Derek Scally: What could Ireland do if faced by external threat of war?

State is lost in confusion between military neutrality and passive pacifism

Not long ago at a dinner party in Helsinki, a visiting senior US official asked her hosts what they would do if “little green men” crossed over their 1,300km border with Russia into Finland.

The answer from the senior official seated opposite was simple, abrupt and classic Finnish: “Why, we’d shoot them.”

The last time war came to Ireland, some people worked hard to preserve our reputation as the land of 100,000 welcomes – even for unwanted visitors. When the hapless Nazi spy Hermann Görtz parachuted into Ireland in 1940 and was taken in by Iseult Gonne, she, aided by her mother, Maud, bought him new suits in Switzers.

That department store is long-gone but the old wartime question is back: what would Ireland do if... That question followed me on a 9,000km journey around Europe this month: from the eerie, deserted Finnish-Russian border to the chandeliered splendour of Vienna’s chancellery and the Stockholm grave of Olof Palme, the former Swedish prime minister and leading Nato critic.

Finland and Sweden have decided that Russia's February 24th invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. Old certainties of military neutrality and non-alignment, they agree, are no longer the best guarantees to secure their security, population and interests. By bringing the entire Baltic region under the alliance's defence umbrella, they hope to preserve the peace.

In Austria, I encountered a very different consensus: military neutrality – hard won and easily lost – may, in this growing crisis, be more important than ever. But, even in Vienna, non-alignment is something to be defended with investment in a strong army and defence capabilities.

Dublin needs to triple its defence spend and abolish anachronistic military command structures dating from the Civil War era

No one in Helsinki, Stockholm or Vienna has unsolicited advice for Ireland. Like themselves, they know that the Irish have their own, complicated history and will their make decisions on their security based on their own needs. But what are those needs and what action is required, given we are already grappling with the consequences of conflict – inflation, recession, displacement?

Military expenditure

Our EU neighbours are reacting but when they ask about Ireland's plan to defend itself, Irish officials give them defeated shrugs. One close follower of our defence matters, and a friend of Ireland, is Lieut Gen Esa Pulkkinen. He is director general of defence policy at Finland's ministry of defence and was invited to be part of the Irish defence review. In his Helsinki ministry, he said that, at a minimum, Dublin needs to triple its defence spend and abolish anachronistic military command structures dating from the Civil War era.

Looking on from Sweden, the Svenska Dagbladet daily told its readers that Ireland’s most notable response to Kremlin aggression to date was the truck backed into the Russian embassy. In Vienna, puzzled officials wanted to know if Ireland was really dependent on its fisherman to defend its coastline – and crucial undersea cables – from Russian visitors.

Back in Helsinki, the defence ministry cyber defence unit was well aware of the Russian hack of the Irish health system network and wondered if we were better prepared for cyberattack on our electricity grid.

Looking in from the outside, the most interesting aspect of Ireland’s response to the new, chilly reality are the psychological elements, mixing narcissism with an inferiority complex. If we need help, won’t our Nato neighbours come to our aid? But, sure, who would be interested in attacking us?

There is a remarkable emotional disconnect between Irish pride in its achievements – a peaceful society, good education system, an export-driven economy powered by tech and pharma multinationals – and the readiness to defend these achievements and the prosperity they bring.

Relying on UK

As one senior Finnish official asked, “Please explain to me why Ireland is celebrating a centenary of its independence from the UK, yet, to defend that sovereignty, relies almost entirely on the UK?”

While others in Europe make painful changes to maintain their status quo, Ireland’s security debate struggles to get off the ground. It remains hobbled by widespread confusion between military neutrality and passive pacifism. Some even hold up with pride our defence spend – the lowest in the EU – like cloves of garlic to ward off Nato vampires.

"Please explain to me why Ireland is celebrating a centenary of its independence from the UK, yet, to defend that sovereignty, relies almost entirely on the UK?"

No one expects Ireland to join that alliance, given that our support for nuclear non-proliferation makes us incompatible with Nato. Ireland needs to find its own path: investing in European security and defence measures. Boosting the size of the army might help bring back home some of the pride we have in our peacekeeping troops abroad.

On foot of February’s defence commission report, plans are under way to boost Irish military spending, in particular a new radar system. But once we can see threats approaching, what then? Even 21 years after Joe Jacobs’s car crash radio interview about iodine tablets, scorn is no protection against the growing threats we face. Touring some of Europe’s non-aligned capitals, past and present, it is clear that the burden of proof is shifting and Ireland needs to shift too.

Those who want to spend more so Ireland can defend itself are not warmongers; those in Ireland who oppose investment in defence are peace squanderers.

It should set alarm bells ringing when even Sweden realises that old traditions are no longer enough for a safe future. The Swedes have decided to grow up, now it is our turn.

Anyone who views defence like tap water – a public service that should be available at no cost, on demand, at point of use – needs to explain how exactly, their do-nothing emergency plans will work. What, they should tell us, will Ireland do if...