A potential Irish Border poll could be exploited by Russian intelligence in the same way it targeted the 2016 US presidential election and, allegedly, the Brexit vote, security experts believe.
On Tuesday the UK government released its long-delayed report into allegations that Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The report’s authors said it could not definitely say if Russia had interfered with the vote because the government at the time had made no effort to find out.
It said the UK was “clearly a target” for disinformation campaigns and pointed to numerous pro-Brexit and anti-EU news stories on news websites affiliated with the Russian government before the vote.
According to Michael Murphy, former deputy chief of J2, the Irish Defence Force's military intelligence section, Ireland is also a "prime target" for disinformation campaigns and attempts to sow discord, despite its neutral and non-aligned status.
“We are a prime target because of our location and because of the large number of international companies we have,” he said on Wednesday. “We are part of the EU. Any state within the EU is going to be a target.”
Russian and other intelligence services like to exploit wedge issues such as Brexit which result in division and long-term political fallout no matter the result, he said. “In the UK they’ve created a division greater than ever before. They don’t have to go for one side. All they have to do is create chaos.”
Irish security sources said a vote on Irish unification would be an ideal target for such a campaign. "[Russia] would want to influence because, for one thing, it would break up the UK," said one source. "As a major member of Nato, anything Russia can do to distract the UK and make them look inward is well worth doing from their point of view," said another.
It would likely not be the first time Russia has sought to influence matters in Ireland.
Russian intelligence was suspected of spreading fake news stories about DUP leader Arlene Foster last year. It was also accused of spreading false stories that the Real IRA was recruiting Islamic extremists.
"From a Russian point of view a Border poll would be great," said Mark Galeotti of the Royal United Service Institution, a British defence and security think tank. "Their aim is to divide, distract and demoralise. [A unity referendum] would be wonderful. It would sharpen up all the divisions and if Ireland did reunite there would almost certainly be violent groups in the North who would resist it. It would lead to all kinds of internal soul-searching and recriminations in the UK, or what's left of the UK."
Ireland is a target for foreign actors for other reasons, says Dr Gerry Waldron, director of the Slándáil National Security Summit and a former Defence Forces officer, including "our membership of the EU and our veto on important issues such as common security and defence policy". He said Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council next year would likely increase its risk.