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Former Defence chief: First salvos of Ukraine war fired here as Russia exposed Ireland

Mark Mellett, the former Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, launched a stinging attack on Irish defence capacity.

A file image of Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Mark Mellett before his retirement.
A file image of Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Mark Mellett before his retirement.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

MARK MELLETT, THE former Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, told an Irish security conference that Russia exposed Ireland’s vulnerabilities off our coasts.

Mellett was speaking at the recent Slándáil organised event on the “Future of Irish Defence” which was being held as the government considers the future direction of the Defence Forces.

The former defence chief said that Ireland was powerless to do anything to prevent the exercises.

“We really showed our nakedness in terms of our capacity to respond. Ireland is now a lone sentinel, separated from the other states in the Atlantic and in a very vulnerable position. And we are probably the most vulnerable state in the 27 members,” he said.

In January The Journal reported that the Irish government had received a warning of a major exercise by the Russian navy in the Atlantic off the south west coast planned for the first week of February.

The exercise was seen as a provocative move by Russia and the Russian ambassador to Ireland Yuriy Filatov announced on 29 January that the area where the tests would take place would be moved as a “gesture of goodwill”.

Filatov said this has been done “with the aim not to hinder fishing activities by the Irish vessels in the traditional fishing areas”.

The vessels involved in the drills subsequently made their way to the Black Sea and have been involved in cruise missile attacks against Ukraine. 

They were monitored off the south coast by Irish Air Corps CASA maritime patrol aircraft and Irish, French, British and US naval forces.      

“We shouldn’t forget the first salvo in terms of the Ukrainian invasion was actually fired on the southwest coast of Ireland, when the hybrid, play of the Russian naval exercise, with artillery and gunnery and rocket exercises.

“Within our sovereign jurisdiction, our exclusive economic zone, off the southwest coast in more than 5000 square kilometers in areas the size of Wexford, Wicklow and Dublin was going to be annexed from this country for five days. It was unprecedented. It was provocative,” he told delegates. 

In the coming weeks the Minister for Defence Simon Coveney will bring a memo to Government for what is being billed as a major revamp of the Defence Forces.  

During a separate discussion on the Commission on the Defence Forces at the Slándáil event Independent TD Cathal Berry, a former military officer in the Army Ranger Wing, strongly criticised the political culture towards defence. 

He said it had its origins in how the State was formed. 

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“My own personal view is the Civil War was a defining moment in our history. From each side emerged a political party. 

“Both parties formed every government and almost every opposition since the foundation of the State. Consequently defence was such a contentious issue that it couldn’t even be discussed.

“So we have no corporate knowledge, and no institutional memory what so ever and it was just part of our sovereign structure,” he said.

Berry said that a failure of the Commission process was that the Department of Defence (DOD) was not also scrutinised. 

The Kildare TD said that he believes the problem in the effectiveness of the Irish defence apparatus comes from the “interface” between the military and its civilian masters in the DOD. 

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