Secret Anglo-Irish air defence agreement dates back to the Cold War era

Agreement remains in place despite concerns raised by Ministers and military officers over the years

Ireland maintains a secret arrangement dating back to the Cold War era allowing the UK to police the country’s airspace despite concerns about the accord being raised over the years by Ministers and military officers, The Irish Times has learned.

The agreement was drafted in the early 1950s when relations between the west and the Soviet Union were at a low point, according to interviews with diplomatic, political and military figures.

In the knowledge that the Defence Forces has almost no ability to monitor or intercept the new long-range strategic bombers being developed by the Soviet Union, the State entered into a formal arrangement with the UK in 1952 which would allow RAF aircraft to intercept hostile aircraft in Irish airspace.

This agreement was renewed and updated over the years, most notably following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, when fears turned to the possibility of an attack on Ireland by a hijacked airliner. Again knowing that the Defences Forces were unable to respond to such a threat, an understanding was reached where British aircraft were permitted to operate in Irish airspace and even use lethal force against an airliner if required.


The secret agreement required the consent of the Irish government before any action would be taken. One source described it as not a formal treaty but as a “memorandum of understanding”.

Under the Constitution any formal treaty or alliance with another nation requires Dáil approval. It is understood government officials received legal advice that the agreement fell below the definition of a treaty, meaning it could remain secret.

However, others have over the years raised concerns about the secrecy surrounding the agreement, including at the Cabinet table, where it has been periodically renewed, usually with little objection. According to multiple sources, the only Minister to raise concerns about the secret nature of the accord was Shane Ross, who served as minister for transport in the last government. Mr Ross argued that the agreement should be made public but failed to convince his colleagues to do so.

Russian Bomber

In the early 2000s Air Corps officers also raised legal concerns about the agreement, with one senior officer advising officials that if an RAF pilot took lethal action in Irish airspace it may be a breach of international law. Under the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, only an Irish officer would have such authority, they argued, according to research published by Michael Mulqueen, professor of policing and national security at the University of Central Lancashire.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell is taking a High Court action aimed at having the agreement declared unconstitutional.

In recent years the agreement has been used to allow RAF aircraft to enter Irish airspace to intercept Russian bombers operating off the west coast. Last November, in a rare public acknowledgment of the arrangement, James Heappey, a British minister of state for defence, told Westminster that RAF jets have “deployed into Irish airspace on occasion”.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it does not comment on national security matters but that its policies are conducted “with full respect for Irish sovereign decision-making authority and for Ireland’s long-standing policy of military neutrality”.

Separately, the Defence Forces has confirmed it monitored four Russian navy and merchant ships as they travelled off the Irish west coast last week. One of the ships, the Admiral Grigorovich, has been used in Russia’s war against Ukraine to fire cruise missiles at targets.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times