Politically neglected and underfunded for years, Ireland's Defence Forces seem on the brink of a step change.
"Virtually everything" in the comprehensive report published yesterday has been accepted by the Government, said Minister for Defence Simon Coveney – meaning he accepts there is a crisis in the Defences Forces, that the Republic cannot be defended adequately at present and that there is no real clarity on what the State expects of the Defence Forces. This is not a position that any Government can stand over.
Sources across Government indicated a strong willingness to bring funding of the Defence Forces to a new level in order to improve pay, equipment and capability. At present, the State spends a fraction of what comparable EU countries allocate to defence and doubling or tripling funding over time is in prospect.
Two things may be said about this. The first is that you’ll find very few people willing to say where this money should be found at budget time. Neither Opposition parties nor Government Ministers competing for their own slice of the pie will say don’t spend that money on health, welfare education, spend it on light tactical armoured vehicles instead that our soldiers may need on overseas peacekeeping missions. But to govern is to choose and these are choices with which Ministers will grapple.
The second is that allocating more money will not of itself fix the problems of the Defence Forces. In fact, additional funding is really the second step in fixing the problem: the first is for the Republic to decide what it wants its Defence Forces to do. That will require a clear and honest political debate, not something for which our political system displays much appetite or capacity.
What about cybersecurity?
But it will be essential in deciding the future for the Defence Forces. For instance, does the State really need a squadron of 12 to 24 fighter jets? “Gimme a break,” says one senior source, strongly in favour of increased funding but sceptical of some options in the report. If a major power launched an assault, our jets would be blown out of the sky in five minutes, notes the source.
You could also ask what the chances of an assault by a major power really are. Slim, probably. On the other hand, chances of a cyberattack are high. So you would think that spending should be prioritised on cybersecurity. There is a reasonable argument to be had about whether Ireland needs a squadron of top guns. There's no argument at all about needing proper cybersecurity.
To what extent do we wish to defend ourselves? What are the real threats that face us? Do we wish to be part of enhanced European Union defence co-operation? Do we wish to put our soldiers in harm’s way worldwide? These are questions to be answered by our political system and in our political debate before the Defence Forces can decide what shape, culture and organisation it needs for the future.
Strange as it may seem, the money might be the easy bit.