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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
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Tom Clonan Joining NATO doesn't benefit Ireland, but that doesn't excuse poor defence spending

The security analyst looks ahead to the government’s Consultative Forums on Neutrality and outlines why our position of military neutrality really matters.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 19th 2023, 11:19 AM

TÁNAISTE AND MINISTER for Defence, Mícheál Martin will host a number of ‘consultative forums’ this week in Cork, Galway and Dublin about the future of Ireland’s neutrality.

Over 80 speakers will debate a series of issues around Ireland’s defence, security and neutral status at four events in UCC, NUIG and Dublin Castle. The speakers consist of academics, members of UK military ‘think tanks’, a variety of European security organisations and institutions along with serving and retired Irish army and diplomatic personnel. There are also ‘experts’ from the industry – including experts on cyber security – and a number of journalists speaking and moderating some of the debates.

The list of speakers was published last week and was described in the Dáil by TD Mick Barry as a ‘pro-NATO jamboree’. This sentiment was echoed by TD Paul Murphy who also criticised the speakers stating, ‘The list of invited speakers gives the game away to an extreme degree … You have one anti-war speaker in the form of Roger Cole and multiple people who are on record as being in favour of joining NATO, have links to NATO themselves and so on. Does this not just give the entire game away?’

This criticism provoked an atypically angry response from the Tánaiste and in a heated exchange, he stated ‘That is intolerance. You guys are no great advocates of freedom of speech at all …I shudder to think of the day when you would ever be in authority. Because by God would you put the jackboot on people who might have views different to yours’.

Why debate neutrality?

Since Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, there has been an increased focus on Ireland’s defence and security capabilities – and by extension, our long-standing military neutrality. For over a decade now, security analysts like myself have highlighted the fact that Ireland is ‘Europe’s Weakest Link’ when it comes to our defence capabilities in the air, maritime, ground and cyber domains.

This is not the fault of our Defence Forces Personnel. It is a direct consequence of the neglect of our armed forces since the Good Friday Agreement and the recruitment and retention crisis in Oglaigh na h’Éireann prompted by abysmal pay and working conditions.

The situation has reached crisis point and Putin’s naval activities in the last year have revealed the vulnerability of the sub-sea fibreoptic cables – the digital link between the United States and the European Union – that run through Irish waters. Quite simply put, the Irish Naval Service – through no fault of their own – is unable to comprehensively patrol or defend our maritime environment. Indeed, many of our capital assets – fully operational naval vessels – are permanently tied up in port for lack of sailors and technical grades.

This is particularly embarrassing for Ireland as it touts itself as the future ‘Saudi Arabia’ of offshore wind energy in the coming decades. An invaluable maritime asset that at present, we could not patrol, monitor or protect. Equally embarrassing is the official confirmation that since 1952, Britain’s Royal Air Force is – by agreement with the Irish government – patrolling and protecting Irish controlled airspace. Our airspace – through which 90% of all Transatlantic air traffic passes – has been probed by Russian aircraft in recent years. This reckless and dangerous hazard to civil aviation has been detected by – ahem – the RAF as Ireland is the only country in the EU with no primary radar or meaningful air capabilities by way of aircraft or air defences.

The fact that the RAF is patrolling our controlled air space is emblematic of the challenges to our sovereign and neutral status. We are equally defenceless in the cyber domain – despite the fact that we hold in excess of 30% of the EU’s data in over 60 data centres.

A rush to war?

These glaring gaps in our defences prompted Minister for Defence Simon Coveney to establish the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces which recommended three strategies or ‘Levels of Ambition’ to rectify our ‘provocative weakness’. The government opted for ‘Level of Ambition 2’ and an investment programme of over 1 billion Euro by 2028.

Whilst this is a welcome development – I would have preferred to see the highest level of ambition implemented with a greater vindication of our sovereign, militarily neutral status with the acquisition of, for example, a fleet of heavy lift aircraft and fast jet interceptors to patrol our airspace. As a matter of urgency, we also need to pay our soldiers, sailors and aircrew a living wage.

In parallel with these developments, an extremely nationalistic and revanchist Putin has invaded Ukraine. This has accelerated the debate on our defence capabilities and some commentators – including hawkish political, academic and ‘think tanks’ (lobby groups) – to apply pressure for Ireland to relinquish its militarily neutral status. Some of these commentators – and disappointingly, some of the academic commentators – have led a very vocal, and at times very abrasive and personalised campaign to promote Ireland’s membership of NATO.

Interestingly, I note that few if any of these armchair ‘hawks’ have ever heard a shot fired in anger – and none of them, or their children for that matter, are ever likely to serve in uniform in a hostile environment. However, they are very enthusiastic in their calls for young Irish men and women to serve in a NATO alliance.

Members of government parties have in recent months explicitly articulated that view that we should join NATO implying that this would solve our defence woes – and that it would also, somehow, demonstrate some sort of higher moral courage in a highly unstable global security environment. To this end, the current cheerleaders for NATO membership seek to frame our neutrality and our European Union membership exclusively in the context of Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine. Ireland has been a member of the EU for 50 years – and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were Russian troops and spies located throughout Europe, with nuclear missiles trained on every European capital.

Our neutrality matters

Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation and the provocations of the Cold War, Ireland did not frame our militarily neutral status or our status as a fully committed member of the EU in the context of Moscow’s imperial aggression. Nor should we now.

In reality, Ireland has never been politically or morally neutral. As an emerging nation, we have exploited our geographical and geo-strategic relationships to our advantage – as all self-confident and ambitious nations do.

We were initially refused entry to NATO at its inception and then simply chose not to become members of NATO thereafter. There is currently no advantage to Ireland becoming a member of NATO. As members of Partnership for Peace (Pfp) we can and do contribute to NATO missions on a case-by-case basis – in much the same way that we are supporting Ukraine with material and military aid in this time of crisis. 

We do need to dramatically invest in our defence forces in order to adequately address the challenges that will confront Ireland in the coming decades. These will include man-made and natural disasters – amplified by rapid climate change. Ireland also needs to ramp up its humanitarian and crisis intervention capabilities – and our peacekeeping and peace enforcement capabilities – in order to give expression to our sovereign status as a neutral state promoting peace and the international rule of law worldwide. We have an excellent track record in this regard – and our efforts at the UN have assisted in strategic arms limitation talks, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the international ban on cluster munitions, brokered by Mícheál Martin in Croke Park in Dublin in 2008.

If we were to join NATO, we would immediately lose our status as neutrals, with no imperial or colonial associations – a unique status and moral authority that has benefitted our global diaspora and diplomatic status for decades.

Despite our small size, Ireland has functioned as a diplomatic ‘superpower’ in the cause of peace – precisely because of our militarily neutral status.

Some commentators – both academic and journalistic – have claimed that this status is a myth. Again, most of these commentators have never worked or served in a hostile environment. It has been my direct experience – as an Irish soldier and journalist in Lebanon and Syria and as an election supervisor in Bosnia – that holding an Irish passport is a distinct advantage and can make all the difference in life-or-death situations. The same is true diplomatically and in business.

Open discussion

I hope to attend the upcoming Consultative Forum in Dublin Castle. I have no idea how I might contribute to the debates that will be chaired there. Nor have I any idea how the 80 or so speakers were selected. No information was given on how someone might express an interest in speaking at any of the events. By whatever means of selection – by whatever criteria – the lineup of speakers is interesting.

Approximately one quarter are academics – including a number of very high-profile and outspoken critics of Irish neutrality. The next largest group of speakers come from a variety of security institutions and organisations in Europe – many with connections to NATO. It is also to be noted that a number of think tanks will participate – some that are funded in part by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is a curious departure when there are dozens of highly published Irish academics – men and women – who could have been invited.

The speaker breakdown is approximately 63% male to 37% female. A ratio of almost two to one. Again this is disappointing – given the crucial role that women’s voices ought to play in international conflict, peace and security.

I do hope the participants have been sourced in a balanced way when it comes to the concept of Irish military neutrality but I could only identify a small number of NGOs and individual speakers that might have a more balanced view. This is a pity – as this is such an important debate for the Irish people. A citizens’ assembly would have been a better option for this vital discussion.

The programme, in my view, also lacks a realistic or comprehensive understanding of the real security and defence threats that confront Ireland – particularly the future of our island in the aftermath of Brexit and the prospect of a united Ireland. What will the administration of policing, justice, intelligence and security look like in any new 32-county entity?

Six Irish counties are already in NATO – there is no mention of this in the programme and no consideration of what plans are in place for our future defence structures. Nor is there any consideration of the toxic workplace culture of our Defence Forces – the transformation of which is essential before any contemplation of membership of any military alliance.

Personally, I am not anti-NATO. I believe it is a legitimate and necessary international alliance. However, I do not believe that there are any advantages to Ireland becoming a member of NATO.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.  


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