Ireland will need to develop a new vocabulary to talk about national security

Russia’s deployment of raw military power has returned territorial defence to the agenda for many European countries

For decades Ireland has ably exploited the many advantages afforded to us as a full member of the EU, and as a country firmly committed to the rules-based multilateral order. This has allowed Ireland to become an attractive location for foreign direct investment, especially from the US. Internationally we have positioned ourselves as a militarily non-aligned intersection between the US and Europe, the East and the West, and the developed world and the Global South. We are rightly proud of our country’s role in UN peacekeeping missions.

For many years, this approach stood us in good stead. However, since 2016 rapid geopolitical change has rocked the tenets of foreign and security policy, beginning with Brexit, and quickly followed by former US president Trump’s shaking-up of the multilateral system. The UN and the WTO suddenly seemed no longer fully fit for purpose. The spectre of climate change drives dramatic developments. Then came the pandemic which exposed major vulnerabilities in global supply chains and accelerated the retreat of globalisation. The ransomware attack on the HSE in May 2021, emanating from Russia, underlined the risks cybercrime and cyber warfare pose to Ireland and to Irish business. Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added a new and even more dangerous threat. Not only is great power politics back, but Russia’s deployment of raw military power has returned territorial defence to the agenda for many European countries.

Russia’s challenge to Europe’s security has pushed Finland and Sweden to apply to join Nato, while Denmark voted earlier this month to abolish the opt-out it had from participation in EU defence efforts. Now Ireland is one of only four militarily non-aligned EU member states, alongside Austria, Cyprus, and Malta. The recent Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces illustrates how poorly prepared we would be in the event of any kind of violent aggression. We now face a toxic cocktail of these various elements which, taken together, threaten our economic and political future. How should Ireland react to these dramatic changes? How can we best protect Ireland’s security and prosperity into the future?

Any discussion that ensues will need to find ways to capture the complexity of the issues and must emphasise not just the role of territorial defence and credible military deterrence to Ireland’s national security

Many countries have the practice of developing and maintaining a national security strategy to help leaders to map the threats, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses of a country’s security. Work on a national security strategy for Ireland was begun in 2019 with the launch of a public consultation. The Covid crisis intervened and slowed matters down. Perhaps now is the moment to take the issue forward.

Belgium adopted its first such strategy earlier this year. Conversing recently with one of the Belgian strategy’s main authors, he told me he was proud of the final product but felt that the real benefit came from the process used to get there. Typically, when such strategies are developed, the pen is wielded by the foreign ministry under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s office in concert with the main government actors, including from the departments for: defence, justice, energy, telecommunications, and transport, as well as from the intelligence agencies. This drives a ‘whole of government’ approach to identifying the full range of the risks as well as the policy options available for addressing them.

Ireland clearly faces choices when it comes to national security. Ireland will need to nurture a national conversation about its defence in a rapidly changing global security context, a conversation which at present is only at an embryonic stage. The Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, first published just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, makes an important contribution to the military side of the discussion. But this is only one dimension. What are the risks to our model of economic success? What are our vulnerabilities to cyber or other forms of attack? If the multilateral institutions on which we have relied for so long are no longer up to the job, what are the alternatives?

We will even need to develop a new vocabulary to talk about security, as in Ireland such concepts have been largely absent from public discourse. Any discussion that ensues will need to find ways to capture the complexity of the issues and must emphasise not just the role of territorial defence and credible military deterrence to Ireland’s national security but must also include a holistic concept of security that embraces the full range of our political and economic interests, as well as our values. To do this, we not only have to conduct an evidence-based and comprehensive assessment of the threats and risks Ireland faces, but we will also have to decide to what extent we wish to partner with others in the sphere of defence. Small countries can rarely be totally self-reliant.

As a part of this much broader discussion, developing a national security strategy could be a very useful exercise. If the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly to debate these issues is finally adopted, then having a draft national security strategy on the table might be the best way to help frame the conversation.

David O’Sullivan is Director General of the IIEA, and was formerly the EU Ambassador to the US, and secretary general of the European Commission