Ireland considering closer Nato co-operation in hybrid and cyber spheres

‘We can’t rely purely on our geographic location in terms of our security,’ says Department of Foreign Affairs official

The Government is considering closer co-operation with Nato in the area of hybrid and cyber warfare.

Officials are considering joining the Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which operates under the auspices of Nato and the European Union.

The centre is dedicated to devising methods of countering hybrid threats, typically defined as aggression which falls below the threshold of military operations. These can include the use of disinformation, cyberattacks and economic warfare to destabilise an enemy state. Russia has frequently engaged in these activities against Ukraine and other European nations in recent months.

The centre engages in training, war-games and research in the area of hybrid warfare for the benefit of its 31 member states. Ireland declined to join when it was initially established in 2017 and joining now would be the latest move to form closer ties to Nato, particularly around cyber defence.

The Government recently opted to join Nato’s Malware Information Sharing Platform, which allows for the sharing of details of cyberattacks in real time between member states. In 2019, Ireland joined the Nato Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, to which a small number of Irish personnel are seconded.

These are in addition to Ireland’s membership since 1999 of Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme, which aims to improve interoperability between the Defence Forces and Nato militaries.

None of these initiatives place any collective security obligations on Ireland. The Government has repeatedly stated it does not want to become a Nato member and opinion polling shows strong opposition to such a move. However, there is a growing view among officials that Ireland could benefit from increased Nato co-operation in non-military spheres.

“I think one of the things that we certainly are very open to looking at is if our partnership with Nato can be used to look at other things, including capacity building around cyber and hybrid threats in the future,” said David Bruck, director of the international security policy unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Speaking at an event organised by the Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy, Mr Bruck said the Government is “examining very carefully” the possibility of joining the Centre of Excellence in Helsinki.

“It’s a very, very important space there for policymakers to engage and learn from each other in terms of how you tackle these issues,” he said at the event hosted by the Belgian Embassy, which is the official Nato liaison for Ireland.

The European Union as a whole is also working towards stronger relationships with Nato under the Strategic Compass strategy. An announcement clarifying the two organisations’ relationship is expected later this year.

Mr Bruck said “it makes sense for the two organisations to co-operate”, especially if it enhances international peace and security. He said Ireland has historically benefited from its geographic position “on the periphery of Europe” and from its policy against joining military alliances.

“As a result of that for much of the State’s history, the perceived threat of conventional attack has been pretty low,” he said, adding there is “a sense that we can’t rely purely on our geographic location in terms of our security”.

He said Ireland has become an internationally significant digital hub and is home to data centres and vital communications cables. He said last year’s cyberattack on the Health Service Executive “was a wake-up call to many of us”.