The Defence Forces and An Garda Siochána will not exist in the next 15-20 years because Ireland will be part of an “all-island entity, whatever that might be”, according to former Irish Army captain Senator Tom Clonan.
Whatever form the administration of justice, intelligence, defence and security takes on the island in the future “it has to be acceptable to all communities and we have to tease out Northern Ireland’s membership of Nato”, he told the Seanad.
The security analyst was speaking during a two-hour debate in the Upper House on neutrality. The Trinity College Senator introduced a motion calling for proper funding of the Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and cyber capability to ensure the State could vindicate its “sovereign, neutral status” and properly secure land, air, maritime and cyber domains.
The motion also demanded a “living wage” for soldiers, aircrew and sailors and called for the appointment of a Minister for Defence “with an exclusive portfolio” as well as certainty on Ireland’s status as a militarily neutral state through a “constitutional guarantee”.
Mr Clonan told the House: “I don’t believe that Óglaigh na hÉireann or for that matter An Garda Siochána will exist in 15 or 20 years’ time because, whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not, we’re heading at some considerable speed towards some sort of an all-island entity, whatever that might be.”
He also warned that in “what lies ahead, we can’t rely on the British army or the RUC [sic] or anybody else to deal with it. It’s going to be us this time and we have to have a frank and open discussion and prepare for it.”
And the first step in all this, he said, is the investment that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is making in multi-annual increases in the Defence Forces.
The Independent Senator also said that “with all of the global destabilisation and the febrile nature of international relations at the moment, now is precisely not the time to join any particular military alliance, for altruistic reasons, for utilitarian reasons”. He said it would “not benefit the country or our people”.
Mr Coveney told the Seanad last week’s ban by Russia on 52 Irish politicians and the statements by its foreign ministry purposely misrepresented Ireland’s military neutrality and “has further highlighted the need to robustly defend our security and defence policy”.
He stressed the need to be “really clear on what Ireland’s policy of military neutrality does and does not mean”. The policy “means Ireland does not participate in military alliances, or common or mutual defence arrangements. The Government has no plans to alter this policy.”
Investment over six years will entail multi-annual funding increases starting next year to reach a budget of effectively €2 billion by 2028, he said. There are also plans to increase personnel numbers by 3,000 permanent members with 3,000 additional reserve personnel.
Referring to the triple lock requirement of UN, Government and Dáil approval for Irish participation in international operations, he said people should be open to real debate “based on the facts and the political reality on the ground, as opposed to some kind of historical attachment to the triple lock, because we associate it with Irish neutrality”.
He said it “could prevent us making interventions that we may want to make in the future that this House would potentially support”.
Independent Senator Michael McDowell said things may happen in the future in Northern Ireland. The Defence Forces stand between the State and threats of loyalist and republican violence. “We can’t ask them, and we can’t presume on their capacity to deal with these matters, if we underfund them.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Diarmuid Wilson said that, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “I believe Ireland as a country is beginning to question our neutrality policy and ask what does it really mean to be neutral.” But he said of military neutrality that its “key defining characteristic is non-membership of military alliances”. Fianna Fáil “does not see a case to amend the Constitution at this time”.
Fine Gael Senator John McGahon said, “Anyone who thinks Ireland is a neutral country is deluding themselves. It is a particular brand of neutrality that has been allowed to develop over the past 50 or 60 years because of complete, total inaction of policy.”
Mr McGahon gave a whirlwind tour of Ireland’s assistance to allied forces since the second World War and said that Ireland gave assistance to the Allied war effort on 13 occasions. He said to become properly neutral “we stay out of conflict, we stand up for international law”. But it means, “We co-operate extensively with our neighbours, friends, allies and partners.”