Subscriber OnlyOpinion

There is a direct line between threat to Irish sovereignty and social disintegration

Gerard Howlin: We are underprepared and ill-equipped for the real threats to our sovereignty

Anger is not a policy. Behind the public’s anger at the appalling assault on American tourist Stephen Termini on July 19th is a State that mismatches diminished capacity on the ground with greater ambition on paper to deliver security. Policing is one aspect of that. More broadly national security is a responsibility strewn across a siloed State architecture that is less than the sum of its parts and inadequate for our needs.

The stuff that gets public attention includes the news that the number of gardaí fell below 14,000 for the first time in years. Recruitment is barely keeping pace with the rates of attrition and resignation. A target of 15,000 is unlikely to be met this year. Those top-line numbers distract from the question of how gardaí are deployed. Civilianisation has been paid lip service but is far less effective than required. There is no direct correlation between Garda resources and output in a system where those resources are not best used.

Of less public interest are numbers in the defence forces. More than double the number joining left in 2022. Recruitment into a broken system is failing. That is not to mention concerns around internal culture highlighted by the Women of Honour group. Post-2013 there has been a real issue across all the uniformed services, including ambulance, fire brigade and prisons, about pension entitlements. Faced with the prospect of leaving in their 50s with not enough to live on, more are going sooner to get ahead of that curve to make a living elsewhere. And that is only one issue.

It is unlikely there will be an invading army arriving on our coast. However, it is a fact that there is a growing intensity of incursion by state and non-state forces that are inseparable from criminality

When, in an outbreak of ridiculous hyperbole, President Higgins described the government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy as an exercise in “playing with fire” he overlooked the fact that Irish defence is a box of wet matches.


We had the Emergency during the second World War, the Troubles from the 1970s to the 1990s, but we never faced a real threat to our sovereignty. In the much more complex world of the 21st-century that has changed. It is unlikely there will be an invading army arriving on our coast. However, it is a fact that there is a growing intensity of incursion by state and non-state forces that are inseparable from criminality. The threat to Irish sovereignty is a new phenomenon that we are wholly unprepared and ill-equipped for.

At its broadest the threats we face are geopolitical, environmental and economic. It is not an accident that just as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine its warships appeared off our southwest coast. It was intent on showing Europe that it could fight a shooting war from both sides of the continent simultaneously. The moment has passed, but it would be naive to think that destabilisation in the Russian Federation diminishes a threat that is ongoing.

Last September’s sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is cautionary. About 65 per cent of Europe’s communications cables run through Irish waters. We plan to export clean, renewable wind energy via undersea interconnectors by the 2030s. Those existing and future assets are not only at risk for us, but for the EU, the UK and the US.

The distance and disinterest that were our best defence in the 20th-century have disappeared. We nominally control and patrol 16 per cent of all EU waters, and via Shannon’s air traffic control 90 per cent of air traffic across the north Atlantic, but this is fantasy. Our borders are completely porous, and among the boundaries most exposed is cyberspace. A disabling attack on the HSE, which apparently emanated from a non-state actor, has already happened.

From drug trafficking to fishery protection to criminal sabotage online, there are very short lines of connectivity from the real threat to Irish sovereignty to factors that forcibly contribute to social disintegration and incidents of crime in inner city Dublin. It is a small world.

Public debate coalesces around small, telling detail. This explains the fixation on numbers of gardaí, which is only a rough estimate of the effectiveness of the force. There is far less capacity or interest in preparing for the world as it is. Instead, a government permanently distracted by other priorities allows inadequate systems to continue in their own silos across the departments of Justice, Defence and Communications. There is no national security policy, and no capacity to co-ordinate one.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil on April 25 that security briefings for Ministers and himself are “largely on an ad hoc basis” and frankly admitted that we do not have a “formalised structure like that in other states”. The silos are safe; the State is not.

What is needed urgently is a national security policy to drive co-ordination of institutions and personnel. It should be served by a structure akin to the cabinet secretariat. It would co-ordinate reluctant colleagues and drive issues up the political food chain systematically – otherwise relevant issues rarely get past what is effectively government’s middle management.