Derek Mooney: Voters Understand That Defence Costs

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From top: Minister for Defence Simon Coveney unveiling a new Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre Aircraft for the Irish Air Corp at Casement Aerodrome in 2020; Derek Mooney

‘Coveney: Russian war highlights need to boost Defence Forces’ spend.’

This was the headline to a story in last Thursday’s Irish Examiner explaining how our part-time Minister for Defence is perhaps… possibly… on the cusp of the verge of being ready… in a few months… to signal that he just about  to announce plans to consider the partial implementation of some of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Defence… if he secures the agreement of certain key people in Cabinet.

Regrettably, the words actually uttered by Minister Coveney on the day were just marginally more definitive than my facetious parody above, telling reporters that:

“I’ll be bringing an action plan on the back of the recommendations in the commission to Government in June and it will be a strong statement of intent from me, and I hope from government, if we can get approval, in terms of the need to quite significantly increase our investment in the Defence Forces”

It did not take Putin’s merciless invasion of his smaller, militarily neutral neighbour to alert us up to consequences of the last decade of neglect of defence. To pretend that it has is deeply disingenuous. A weak Blueshirt ruse to mask the fact that their governments have treated national security and defence as a political afterthought.

Four senior Fine Gael figures have held Cabinet level responsibility for Defence since early 2011, they are, Alan Shatter, Enda Kenny (as Taoiseach), Simon Coveney (two stints including 2014 – 2016/ current) and Leo Varadkar (as Taoiseach).

Across most of that time they had a hapless super junior minister as frontman but, as I pointed out here three years ago, while that junior minister was the frontman for the dysfunction in defence, he was not the cause. Blaming today’s mess on the junior minister would be like blaming the non-performance of the harem on the eunuchs.

Despite his attempt to put the blame elsewhere, Minister Coveney is not the ill-fated political inheritor of a crisis that has only come to light thanks to the war in Ukraine. He and his Fine Gael colleagues were warned at the time, by people far more knowledgeable and expert than I, about the perils of under investing in both Defence Force personnel and resources.

Fianna Fáil’s opposition spokespeople at the time, Lisa Chambers and Jack Chambers were vocal not only in their criticisms, but in identifying the alternative strategies needed to avert the crisis.

But whatever credit Fianna Fáil earned for coming up with alternative proposals pre-2020 is quickly has been quickly erased by the dogged determination of its party leader to stand idly by and allow Minister Coveney to not only continue his neglect of defence, but to also ignore the Fianna Fáil Junior Minister at his Department.

Minister Coveney was at pains to inform Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, in a parliamentary question reply in early 2021 that, the junior minister at defence was solely appointed to fulfil a technical requirement of section 11 of the 1954 Defence Act and that he had no other role or function within the department. Taoiseach Michéal Martin’s political acquiescence in allowing a reply that was so dismissive of a party colleague is shocking, but not really all that surprising.

Almost as unsurprising as the speed and ease with which those Fine Gael TDs and Senators who had been wholly unperturbed by their government’s neglect of defence now suddenly rush to the nearest microphone to tell us how they have always believed that Ireland should be in NATO.

But – while the hard-left chunders on about Putin not being entirely in the wrong, and the goldilocks brigade in Fine Gael explain how we have simultaneously had a decade of spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on defence, we can take some comfort in the fact that the public are way ahead of the politicians on this one.

One of the most interesting, and positive, findings from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/Red C poll on defence issues is that the public understands that delivering a realistic and effective level of national defence on land, sea, sky and cyber, costs money. They also grasp that being militarily neutral means having the real capacity to defend ourselves.

Asked if they agreed/disagreed with the statement that: “I would support proposals to significantly increase Ireland’s annual defence budget of €1.1 billion per year, which is currently the lowest in the EU at 0.2% of GDP”, 59% said they agreed and only 28% said they disagreed. That’s a 2:1 margin in favour of increased defence spending.

Now… I am around long enough to know that people can agree with the idea of increasing spending for X or Y and then baulk when it comes to forking out the extra taxes required to pay for it. But such a clear and conclusive response on an issue that has been been at the bottom of the political priorities pile for so long, is still significant.

It is also interesting to see that that this realisation that we must spend more on defence – though not defining how much more – is accompanied by a solid level of support for the existing policy of military neutrality. Asked if they agreed with the proposition that “Ireland should drop its policy of neutrality”, 57% of respondents said they disagreed and 30% said they agreed. Another significant majority, though it is down a bit from previous polls.

Much has been made over the past 24 hours of the apparent public contradiction between 57% of people saying they backed neutrality and 48% saying that they would back Ireland joining NATO. I see this as more of a paradox than a contradiction, a paradox being something you must accept and live with (as I previously explained).

The dichotomy might be explained (in part) by the framing of the question. From what I can see, those polled were asked if “Ireland should join NATO to boost its security” (my emphasis). Might some of those who said yes assumed that the proposition being put to them was if the only effective way of boosting Irish national security was by joining NATO, might they agree in that circumstance?

This is mere conjecture. I cannot fully explain why up to 18% of people could potentially say yes to NATO membership on one question, and then say yes to continued neutrality on another, but I suspect the evident lack of clarity around terms like: neutrality, military neutrality, even NATO membership, might help explain the paradox.

I attempted a few times over the past decade of writing about Defence, both here and elsewhere, to put some meat on the bones of what we mean by military neutrality, including this 2018 effort which responded to yet another attempt by Fine Gael to make the public as confused over the issue as it.

What the Red C poll tells me is that the public is not buying the mangled garbage being put about by the alphabeti-socialistis or the likes of Wallace, Daly, and Ming. The public understands that we need to spend more on defence – indeed this poll suggests that they understand this in even greater numbers that I would have anticipated. Not alone that, they also understand that whether we follow the path of continued military neutrality or go the route of NATO membership it is going to cost money.

That is a very healthy and important starting place for a very long overdue public debate on defence. I truly hope Minister Coveney and his senior officials in the Department of Defence will take note and realise that there is now nothing to be gained by waiting until June to come forward with their plan to speedily implement level of ambition (LOA 2) of the Defence Commission report, namely to:

“Build on current capability to address specific priority gaps in our ability to deal an assault on Irish sovereignty”.

To wait until June would just be time wasting.

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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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13 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Voters Understand That Defence Costs

  1. Broadbag

    I think the poll results might skew differently if people realise how much money would be wasted on this futile exercise of trying to beef up the paltry defence forces.

    ”being militarily neutral means having the real capacity to defend ourselves.”

    Put a cost on ”real capacity to defend ourselves” – it would be astronomical, we have the UK next door and the US the other side, 2 of the world’s largest military powers, who do we need to defend ourselves from and how much would that cost, this is pie in the sky stuff. Instead add up all the money wasted already maintaining the sad pretence that we have a defence force, millions down the drain so we can do a fly by once a year or have a parade of ‘troops’. If anything you could make an argument that the peacekeeping element is valuable but beyond that I’d be closer to disbanding the defence forces than pouring more money down the drain for the sake of optics.

  2. Gavin

    Sorry is the whole article…”the public understand things cost money”.
    As Broadbag said a “real capacity to defend ourselves” would be astronomical, what exactly is meant by this statement, vague nonsense? I’d agree in part with Broadbag, stop wasting money, we are a small island nation with a maritime force that is not fit for purpose, a coast guard seriously under-resourced, we are unable to even detect, let alone police who or what is flying in our airspace, and a military force that is massively underpaid. Lets get the basics right before grandiose plans of creating a “real capacity to defend ourselves”.

  3. Gabby

    I don’t think an enhanced Irish navy could defend our territorial Atlantic waters, but I do think it could, with increased expenditure, exercise sharper surveillance of the Atlantic approaches to Ireland. Security against international drugs and people trafficking is vital for Ireland’s social and economic stability. Self security is in the short term more attainable than military self defence. We don’t have to buy a battleship or other naval giant. Why not ease the expense and lease one, or two?

    1. Broadbag

      This is a much saner and vote-friendly approach than trying to become a military power all of a sudden, at huge cost.

  4. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

    the public understands that the government couldn’t budget a shagging day out, never mind health and housing

  5. stephen moran

    Defense spending for any small country is a total and on going sunk cost i.e. you get no positive externalities, multipliers or spillovers from it into the domestic economy the way the MIC does. The US (MIC) develop (with massive R&D budgets) and buy their own hardware and then on sell it highly profitably with some positive tech spillovers for the domestic US economy. Defense spending for Ireland is a pure leakage from the circular flow of national income. Its about as much use as a super yacht as an asset class.

    1. Cian

      Yes – that is important to remember.

      At the moment one of the biggest costs to the defence forces is salary – which remains in the Irish economy.

      1. stephen moran

        To clarify what I meant was that by far the majority of any fresh spend would be on hardware (which depreciates and becomes redundant practically by the time it enters service) -i.e. upgrading our Spitfires or mechanized units would be a serious sunk cost

  6. TenPin Terry

    The unveiling of the 82 on the tail.
    Is that how fast in mph the single-engine crop-sprayer will do ?

  7. Dr.Fart

    don’t trust anyone who calls the public “voters” .. being reduced to nothing more than your ability to give power to running candidates isn’t a good outlook.

  8. gringo

    Check out the next post Derek and explain to us why getting involved in that class of butchery is a smart move for any Irish person. There are few things in life more stupid than guys sitting safely in their office advocating war as a means to peace. Soldiers of Destiny my hole.

  9. Zaccone

    “He and his Fine Gael colleagues were warned at the time, by people far more knowledgeable and expert than I, about the perils of under investing in both Defence Force personnel and resources.”

    What exact perils are these? What exactly would we have gained if the country for example had spent €10bn extra on defense over the last decade?

    And how exactly would it measure up to the cost of spending €10bn less over the same period on housing, or healthcare, or education? Because said money has got to come from somewhere.

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