Defence co-operation agreement a sign of deepening relationship with our neighbours

Marching in step with UK

 

The signing later this month of a defence co-operation agreement between Ireland and the UK by Minister for Defence Simon Coveney and British defence secretary Michael Fallon is an important further sign of the growing co-operation and warmth in relations across a whole range of policies between the two states.

The agreement is hardly substantial but it will be the first formal agreement on defence between the two since the 1938 Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement ended British use of the “Treaty Ports” – Queenstown, Berehaven and Lough Swilly. And the new agreement reflects elements of the incremental evolution of similar extensive co-operation between the Defence Forces and European partners in EU security and defence and through involvement since the 1990s in Nato’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programmes.

The agreement will involve, among other things, the Army training British soldiers in peacekeeping operations and other areas of expertise acquired in such operations like the handling of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. The Army is also likely to receive supplies of surplus equipment from the British.

To date military-to-military co-operation between the two forces has largely been ad hoc and at operational level whether dealing with problems on the Border or in their 2013 joint operation in Mali (18 British soldiers and eight from the Army under the umbrella of the Royal Irish Regiment). Over two decades Irish troops have also received specialist training with the British.

The Army has been engaged in, if anything, closer bilateral links in recent years with the Swedish and Finnish armies in the context of the EU’s Nordic battlegroup. It has also been involved in multilateral co-operation and training through PfP, the European Defence Agency, and the UN, notably in respect of peacekeeping operations. Active engagement in the development of the EU’s defence dimension has been key to reframing this country’s defence outlook, seeing us evolving from an essentially nationally-rooted territorial defence organisation into a component of an international collective defence network.

Crucially, however, the agreement will not affect in any way our longstanding commitment to neutrality. There are no commitments here to any forms of mutual defence guarantees, to any ceding of sovereignty, or to integration into Nato. Ireland’s triple lock remains firmly in place.

Defence co-operation throughout the EU is also a byproduct of the financial strain that most defence budgets have been coming under and the pressure for leaner and smarter approaches, the sharing of equipment platforms and partnerships with industry on research and development and particularly the embracing of new technology. The new and welcome agreement with the UK has also to be seen in this much wider context.