The long-standing strategic aspect of British policy towards Ireland is resurrected in a paper from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange in London this week. Entitled Closing the Back Door, it calls for Northern Ireland’s role in British military security to be revived in the face of threats from Russia, China and Iran.
It says the influential assurance given by the Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke in 1990 that the British have no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in rejecting a freely decided Irish reunification does not mean they abandon strategic interests in Northern Ireland, since these arise from the political union between them.
The paper first recalls the historical basis of the strategic relationship from the 12th to the 20th century; then surveys the current threat landscape, emphasising Ireland’s geographical position in the Atlantic approaches to the two islands; and goes on to examine the “Republic of Ireland as an unreliable security partner”. It concludes with a call to reintegrate Northern Ireland into the UK’s national defence system, exert pressure on Ireland to play a greater security role and insist on the security content of unionism.
A “full-throated defence of the political unity of the union” is stated to be essential if the UK is to resist “the most corrosive, radical and unfounded of historically revisionist Irish nationalist premises”. These premises “delegitimate the UK as a constructive or integral actor in the British Isles writ large”.
Defence of the union must be accompanied, the paper argues, with a strategic look at the whole of Ireland by the UK government on the real common security interests arising from these threats.
Written by two research fellows, the paper is endorsed by Michael Fallon and George Robertson, two former British secretaries of defence. Its detailed analyses of current cyber, underwater fibre optic cable, pipeline, interconnector and other marine threats arising from Russia, China and Iran closely follows those identified in British military assessments – especially naval ones. Ireland’s latest cooperation agreement with Nato to counter such threats is not referred to. Policy Exchange’s sources of funding are obscure, but it is closely associated to right-wing Conservative Party factions.
Its unionist perspective comes over strongly in the historical section. There is no mention of imperialism or settler colonialism; rather, it says the islands are ‘so intertwined as to be inseparable’
Its unionist perspective comes over strongly in the historical section. There is no mention of imperialism or settler colonialism; rather, it says the islands are “so intertwined as to be inseparable”. Nationalism’s rise in the 18th century is seen in identitarian, not anti-imperial, terms during the “politically febrile period running from 1790 until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998″.
Central to this account is the role of Ireland in encouraging or resisting threats to Britain from continental powers such as Spain, France, Germany and Russia since the 16th century. These threats were predominantly naval, concerning the Western Approaches, the oceanic entry paths to Britain and Ireland. The analysis draws on the classical analysis of the British geographer Halford Mackinder, a founder of geopolitics, and of his modern adherent, the historian GR Sloan’s book The Geopolitics of British-Irish Relations. These approaches “have always been essential to Britain’s ability to assert sea control and sea denial around its shores, and further west into the Atlantic”.
Having analysed how this strategic inseparability played out in the Napoleonic wars and in the two world wars, the paper examines what happened after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. In those years, globalisation and revolutions in communications technology have transformed the underwater strategic setting in the Atlantic.
Northern Ireland’s role in the second World War, when it played host to large British and US forces no longer able to use the bases denied them by Irish neutrality, is put centre stage in the current period when Russia is expanding its Atlantic role after the invasion of Ukraine. The paper laments the closure of British air and naval facilities in the North, as the army took the major role during the Troubles.
The proposed revival of British naval and air facilities in Northern Ireland is linked to a highly critical and well-informed analysis of Ireland’s underdeveloped and ill-equipped security infrastructure
The call made for their revival is closely linked to strategic analysis of the current threat landscape, notably Russia’s ability to launch physical and cyber attacks on the “critical undersea infrastructure which connects our digital and energy systems to our surrounding partners”. China and Iran are included in this detailed analysis, drawing on up-to-date literatures, studies and reports in both islands of their commercial and security activities.
The proposed revival of British naval and air facilities in Northern Ireland is linked to a highly critical and well-informed analysis of Ireland’s underdeveloped and ill-equipped security infrastructure, confronted with the challenges coming from current geopolitical shifts.
This assertive unionism would like the UK to engage and co-operate with the Irish Government more directly on these questions. Forthcoming general elections in both jurisdictions will help determine if that is possible.