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Ireland’s Foreign Policy Incomplete Until It Embraces Credible Defence Policy.

Credible Defence Policy not achievable until truth emerges on Ireland’s alleged neutrality.

NATO, No; ………… Military Resourced Neutrality, Yes

No Irish security/defence policy is possible without a full strength, operationally capable, Defence Forces. Currently, that’s impossible to achieve. The Forces is haemorrhaging a net fifty personnel monthly, across all ranks. It’s unsustainable. Two plus years since the Commission on the Defence Forces reported, no meaningful changes have taken place to stem this tide. Serving personnel continue to talk with their feet.

I do not advocate Ireland joining NATO. Like most of my Defence Forces colleagues, serving and retired, my wish would be, for the first time since independence, that Ireland becomes a truthful, honourable, militarily resourced neutral state. Customary International Law requires of states declaring neutrality that they maintain credible defence deterrence capability, as codified in the Hague Conventions, 1907.

On 9th April 2024, the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, UK, hosted a “Roundtable on the Security of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland”. Critical issues were discussed by panellists and an engaged audience. Panel representatives included senior diplomats from the Irish Embassy in London. UK panellists included a serving RAF Air Commodore, a retired UK Lieutenant General, and a recently retired Air Vice Marshal from the RAF. Dr. Cathal Berry T.D., a real expert on such issues, also took part.

An Irish friend of mine from the audience felt obliged to contact me afterwards. His considered opinion was “the people from the Irish Embassy were just woeful. Talking absolute nonsense. In fact, it was more like barefaced lies to be honest, but Cathal set them straight”. At events such as this, when Ireland is truly stress tested on its place in the world, surely, we need to send people there who have a genuine, granular knowledge of such issues. I am convinced that few, if any, Irish diplomats currently have such a skillset.

The Paucity of Informed Debate in Ireland on International Affairs

The mantra that Ireland punches above its weight internationally must be consigned to its long overdue dustbin. It’s simply not factual. If accurate, we would be entitled to recognition for being compliant with international law as cited. No alone are we not compliant like true neutrals Austria and Switzerland, or former neutrals Finland and Sweden, we are incapable of even accurately declaring what Ireland’s true international positioning is. Ireland is non-aligned. Few in Ireland know the difference with neutrality.

Irish politicians, and their diplomat and civil service speech writers, recently began declaring Ireland to being neutral and non-aligned, simultaneously. Neutral and non-aligned are used interchangeably, often in the same sentence, as if neutrality and non-aligned are one and the same thing. In international relations, neutrality and non-aligned are polar opposite positions. To informed listeners, Ireland looks silly.

Ireland urgently needs serious debate where the first question must not be, ‘should Ireland give up its neutrality’, and instead be, ‘has Ireland ever been a compliant neutral state’. Forever, our public airing of such issues seems dominated by giddy academics and less than convincing retired Irish ambassadors. It’s overdue that more current informed voices are heard advocating for militarily resourced neutrality.

The Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA), and Royal Irish Academy (RIA), are two Dublin based think tanks most associated with issues germane to this article. Running a lens over both it is obvious there is strong evidence of “groupthink” when addressing Irish foreign and defence/security policy. This is not surprising, and neither independent nor healthy unfortunately, when the said same small pool of academics and retired Irish Ambassadors are leading or directing the discussions in these two institutes. On issues of foreign and security/defence policies, we need to ask whether the IIEA and RIA are merely partisan cheerleaders for Iveagh House policy. The question is, who funds the IIEA and RIA annually?

Neutrality Reality

Ireland’s enduring response of, “we are a small country”, when challenged on being a defenceless sovereign state, is unbecoming. By OECD metrics, Ireland is a medium-sized country. Does Ireland, the weakest link in European security, have any more influence or prestige in the world than, say, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden or Finland, EU countries comparable to Ireland’s population, development, and national economies? I don’t believe so. We are freeloaders on defence and security.

Countries are well informed on the true requirements of neutrals in international law. They recognise Ireland’s shallow bluster on such issues. But we are being found out, our neglect has begun to irritate our partner countries. The default position of naysayers in Ireland on expending national budget on defence is we need to fund hospitals, the health system, housing, schools, education etc, not defence.

I am unaware of Austria, Switzerland, or in the past Finland and Sweden, underfunding these services while simultaneously funding defence. It’s not an either/or choice. Ireland is one of the wealthiest per capita countries in the world. There’s an insular lack of curiosity and interest in Ireland as to why these countries pursue their military resourced neutrality and defence postures in a polar opposite way to Ireland.

“Shotgun Weddings”

If you thought shotgun weddings were a thing of the past in Ireland, you’d be wrong. The Defence Forces have seen three unwanted marriages since 2011. Defence has no standalone minister from the Fine Gael/Labour Party Government, 2011. It continued with a Fine the Gael/Fianna Fáil Confidence/Supply Government, 2016, followed by the ongoing Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government, 2020.

The first shotgun marriage was with the Department of Justice, 2011, followed by sharing a bed with the Department of Agriculture, 2014, and since 2016 holding hands with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Of those imposed liaisons, the least beneficial for the Defence Forces, in truth, is with Foreign Affairs.

Political, institutional and citizen Ireland still believes the Forces exist solely for service abroad with the UN, EU, NATO and OSCE. Twinning with Foreign Affairs further reinforces this. The Forces must be seen publicly as having a critical security role at home on land, seas and air. It has 42 such mandated tasks.

A Minister for Defence, not Ministers for the Department of Defence

The Department of Defence has sole statutory responsibility for delivering Defence Policy Advice for Government. Yes, the Department may suggest that they consult with the Defence Forces in preparing this advice, but in reality, if that occurs, it is strictly on a grace and favour basis, it is not at all obligatory.

Astonishingly, with multiple security crises ongoing, nationally, and internationally, we have a Department of Defence currently focused, not on these urgent security issues, but instead fixated on the draft Defence (Amendment) Bill, 2023, the sole intent of which is gagging the Defence Forces two representative bodies who, since 1980, have honourably worked to improve service conditions of personnel across all services.

Evidence since 2011 shows clearly double hatted ministers give minority attention to Defence over their other ministry. This results in ever greater ministerial dependence on Department of Defence officials than pre-2011. Pre-2011 Ministers for Defence had time to give parity of attention to the Defence Forces. Since then, its ‘lose, lose’ for the Defence Forces, leading inexorably to its current precarious bid for survival.