is to cite a booming economy and better financial rewards in the private sector. There always have been, and still are, many men and women who long for a career in the Defence Forces. The utter neglect of the Defence Forces is at the core of the problem.

From 2020, a troubling new reality for the Defence Forces, has emerged. Constitutionally, a Junior Minister in the Department of Defence is required. Jack Chambers, Peter Burke and now, Jennifer Carroll Mc Neill, have been appointed to the role. Senior Defence Ministers since 2020 have been Simon Coveney, and currently An Tánaiste. Neither have allowed ANY delegated authority on defence issues to these three junior ministers. It is a disingenuous façade, further damaging Defence Forces morale.

Today, with war raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, and increasing risks to national security in our neighbourhood, has still not resulted in increased meaningful national security interest. Government continues to treat national security as an ‘optional extra’. We will live to regret this irresponsible folly.