From top: The Cover of Fine Gael MEP discussion paper on Ireland’s defence/security policies; Derek Mooney
As I am out of the country for a few days I missed last night’s RTÉ One Claire Byrne Live discussion on Irish Defence policy.
Based on the social media commentary it seems the talk was as much, if not more, about neutrality, or the myriad different interpretations of neutrality, than it was about policy.
Regrettably, most attempts to try to have a sensible discussion on national security and the threats that face us flounder on tired, ill-informed and hyper charged arguments on neutrality.
Neutrality is not unimportant, but arguing continually over its definition and who is more neutral than who means we miss the core issue – how do we develop and maintain the capability to protect ourselves and to contribute to increasing global security?
So, let us get the definitions out of the way. Ireland is militarily neutral. This means more than simply not being part of a military alliance.
It means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence, what strength defence force we want and how we deploy them.
It also means that we support multilateralism, via the United Nations. It has long been Ireland’s position that one of most tangible contributions we can make to global peace and stability is to deploy our troops on Chapter 6 and 7 multilateral peace enforcement operations, mandated by the United Nations.
It is why we sent approx 1,600 troops per year to do precisely that in the decade leading up to 2009.
Whether a mission has been NATO led, EU led or whatever, has not been an issue, once it has been mandated by the United Nations – a sensible position for a small nation that believes in international law.
Now back to policy: this latest attempt to start a debate appears to have been provoked by the short discussion document entitled: Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home from Fine Gael’s group of MEPs.
Provoked being the key word. The document so outraged the good folk in Sinn Féin that one of their number was moved to thunder on about how the FG MEPs were set “…to tear up Ireland’s military neutrality and expose[s] their extremist and dangerous far-right position on European security”.
While the Fine Gael four do indeed urge us (wrongly in my view) to “redefine the concept of Irish neutrality” and to “Amend Ireland’s Triple Lock system”, it is a gross over reaction wrong to call their document extremist or far-right.
In my opinion; its biggest problem is that it is light-weight.
It’s not there aren’t some other decent ideas in the document, there are, but a paper, even a discussion paper, making 10 recommendations “for a progressive future Irish security and defence policy” should stretch to a bit more than just seven A4 pages of text in a 16-page pamphlet?
National Defence and security are big issues. There is a serious debate to be had, so if you are going to kick start one then offer something more closely argued and researched than a poor reheating of bits of Gay Mitchell’s 2003 Beyond Neutrality policy document.
Though, to be fair, this time Fine Gael does manage not to call our military neutrality a “sham” or dismiss the triple-lock as an “abdication of national sovereignty”
Still, fifteen years later and no one in Fine Gael can make a better case against the Triple-Lock than citing a lone 2003 EU peacekeeping mission to FYR Macedonia?
If this is the only reason Fine Gael can come up with to get rid of the Triple-Lock, then advocates, like me, of the Triple-Lock have no case to answer.
Even Fine Gael’s discussion of the origins of the Triple Lock misses the point.
Read the FG paper and you would think it dates to the 1990s.
Wrong. The Triple Lock mechanism itself goes back to the 1954 and 1960 Defence Acts. It essentially states that a Triple Lock of UN mandate, government and Dáil approval is required to send contingent of more than 12 armed troops overseas.
It is worth noting here that Fine Gael frets that we would not be able to assist in a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster, but misses the point that the UN mandate part only applies when sending armed contingents of more than 12, there is no restriction on unarmed contingents assisting with natural disasters.
Though they do not make it this time, the other charge levied against the Triple Lock is that it is slow.
Yet in 2007/8 when Ireland took part in and commanded the EUFor mission in Chad we were among the first on the ground and were waiting for other non-triple lock countries to catch up.
It was during the preparations for this EU led mission that I had the pleasure of hearing the then UK Defence Secretary Dr John Reid sum up (using the words of George Robertson) the approach of so many interminable EU ministerial gatherings, saying:
“Everything that needs to be said has been said, but it hasn’t yet been said by everybody.”
This slight segue allows me to a chance to acknowledge some of the MEPs’ more positive suggestions before I return to my other major complaint.
The MEPs rightly focus on the need to establish a “cohesive National Cyber Security Strategy”.
This is an issue that Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless TD. raised yesterday when he urged the government to prioritise the National Cyber Security Centre following reports that the Russian intelligence services are taking an unhealthy interest in the Irish technology and scientific sectors.
The MEPs also call for the creation of a both a Central Intelligence Unit and a National Security Council. These are two proposals that should have been considered years back, but as with many things in Defence, they have not been a priority for almost a decade now.
Which neatly brings me back to where this document collapses in on itself.
While the Fine Gael MEPs deserve credit for bringing defence to the fore, albeit via a flimsy vehicle, their calls for increase defence spending on capabilities, research and personnel, they ignore the fact that it has been their own party leaders, who have both served as Defence Minister as well as Taoiseach since 2016, who have not just failed to act, they have looked the other way.
Since 2011 one single Minister of State has effectively run the show – and although he is a well-intentioned guy who is happy to travel overseas as to visit troops and take the salute at reviews, he has never had the political clout to make defence an issue at the cabinet table.
I am not laying all the blame for all the cuts at Fine Gael’s door. I was there when we cut the Defence Force strength from 10,500 to 9,500 on foot of the Bórd Snip Nua report in 2008/09. But that was intended as a temporary measure.
Yet, a decade later, the Government struggles to even keep it at 9,500. At the same time, the numbers serving on overseas operations has over halved, with a hefty consequent effect on soldiers pay, and that’s on top of other unaddressed issues from the Lansdowne Road Agreement.
The major progress made in modernising and improving the Defence Forces in terms of training, equipment and conditions on foot of the 2000 Defence White Paper, the first of its kind, has been all but lost.
We need now to commit to getting back to where we were in 2006/7 in terms of equipment, pay and capabilities.
A major step in that direction would be to appoint a Defence Minister at Cabinet level, for whom the role is not part time and mandate them to bring Óglaigh na hÉireann back up to 10,500. They will find that there will be no shortage of suitable and willing recruits ready and waiting to join.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney
Earlier: Luke Flanagan on PESCO