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Tom Clonan: 'A land border would be provocative and divisive while Stormont is suspended'

Elements of the current debate on a hard border between Ireland and Britain resemble a perfect storm in security and defence terms, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

SINCE BRITAIN’S SHOCK decision to leave the European Union, much of the emphasis in our public discourse has been on the political and economic implications of Brexit. In recent days and weeks, the concept of a ‘hard border’ between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has come into sharp focus.

Elements of the current debate on a hard border between Ireland and Britain resemble a perfect storm in security and defence terms. Here’s why.

Security worries

The Northern Ireland Peace Process is in crisis with the ongoing collapse and suspension of the power sharing agreement at Stormont. This has created something of a political and power vacuum in Northern Ireland. It is in this context, that Arlene Foster and the DUP have saved some political face and have achieved some traction with Theresa May’s Tory government by providing them with a slender majority.

In the context of this support for the Conservative government – a government in considerable disarray – Arlene Foster and the DUP have become increasingly strident in the use of language favoured by their Brexiteer bedfellows. This political position is at odds with the majority of voters in Northern Ireland, 56% of whom voted to remain within the EU.

This week, Arlene Foster raised the political temperature by seemingly rejecting a suggestion by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Barnier, that Northern Ireland might enjoy special status – perhaps remaining within the EU Customs Union. Foster was unequivocal in her response, and predictably supportive of her hapless coalition partner, Theresa May: “Northern Ireland will exit the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. We will not countenance a border in the Irish Sea.”

A land border seems to be on the cards

Based on this response, a land border on the island of Ireland seems to be on the cards. On a metaphorical, symbolic level, this would prove deeply provocative and divisive at a time when Stormont is suspended. It would reinforce the notion within the nationalist community that direct rule from London would be buttressed by a DUP blind to the wishes of the majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens.

The concept of such a border, in the context of Brexit also acts as an accelerant to debates around identity within Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland. It shoe-horns citizens into an artificial binary choice between being citizens of a newly imagined ‘Great Britain’ or being citizens of the European Union.

Unfortunately, this also brings into sharp relief – for the first time since the Troubles – an equally polarising interrogation of ‘Irishness’ and ‘Britishness’. The former implying support for the European project, the latter implying support for Brexit and all that it entails.

Motivating dissidents

This debate will be seized upon by dissident republicans. Any attempt to introduce a border will be resisted on the ground in counties Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, South Tyrone and Derry.

If customs or immigration posts are set up in these counties they will be bombed or burned out by increasingly effective dissident groups such as the New IRA. Such groups would mobilise nationalist rhetoric to target such infrastructure and to target customs and immigration personnel deployed to these areas. If the authorities seek to introduce a ‘digital border’ with electronic surveillance devices – these will also be targeted and destroyed.

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland has stated that any attempt to re-introduce a border on the island would make members of the PSNI ‘sitting ducks’ for terrorist attacks. At present, groups such as the New IRA and other dissident elements have acquired large quantities of Semtex and commercial high explosives. The New IRA have also recently successfully innovated a highly effective ‘pressure plate’ improvised explosive device.

We also now know – courtesy of CCTV images from the Regency Hotel shooting in Dublin last year – that Romanian manufactured AKM assault rifles, of the type favoured by the Provisional IRA, were not all destroyed in the de-commissioning process and are available for use when required.

At present, the PSNI are called out to an average of one Improvised Explosive Device (IED) incident per week. British Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal officers have found that approximately 50% of these devices are viable. At present there are approximately 5000 British soldiers deployed to Northern Ireland. At the height of the Troubles, there were 27,500 British soldiers deployed to this island in Britain’s longest military campaign, Operation Banner (1969-2007).

Costly Operation Banner

After the ceasefires and the consolidation of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, the cost of Operation Banner to the British Exchequer remained high. From 1998-2007, the ‘cash out-turn’ of the Top Level Budget for the British General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, averaged at 500 million pounds sterling per annum.

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The costly Operation Banner ended in July 2007. With the rise, and persistence of dissident republican groupings, MI5 currently rate the domestic threat level within Northern Ireland at ‘severe’ with armed attacks ‘highly likely’ at any given time. As a consequence, Operation Banner has been replaced by Operation Helvetic – an acknowledgement by the British Government that policing in Northern Ireland, unlike anywhere else in Britain, requires constant, ongoing military support.

It is against this backdrop that the DUP and Theresa May’s government seem keen to re-introduce some sort of border on the island. I believe that this would effectively end the prospect of the ‘normalisation’ of policing within Northern Ireland. It would likely lead to the re-introduction of joint police and military patrols in the border counties and other sensitive urban areas. Talk of such a border and the rhetoric that is favoured by Brexiteers, unfortunately acts as a recruiting sergeant for dissident republican – and Loyalist groups.

Our defence forces

In the Republic, the Defence Forces has been hollowed out to a very serious extent by austerity measures. Key personnel such as highly qualified Explosive Ordnance Disposal officers, pilots and other specialties have been leaving the Irish Defence Forces in very high numbers to the extent that these skill sets are in dangerously short supply at this sensitive time. In the event of a – highly likely – resurgence in the domestic terror threat, our Defence Forces, as they currently stand, would not be able to meet the demands required of them.

Nor would the primary intelligence agency within the State – An Garda Siochana. Morale within an Garda Siochana is at an all-time low and there is a major leadership issue within policing here – at Commissioner level and at the level of Minister for Justice.

In summary, with over 40 separate independent reports, reviews and investigations into the force –and approximately 780 separate key recommendations for change – policing is in crisis here. A debate has also arisen of late around Ireland’s intelligence function with calls from some quarters for a new intelligence agency to be established.
In short, due to a constellation of factors, the island of Ireland may well be facing a perfect storm in terms of security, defence and internal stability.

It will require great leadership skills to navigate through this crisis posed by Brexit, in Dublin, Belfast and London. The almost exclusive focus to date on economic implications – whilst understandable in light of our recent past – is insufficient. Ireland’s current threat assessment – posed by Islamist radicals from abroad –may be about to be overtaken by an older, more familiar, domestic threat, thanks to Brexit.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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