Garda and Defence Forces must retain separate roles

Independence of the two security agencies has served the State well in the past

Irish soldiers in the Lebanon in 2007.  Photograph: Kate Geraghty

Irish soldiers in the Lebanon in 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty


It must be likely that there will be a substantial volume of responses to the Green Paper on Defence which has been published by Alan Shatter. Irish people are keenly interested in many of the issues raised; our traditional neutrality, peacekeeping overseas, domestic security. Ireland’s extended military family is proud of what the Defence Forces do and protective of their interests. Many of them, including the representative organisations, will want to have their say.

Our degree of militarisation is modest, with defensive rather than aggressive capabilities. We have made a virtue of a policy born originally of economic necessity during the second World War. It is arguably because our military capacity is so limited that we feel so strongly about how it is to be applied. The Government is sensible to invite views at this time, repeating a process first undertaken in 2000.

Much of the attention will focus on neutrality and the possible further deployment of defence personnel to international military organisations, principally Nato. In this, the language of the Green Paper, presumably reflecting establishment thinking, is significantly more forthright than that of the 2000 White Paper. There are no longer any concessions to isolationism.

“Our traditional policy of military neutrality was formed in an era when the risk of inter-state conflict was the key issue of national security for most nations,” it states. “However, the current broad range of threats does not fall into this category and military neutrality is immaterial for threats that are generic and trans-national in character, e.g. cyber-security or terrorism.”

The emphasis throughout is much more on these “generic” issues than in the White Paper of 2000. This can hardly be surprising. The world post 9/11 is a very different place. Ireland, 15 years on from the Good Friday agreement, is a different country. The extraordinary growth and development of information technology has connected the planet to a degree that was almost unimaginable even a decade and a half ago. But it has also created many technological, economic and social vulnerabilities.

One consequence has been a frequent blurring of roles between police and military worldwide as states have adapted to these new conditions. And this change is reflected in the thinking behind this Green Paper. But if 21st century security requires greatly enhanced co-ordination between military and civil agencies – and it does – it is well to be alert to its possible implications, even in our own local context.

Evolving security environment
The Green Paper spells out the Defence Forces’ responsibilities in support of the “predominantly unarmed” Garda Síochána. It stresses the imperative of a sound legislative framework for all actions undertaken by the Defence Forces. But the reader may be struck by the frequency with which it focuses on the role of the military in what might seem more likely to be considered as police business.

“Future military capability must be appropriate to the demands presented by the evolving security and defence environment,” the Green Paper says. “For example, responses to threats such as terrorism, drug smuggling and organised crime are intelligence led and this remains a critical capability area.”

Whatever about terrorism, it may be asked if it is appropriate for the Defence Forces to see themselves developing a “critical capability” in intelligence relating to drugs or organised crime. It might have been thought that these areas are more logically the preserve of the civil police, operating under the many checks and balances of the criminal justice system. Perhaps we may gain some insight into official thinking if we bear in mind that the Criminal Justice Surveillance Act (2009) authorises not just the Garda but also the Defence Forces to bug private conversations and to break into premises to plant monitoring devices. We do not know if they actually do so.

There are obvious advantages in having the police, the military and indeed other enforcement agencies work in close collaboration. Indeed, given the reality of the security threats adumbrated in the Green Paper, it is an imperative. Countering seaborne drug smuggling, for example, requires Naval Service support for the police.

But there are also dangers. Keeping a healthy distance between the Garda’s security sections and the military’s intelligence branch has served this State well in the past. In 1970, when Military Intelligence (G2) became embroiled in the plan to import arms for the IRA under the cover of a government-approved operation, it was the Special Branch that foiled the plot. And when rogue gardaí were subverted, it was picked up on at least one occasion by G2.

It would not be healthy for our democracy to allow some convergence of roles, however tentative and however well-intentioned, between the Garda and the Defence Forces.

Two ministries
Without questioning Alan Shatter’s integrity or ability, it is probably not a good idea either to have one individual hold the two ministries of Defence and Justice. It has not happened before that both Garda and military answer to a single minister and that all security intelligence, criminal and otherwise, should land ultimately on one desk.

It is a model that may be appropriate, indeed necessary, for a country facing a particular crisis but it is potentially a dangerous precedent to set for the future. Not all of our ministers for justice have been of unimpeachable integrity and not all of our ministers for defence have been models of prudence. It is better to keep the roles separate.

The Department of Defence says that the White Paper will be published in 2014. Perhaps in the interim Alan Shatter might consider putting out another Green Paper, this time on criminal justice and policing. These are topics no less vital than defence and, indeed, impinge more immediately and more frequently on the daily lives of the population. No such exercise has ever been undertaken in respect of the national police service. If the people are to be consulted about their military defence, should they not also be entitled to have their say on how their policing services operate?

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times

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