State has forgotten how to run Border security, says retired general

Border ‘strong points’ and patrols needed to enforce customs and migration post-Brexit

Retired brigadier general Ger Aherne: During the Troubles, the Defence Forces had eight barracks and up to 1,400 men along the Border. Today, there are just two, and many soldiers are carrying out “routine” duties in Dublin. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

Retired brigadier general Ger Aherne: During the Troubles, the Defence Forces had eight barracks and up to 1,400 men along the Border. Today, there are just two, and many soldiers are carrying out “routine” duties in Dublin. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon

 

The State is woefully unprepared to secure the Border with Northern Ireland if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal, according to a retired Defence Forces general.

During his military career, Brig Gen Ger Aherne was general officer commanding the Western Brigade and responsible for nearly half of all the length of the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Today, however, the retired brigadier-general believes the State’s security services could not repeat such security operations because they have lost all “corporate and operational knowledge” of the Border.

The Defence Forces, the Revenue Commissioner and the Garda will be unable to prevent smuggling and illegal migration after a “hard Brexit” on March 29th, if that happens, because they now have so few people on Border duty.

During the Troubles, the Defence Forces had eight barracks and up to 1,400 men stationed along the Border. Today, there are just two, and many of the soldiers once involved are now carrying out “routine” duties in Dublin.

Blaming a “disastrous” Defence Forces reorganisation in 2012, Mr Aherne said the State could not to seal the Border, as it did successfully during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, due to a lack of manpower and experience.

The Government is displaying an “it’ll be all right on the night” mentality towards the possibility of a hard Brexit, he told The Irish Times. “It’s Paddyism, it’s fantasy.”

‘Repopulating the ranks’

The Government made a major mistake in 2012 when it cut the number of army brigades from three to two, said Mr Aherne, who completed an EU-backed training programme for the Somalian military in 2013.

“This will it make much more difficult to repopulate the ranks in future because the architecture has been destroyed.

“Even in the hungry ’50s and ’60s, the government never collapsed the architecture. They might have thinly populated it, but they never collapsed it,” he complained.

Saying that he did not believe that a physical border would be required, Brig Gen Aherne said “strong points”, coupled with army patrols, will be needed to enforce customs and migration checks.

Deterrence patrols to deal with illegal immigration into the EU could be sporadic or based on intelligence, he said, and they would not have to be high-profile.

“Where in the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement or the withdrawal agreement does it give a derogation to the Republic of Ireland not to prevent illegal immigration into the EU?” he asked.

“Where does it say that in the common travel area agreement?” he asked, adding that Government departments and security services have been reticent about signalling their contingency plans for a hard Brexit, even as it looms.

Garda and Border

On Thursday, a Garda spokesman declined to say if there were plans to send extra gardaí to the Border post-Brexit. “This is being kept under review but is dependent on the political situation that is reached.”

When you suppress the debate, the vacuum is filled with fantasy. They’re fantasising it will go away

Early this year, the Government announced about 700 new customs and veterinary inspectors were to be recruited because of Brexit, but this would not be enough, Mr Aherne warned.

“There has been a suppression of informed debate in this country and a suppression of preparedness,” he said. “When you suppress the debate, the vacuum is filled with fantasy. They’re fantasising it will go away,” he said, though the threat posed by dissident republicans has been “overstated”.

“You’ll have localised violence. That’s it,” he said, though the 64-year-old believes a united Ireland will now happen in his lifetime. “Middle-class nationalists and middle-class Protestants are now seriously looking at the inevitable.”

Mr Aherne said he and other retired senior Defence Forces officers plan to harness the 140,000 serving and retired Defence Force members and their extended families as a political lobby before the next general election.

“Since the foundation of the State no party has ever targeted the military family for support. We were taken for granted because we allowed ourselves to be taken for granted,” he declared.