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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
PA Wire/PA Images
Tom Clonan Deal or no deal, the border will be our problem this time. And we aren't ready for it
The Irish Defence Forces is already on its knees and will be unable to patrol any border on this island, writes Tom Clonan.

AS WE RAPIDLY approach the cliff edge of Brexit, with the real possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU, perhaps even within days,  we are faced with the stark reality of a renewed border on the island of Ireland. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that irrespective of the manner in which Britain exits the European Union – deal or no deal – we will be forced to re-introduce border controls within Ireland. 

But this time, unlike during the Troubles – it will be the Republic’s turn to operate the border.  The EU will insist on that in order to protect the integrity of the single European market. 

During the Troubles, the British Army operated a series of permanent vehicle checkpoints and mutually supporting observation towers and listening posts along the length of the Irish border. 

In South Armagh alone, the British Army operated 13 such installations. 

In the border counties of Armagh, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the staggering financial cost of such infrastructure was only overshadowed by the enormous human cost. 

53 RUC Officers and more than 120 British soldiers were killed in this sensitive border area. 

Hundreds were seriously wounded along with dozens of innocent civilians killed and maimed during Operation Banner – the British Army’s longest ever military campaign which lasted from 1969 to 2007. 

In total, 3,500 people lost their lives during this period, with tens of thousands seriously injured.

In 2006, as a journalist specializing in security and defence, I was invited to one of the last British Army patrols of Operation Banner. 

I accompanied members of C Company, 39th Infantry Brigade and elements of the 25th Regiment Royal Engineers as they patrolled from Bessbrook Mill to the notorious ‘Golf Four Zero’ Observation Post, atop Croslieve Hill, overlooking the border crossing point south of Newry.

I was also transported by British Army Air Corps Lynx helicopter to the nearby observation towers of ‘Romeo One Three’ and ‘Romeo Two One’ at Camlough and Glassdrummon, overlooking the breathtaking scenery and surrounding hills of Cloch Og, Tievecrom, Creeveceeran, Sugarloaf Hill and Drummocakavall. 

Each of these border positions and their ugly military designations – with blast walls and barbed wire fences – despite their state of the art imaging and eavesdropping technologies proved completely ineffective at policing our porous border. 

In a point that is especially significant for a generation who no longer remember the Troubles – this border infrastructure simply became a visual symbol of division and hatred.

The infrastructure and the people who operated it, supported or serviced it, became de facto targets.

Earlier in the Troubles, in the early 1990s, I had a brief experience of patrolling the border as a member of the Irish Defence Forces. 

In what was termed ‘Aid to the Civil Power Operations’ or ATCP Ops, I participated in Irish military operations in support of An Garda Siochana in the border area. 

At that point, the Irish Army had approximately 1,800 troops permanently deployed in support of border operations in eight barracks and military installations along its length.   

In 2019, on the eve of Brexit, the Irish Defence Forces have just two military posts along 300 miles of a twisting, turning border with over 300 crossing points. 

Recent reconnaissance and mapping of the border, carried out by the Irish military authorities, estimate that there are approximately 13,000 individual movements of freight and goods, daily, across the border. 

On a weekly basis, there are almost a quarter of a million individual journeys across the proposed frontier by ordinary citizens going about their business. 

Given the porous, meandering nature of our border, which corresponds with no recognizable physical feature and erratically splits townlands, neighbours and individual farms its idiosyncratic nature renders it almost impossible to monitor or police. 

The Irish border, a completely artificial and arbitrary political construct, when activated, becomes an impenetrable safe haven for smuggling, criminality and inevitably,  terrorist activity.

As we are confronted with this emerging existential threat to our internal security – compounded by the increasing inter-communal tension that will accompany it within Northern Ireland, the Defence Forces is already on its knees. 

At its lowest strength for decades, the Defence Forces, through budgetary starvation and appalling pay and conditions, including the lowest wages in the entire public service – is simply unable to patrol or monitor any border on this island, hard or soft. 

Apart from the loss of the corporate and operational capacity to secure a border here, morale within our armed forces has never been lower. 

According to a survey carried out by Amarach, for the Representative Association for Commissioned Officers (RACO), 79% of Lieutenants and Captains in the Irish Army plan to leave the organisation. 

This is a shocking finding compounded by figures submitted by the military authorities to the Public Services Pay Commission which show serious pre-existing shortfalls in officer numbers – at just 55% of strength in the Army, 78% in the Naval Service and 77% in the Air Corps.

In addition to this exodus among officer ranks, key skills among non-commissioned personnel including explosive ordnance disposal, information technology and engineering are haemorrhaging from the organisation to the extent that the Defence Forces are finding it difficult to meet overseas commitments or operating our fleet of 8 coastal patrol vessels in our territorial waters.

Apart from security concerns on the ground here in the event of Brexit, another pressing defence issue will immediately arise with regard to the security of our airspace. 

Again, due to a lack of investment in suitable aircraft along with the loss of pilots and air support crew, the Irish Air Corps are not capable of patrolling or monitoring Irish air space. 

As a consequence, in January 2015, a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation was reached between the Irish and British governments to permit the Royal Air Force (RAF) to monitor and patrol Irish airspace. 

This MOU was formalized in 2016 in an agreement which allows the RAF to ‘identify, pursue and interdict’ hostile aircraft within Irish airspace.  These agreements were reached as EU members and they will lapse with Brexit.

In the last number of years, Russian TU-95 Bear bombers along with TU-160 Blackjack bombers have regularly entered Irish controlled airspace – where 75% of transatlantic air traffic passes en route to the USA and Europe – in order to exploit this major gap in the EU’s air defence systems and to test RAF reaction times off the Irish coast. 

Despite the danger posed to international air traffic and civil aviation by these incursions, Ireland is the only country among the EU27 member states that have no primary radar systems capable of monitoring our airspace for military aircraft flying without transponders. 

Given that this gap in our air defences is currently filled by the RAF, questions need to be asked about what will happen after Brexit. 

Back on terra firma meanwhile, the existential threat posed by Brexit and a hard or soft border is a clear and present danger to Irish society. 

The dissident paramilitary groups and ‘organised’ crime networks that will exploit any border on this island are already ramping up their activities here.  In Northern Ireland alone, paramilitaries have carried out over 220 separate shootings in the last four years. 

They have also carried out almost 50 separate bomb and incendiary attacks during the last two years – including the recent parcel bomb attacks on London. 

In the Republic, criminal gangs continue to use gun violence to bolster their drug operations with dozens of execution-style killings in the feud and non-feud related acts of terrorism in the last number of years. 

In this context, the emerging security threats posed by Brexit, require a major investment on the part of government into an Garda Siochana – in terms of vehicles, information technology and numbers of personnel – along with a major investment in our armed forces, particularly in the area of pay and conditions in order to halt the imminent collapse of our Defence Forces operational capacity. 

It will not be enough to recruit customs officers and veterinary inspectors to deal with a border on this island. 

Brexit will critically alter the economic, social, political and security conditions in Ireland for decades to come. 

There may be distinct advantages to this, including the inevitability of a united Ireland, but in order for this transition to take place peacefully and for the security conditions necessary for prosperity and continued economic growth – Ireland needs a major investment in policing, defence and security.    

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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