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Eight things we learned from the Irish security policy forum

Hybrid threats, Nato co-operation and climate change dominated the forum, along with protests from anti-war groups

The Government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy finished up on Tuesday evening after four days, 16 panels and about 80 speakers (as well as various protests from anti-war activists). Characterised in some sectors as a Government scheme to bounce Ireland into Nato, the forum was in fact a varied discussion on the international security landscape which included strong defences of Irish neutrality. Here are several takeaways.

We’re not joining Nato and Nato isn’t particularly interested in having us as a member: In his address to the conference Taoiseach Leo Varadkar repeated his insistence that Ireland is not joining Nato. From the Nato side James Mackey, who is the alliance’s director of security policy and partnerships, said that in his 20 years in Nato HQ “the issue of Irish membership has not once been discussed. It has never come up because Ireland is a sovereign, independent nation. And it chooses its own security policy under the United Nations Charter.” Given that the goal for defence spending for Nato nations is 2 per cent of GDP and Ireland’s defence spending is just .26 per cent, Nato membership does not seem to be on the horizon.

Nato is a lot more than a defence alliance: The most well-known aspect of the alliance is its article 5 provisions which state an attack on one member is an attack on all. But it also operates a bewildering array of training programmes, evaluations and policy development bodies which are open to non-member nations like Ireland through the Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme. One example is the secondment of Naval Service commander Roberta O’Brien to Nato’s defence capacity-building unit. Co-operation with other countries in areas such as maritime and cyber defence is vital, she told the forum, due to how fast the technology is moving. Ireland could use its PFP membership to help protect its ability to protect its critical infrastructure, she said. “Sharing of information and collaboration is vital.”

You don’t have to be neutral to be good (but it helps): The Taoiseach said Ireland’s neutrality helped it to win a seat on the UN Security Council and allows it to have a positive relationship with many countries from the Global South who may be suspicious of Nato members due to their history as colonisers. On the other hand, Michele Griffin, from the UN secretary general’s office, said that neutrality is not the first thing people think of when they think of Ireland. The country’ history of famine, conflict and leadership in nuclear non-proliferation are greater factors, she said.


Representatives from Switzerland described their version of neutrality as a pragmatic one which can be helpful in certain circumstances, such as acting as peacekeepers in Kosovo, where Nato members may face difficulties. Laurent Goetschel, the head of the Swiss peace research organisation Swisspeace, put it most succinctly: “Neutrality is not a religion. It is a foreign security concept. It has to be handled within the interests of the state.”

There’s no reason a country has to be neutral to act as a good global citizen, as the Norwegian delegates pointed out. Norway is a founder member of Nato but has a well-earned reputation as a global peace broker.

Neutrality still stirs deep emotions: Despite the Government’s insistence that the forum was not about binning neutrality, many have characterised it as an attempt to do just that. Protesters with “no to Nato signs” greeted the attendees most days. The protesters then moved inside and took a seat in the audience where some attempted to disrupt proceedings. Hecklers interrupted the speeches by Tánaiste Micheál Martin before being removed by gardaí and veteran anti-war campaigner Margaretta D’Arcy delayed proceedings for a spell by sitting on the stage holding a banner calling for a citizens’ assembly on neutrality. Things calmed down in the latter stages of the forum with protests taking the form of long but polite anti-Nato statements being read from the floor. These came even if the subject under discussion had nothing to do with Nato or neutrality.

Climate change is by far and away the biggest threat to global security: There was no panel specifically dedicated to the climate change threat but it was a thread that ran through many of the events. From an international security view climate change will create uncontrolled migration flows, battles for scarce resources (which have already begun in the Sahel region of Africa) and an increased reliance on the Defence Forces to respond to floods and other climate-related disasters at home. On the more granular level, Irish soldiers on peacekeeping duties will require more robust equipment to deal with increasingly inhospitable climates. Climate change will be one of the biggest challenges for the Defence Forces, said Dr Rory Finegan of Maynooth University. Militaries are also a key driver of climate change, the forum heard. If the US military was categorised as a country it would be the 40th largest polluter in the world.

There are arguments for and against the triple lock: One development the Government hopes will stem from the forum is a review of the triple lock. This is the mechanism which requires a UN mandate before more than 12 Irish troops can be sent overseas. Opponents of the system argue it gives countries like Russian and China a say on Irish foreign policy because, as permanent security council members, they can veto any peacekeeping mission. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan wants to see an amended triple lock where the role of the security council might be replaced by a mandate from a regional body like the EU or African Union. Against this, Prof Ray Murphy of University of Galway said that by removing the UN from the triple lock Ireland would be undermining the UN and “weakening the very organisation that we say we’re trying to strengthen”.

Threats can take many forms: Concerns about so-called hybrid threats, usually defined as offensive actions which fall below the threshold of traditional warfare, were a major topic of discussion. These can take the form of cyberattacks, espionage or the sabotage of national infrastructure. One variety of hybrid threat of particular concern to EU security officials is disinformation. For years eastern European countries have been dealing with Russian attempts to destabilise their societies using online disinformation. The United States saw similar attempts during the 2016 presidential election. Ireland has yet to see this threat on a major scale but officials are not complacent. Art O’Leary, the head of the newly formed Electoral Commission, said the scale of the problem was “enormous”. It’s something Ireland will likely have to confront next during the local and European elections next year.

The debate is not over but don’t expect any major changes: The forum’s chair Louise Richardson will now write a report for Government which will be used to “inform policy”, according to officials. In other words Micheál Martin can take it or leave it or just pick out the parts that he likes. A citizens’ assembly on neutrality, the preference of many in opposition instead of a forum, seems a remote possibility in the short to medium term.