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Tom Clonan: Why it's time to have an open and honest debate about our neutrality

Security expert Tom Clonan says any decisions about our status must be taken by the Irish people in a transparent and ethical manner.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE PAST WEEK has seen reports – confirmed by independent sources in both Britain and Ireland – that a secret deal has been reached between the Irish and British governments to allow the RAF to shoot to kill in Irish-controlled airspace in the event of a terrorist incident involving civil aviation in our skies.

On one level this secret agreement is understandable. Around 75% of all transatlantic flights transit through Irish controlled airspace. For example, at any given moment, there are dozens of US, British and French passenger aircraft overhead. At a time of terror attacks aimed at civil aviation targets, this makes Ireland’s airspace one of the busiest and most sensitive air corridors in the world.

Despite this level of air traffic and air activity, Ireland has little or no critical air defence infrastructure. Our aviation authorities do possess state of the art secondary radar, but this type of system can only track ‘compliant’ aircraft who leave their transponders switched on.

In the event of terrorist attacks or probing military operations, aircraft transponders are routinely turned off or disabled, rendering them invisible. In such circumstances, Ireland is one of the only states in the European Union which cannot ‘see’ into its airspace by way of primary radar.

The Defence Forces have some primary radar capability and operate systems with a range of about 50 km or thirty miles. With aircraft travelling at cruising speeds of several hundred miles per hour, this limited capacity is relatively meaningless in terms of our ability to track and intercept aircraft whose transponders have been turned off.

Russia scare

This was proven last year when Russian ‘Bear’ bomber aircraft – one reportedly carrying an inert nuclear device – entered Irish controlled airspace with transponders switched off. These aircraft were intercepted by RAF fighter planes and shadowed as they probed our ‘air defences’ and reaction times.

With no primary radar to speak of and no Irish Air Corps aircraft capable of meaningfully intercepting or shadowing such intruders, our airspace is undefended and unmonitored.

The Russians have clearly identified Irish airspace as Europe’s weakest link in terms of surveillance and defence capability. Let’s hope terrorists, intent on hitting American, British, French and other European civil aviation targets have not reached the same conclusion.

Therefore we rely on Britain and the RAF to provide security in our skies. So far the deal sounds sensible, however unpalatable, given our lack of infrastructure and capability.

Loss of sovereignty

What is unacceptable however is the fact that this deal was struck in secrecy. Neither the Oireachtas or the Irish people appear to have been consulted on this arrangement which effectively gives British politicians and British pilots the power to sanction and carry out shoot to kill operations in our controlled airspace.

If a passenger jet filled with civilians were to be hijacked mid-Atlantic and flown through our airspace – perhaps with Irish citizens on board – in theory, and in practice, British politicians and pilots would make the life and death decisions in such circumstances.

This raises serious and fundamental issues about our sovereignty and neutrality. Sources within the Irish Aer Corps indicate that under the International Convention on Civil Aviation (1944) it would be illegal for British forces to intercept or use lethal force against civil aviation in Irish controlled airspace. According to Irish military sources, such actions can only be legally undertaken by Irish military personnel.

It would be interesting to know the identities of those Irish politicians and their advisors that reached such an agreement with their British counterparts.

International military engagements

While our airspace defences remain weak, Ireland’s integration into international military structures has seen a huge increase in the last decade or so.

In 2000, neutral Ireland was principally involved in peacekeeping operations for the UN. Post 9/11, Ireland’s military have become increasingly involved in a broad array of expeditionary peace enforcement missions for a growing range of international stakeholders.

For example, Irish troops have served in NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Kabul. Irish troops are also members of the newly formed European Union Battlegroup system. At present, Defence Forces personnel are serving in the British and German battlegroups that are operational until 2017.

In fact, since 2000, Irish troops have served on three continents in peace enforcement and other roles, from Kosovo in Central Europe to Iraq and Kuwait in the Middle East, to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Chad, Central African Republic, Uganda, Somalia and Mali in Africa to Afghanistan and East Timor in Asia.

At present, Irish troops are serving in sensitive conflict zones from Syria, to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Sub-Saharan Africa. Ireland participates in UN Security Council Mandated NATO missions in our capacity as members of Partnership for Peace, a mechanism by which neutral states can contribute to or observe NATO missions on a case by case basis.

While Ireland participates in operations for the UN, NATO, the EU and the Organisation for Security Cooperation Europe (OSCE) as neutrals, there is no doubt that we are increasingly integrated and very much in demand for our expertise and unique perspectives on conflict and conflict resolution.

Domestic defence

Domestically, Ireland increasingly shares responsibility and proactively cooperates and collaborates with British intelligence, military and police within the Anglo-Irish Common Travel Area. This is particularly true since Ireland’s threat assessment has shifted towards Islamist extremism and away from domestic terror threats. This shifting position is reflected in the 2015 White Paper on Defence.

At home, the Irish government has allowed the US military to operate Shannon Airport as a virtual forward operating base for ongoing operations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Over 2 million US troops have passed through Shannon in the last 13 years. On average, over 500 US troops pass through Shannon each day, 365 days a year at a cost of over €20 million to the Irish taxpayer for Garda and Defence Forces security.

The Irish taxpayer has also paid a bill of over €25 million in aviation fees and air traffic control expenses for US military aircraft passing through our airspace to combat missions in the Middle East and Asia.

International conflicts

All of these developments have taken place at a time of looming conflict internationally. President Vladimir Putin is likely to continue his Ukraine strategy and to extend it to other Baltic States within the European Union in the coming months and years.

Asia is involved in an incremental arms race with China and Japan, among others, vying for dominance in the region.

Global developments such as climate change, austerity and growing inequality, along with the consequent parallel phenomena of radicalisation and right-wing nationalism, have markedly accelerated the prospect of conventional and non-conventional conflict internationally. In this context, the possibility of an individual such as Donald Trump becoming President of the USA gives some pause for thought.

Time to discuss neutrality

At this critical juncture, Ireland needs to have an open and intellectually honest debate about our neutral status. The economic crises we have experienced will pale into insignificance compared to the challenges that will confront Irish citizens at home and abroad in the coming decades.

In the vital matter of our neutral status, as we have learned to our great cost in finance and banking, there can be no secret deals. Ireland has already lost its fiscal sovereignty by this method.

The decision to remain neutral or become aligned is one that must be taken by the Irish people in a transparent and ethical manner.

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.   

Read: Is the EU actually heading towards having its own army?

Read: Irish neutrality won’t be respected by the likes of ISIS, so why hold so dear to it?

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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