Questions raised about ability of Defence Forces to aid Irish foreign policy goals

Ireland facing increasingly complex security threats, according to expert

Member of the Defence Forces train in the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow.  Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Member of the Defence Forces train in the Glen of Imaal in Co Wicklow. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The crisis in Ireland’s defence forces raises questions about the State’s ability to pursue its policy goals while on the UN Security Council, according to an Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) paper.

Problems with the Defence Forces, as well as issues associated with Brexit and Ireland’s commitment to “active neutrality” means there is a need for a “reality check” on Ireland’s foreign policy goals, said Dr Patrick Keatinge, co-chair of the IIEA’s Security and Defence Group and Fellow Emeritus of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin.

In the paper, which examines the future of European security in “the world after Trump”, Dr Keatinge said the return of multilateralism and cooperation with the election of US president Joe Biden is an “overriding piece of good news” for Ireland.

“The prospect of a distinctly more cooperative approach by the new American administration will enhance the pursuit of our values and interests in this field. Multilateralism gives a small state both a presence on the stage and the possibility of working with others to influence the plot.”

However, Ireland’s newly-won seat on the Security Council will come with its own challenges and will be “no sinecure”.

Ireland last held a seat on the council 20 years ago. The workload has increased threefold since then and Ireland will be on call “responding to an agenda packed with the accumulation of conflicts, many of which date back to the early years of the UN,” Dr Keatinge wrote.

As well as the normal workload, Ireland will inevitably have to deal with “black swan events”, a term for unexpected but highly disruptive crises.

Ireland had to deal with such events in all three of its previous terms on the Council including in 2001 with the terrorist attacks on New York and in 1982 with the outbreak of the Falklands War.

Ireland must also consider if it is equipped to pursue its foreign policy goals, he said. Recent Irish governments have achieved foreign policy success, particularly in winning a seat on the council.

“But there is a question about the capacity of the Defence Forces to follow through in the military context,” said Dr Keatinge.

It is not a question of the Defence Forces’ reputation or professionalism, he said, but rather “about material conditions and the reform of organisational structures in order to sustain that reputation.

“Numbers of personnel have declined; ships are unable to deploy for want of sailors,” Dr Keatinge wrote.

Ireland’s relationship with Britain post-Brexit poses additional security challenges. Dealing with a hijacked or foreign military aircraft in Irish airspace or interference with major undersea cables by submarines depends on British intelligence and military support, he said.

Dr Keatinge asked whether it is time for Ireland’s security relationship with Britain to be reviewed “in the context of a formal reset of British-Irish relations” caused by Brexit.

“Since Hitler decided at the end of 1940 to march east, geography has given Ireland a relatively easy ride with regard to security and defence and a consequent limited attention,” he concluded.

“But we now need to take a closer look at where our interests lie in this age of multiple risks and black swans. Is geography still on our side?”