The Government is interested in joining a Nato Partnership for Peace programme or a European Union Pesco project to protect critical infrastructure from attack, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said, warning of heightened risks to assets such as the electricity grid.
Mr Varadkar made the remarks on the sidelines of the European Political Community (EPC) summit held in Moldova close to its border with Ukraine, where its president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Britain’s Rishi Sunak are among over 40 leaders gathering to discuss co-operation on security issues.
“No matter how much we spent on our defence forces or our navy we wouldn’t be able to do this on our own. So we do need to co-operate,” Mr Varadkar told reporters.
“That means co-operating potentially with Nato allies through the Partnership for Peace, which we’ve been members of for over 20 years now, or through the European Union’s Pesco arrangement, which is the European Union’s structured co-operation on defence and security,” he continued.
“So we’re interested. It’s a very real issue for us. It’s not a theoretical one, but we have to know what we’ll be signing up to before we can sign up to anything.”
A co-operation project would likely involve co-ordinating on the design of undersea cables and pipelines to be more secure, increasing the monitoring of boats in Ireland’s economic zone, and establishing what actions would be taken if an incident was flagged.
The protection of critical infrastructure is one topic of discussion at the EPC summit, a diplomatic gathering founded in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to foster co-operation between a broad group of countries across the continent.
Recent geopolitical shifts mean the possibility of Ireland being hit by some form of attack is higher than in years past, Mr Varadkar warned.
“We live in a different world now, and threats security threats are hybrid,” Mr Varadkar told reporters.
“Because of the instability in the world at the moment, the risk of us being the victim of an attack or collateral damage in an attack is higher than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago, and we need to be realistic about that,” he continued.
“We’ve already had a cyber attack on our health service, for example. We need to make sure that nobody’s in a position to take down the IT systems around our critical infrastructure, like for example, our electricity grid.”
Ireland’s energy system is linked to neighbouring countries through underwater pipelines including a gas interconnector and electricity connector to Britain, and an electricity interconnector to France that is under development.
In addition most of Europe’s transatlantic undersea cables - which act as the arteries of the digital economy linking the continent to the United States - run through or near Irish territorial waters.
Concerns about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to potential sabotage spiked following the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline last year and the detection of Russian ships in Irish waters.
Mr Varadkar is expected to take part in discussions about energy at the EPC summit, which is taking place a short drive away from the border of Ukraine.
The gathering of dozens of European leaders is intended to demonstrate Russia’s isolation and make a show of solidarity to Moldova, a country that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is now a candidate for EU membership.
Host foreign minister Nicu Popescu said ahead of the summit that Moldova was subject to continual pressure and attempts to destabilise the country, including cuts to its gas supply, false bomb threats, and “constant cyber attacks”.
Moldova’s pro-EU leadership raised the alarm earlier this year about what it described as a plot by pro-Kremlin forces to overthrow its government.