No Time to Hide: The Future of Irish Defense and Security
As the Irish say, things are “banjaxed”. In the last year, the Emerald Isle has shown that it is incapable of tracking and deterring Russian naval activity over key transatlantic fiber optic cables near its southwest coast, is hemorrhaging experienced Irish Defence Forces officers and non-commissioned officers over pay, conditions, and opportunities, just as reports surface of Russian intelligence acquiring controlled technologies from firms in Ireland.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine has reignited debate in Ireland — and for perhaps the first time its European and transatlantic partners — about the future of the country’s defense. After decades of neglect, the task ahead to modernize the armed forces is vast.
Ireland has been here before and there is a disturbing historical pattern. When the security situation looks menacing, the security apparatus and the Irish Defence Forces have often been at a low ebb. This time, they are at their nadir, just as Ireland’s geostrategic importance is on the rise. Although the government has, belatedly and reluctantly, agreed to slowly increase defense spending by 50 percent, there is growing outrage within, and real concern without, that it’s too little too late. Ireland’s leaders need to lead a national debate on what Irish defense and security policy will be in the 21st century, and if neutrality is to remain the policy, a clear, confident, and long-term commitment is needed to ensure the country can defend neutrality in an increasingly insecure world.
At present, the response to a range of problems identified by the Commission on the Defence Forces seems to be increased spending, the acquisition of some new equipment, and the creation of a follow-up committee to act on some of its recommendations. The creation of this latter committee was a great opportunity to recruit people outside of the organization with significant expertise and perhaps reach out to international partners. It appears that the government has not grasped this opportunity. By any estimation, urgent reform of soldiers’ pay, pensions, and promotion prospects is needed to stop the steady drain of personnel. The role of the Irish Defence Forces needs to be clearly defined, and they must be properly equipped to act. Ireland should have a dedicated minister of defense, whose initial task needs to be the implementation of the measures above, alongside the intelligent redesign of the entire defense, security, and intelligence architecture based on now standard best practices. Ireland’s partners can help by keeping the pressure on to end the neglect.
Defining the Problems
Immediately prior to World War II, in which Ireland remained nominally neutral but in practice significantly helped the Allies with the sharing of intelligence, the army totaled less than 5,000. The country had no navy or reservists to call upon should it abandon its traditional foreign policy. In 1970, just as “the Troubles” — as the violence in Northern Ireland became known — were beginning, the Irish Defence Forces were 4,500 short of their 13,000 establishment. By the end of 2022, the forces could only muster 7,987 personnel. This number is 3,000 fewer personnel than the Commission on the Defence Forces recommended. The naval service is so critically short that numerous vessels have been left docked or mothballed. Meanwhile, the unpaid Reserve Defence Force is now only 819 strong from an establishment of 4,069. On their current trajectory, they could cease to exist in three years.
The reasons for the poor state of the armed forces are primarily due to poor pay and conditions that have not kept up with the times. Soldier pay is not rising with inflation and cannot compete with the nation’s booming private sector. When one of the authors tried to join the Irish Army as a cadet 20 years ago, the military was a highly desirable career. It had good pay and conditions, and a highly selective recruitment process. The army was enjoying a period of reinvestment. In an attempt to alleviate officer retention problems, the cadet class has been increased to 2.5 times its previous size, with evidence that quality — including academic, tactical, and disciplinary performance — has been negatively affected.
The 2008 financial crisis hit Ireland hard. The Defence Forces were not spared. Essentially there has been very little change in pay and continuing negative impacts on pensions. As a result, many officers state they will have to leave their careers early to top up their pensions. Poor accommodation, slow promotion, and restrictive transfer restrictions (when one author tried to transfer as a British Army infantry Captain after a tour of Afghanistan he was told “he’d need to get the minister involved”) have compounded the personnel problems. The latter is important as Irish soldiers are increasingly choosing to join other armies.
There has also been a lack of investment in infrastructure and major equipment items such as military-grade radar, air defense, and modern aircraft, especially air lift — and naval vessels with submarine tracking capabilities. As a result, Ireland now only has rudimentary land, air, and naval forces, which lack the personnel and key equipment to fulfill any national defense scenario. The Defence force is even struggling to sustain the peacekeeping deployment in Syria.
No Time to Hide
Ireland is slowly starting to address the situation, albeit in typically unenthusiastic fashion. When the independent Commission on the Defense Forces reported back on their perilous state a year ago, the joint Foreign and Defense Minister accepted “virtually everything” the Commission found. But the Commission also recommended three tiered Levels of Ambition for defense reform: maintain the same capability while trying to stop the rot; an enhanced but limited capability uplift predominantly focused on better radar, cyber defense, strategic air lift, and naval upgrades; and “developing full-spectrum defense capabilities to protect Ireland and its people to an extent comparable to similarly sized countries in Europe.”
This last would have required a tripling of Ireland’s defense budget to €3 billion. However, while the Irish government received a bumper €5 billion tax bounty last year, it only set aside €1.5 billion for defense by 2028. Judging from inflation and Ireland’s GDP projection, this will be significantly less in GDP terms by then. Working out the defense spend to GDP percentage this equates to is also problematic as the Irish GDP is inflated by at least a third by the presence of multinational headquarters that subsequently transfer profits out of the country. If we take this into account, the €1.5 billion roughly equates to about 0.7 percent of the real Irish GDP.
Ireland’s problems go beyond defense to wider security. It sits astride some of the most important fiber optic cables in the transatlantic. The country is home to a large number of U.S. technology and pharma firms’ European headquarters and production facilities. Both are potential targets for cyberattacks. For example, in 2021 the Irish health service suffered a major ransomware cyberattack that forced the shutdown of all its computers nationwide. Ireland is also home to one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world and is reliant on the United States and Britain’s help to tackle it. Republican and transnational terrorist threats remain. There is also a new and rapidly expanding far-right problem. Ireland is responsible for one of the largest territorial waters in Europe.
Yet while there are multiple and developing challenges, the country doesn’t have a national security strategy, a functioning national security council, or a national security agency. The same applies to defense. There is no dedicated minister, no defense committee, no transparent oversight committee for defense, national security, or intelligence, nor an independent inspectorate of Defence Force capability and readiness. This lack of national defense architecture has precluded the development of a long-term national defense or security policy. Neither the Defence Forces nor the Department of Defence have the capacity to act in this context, nor are they empowered to do so. Put simply, the security and defense architecture widely used in the European Union and transatlantic space does not exist in Ireland.
It is difficult to identify another country within the European Union in which defense and security are so neglected. Ireland’s traditionally neutral stance has led to an unrealistic and uninformed defense policy in which the mere statement of neutrality is deemed sufficient defense. It is a historically illiterate stance, as a tradition of neutrality does not excuse neutral states from declaring neutrality in each new conflict, but also ignores that under international law neutral states must be able to defend themselves against violations by belligerents. They must have credible defense forces, a fact that others traditionally neutral European states like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland have long grasped and funded accordingly. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all of these have now ended, or are seriously considering ending, their policy of neutrality. Others like Austria have recently announced major defense spending increases. Gifted a relatively benign geostrategic location, Ireland has not so much managed risks in the past as avoided them.
Moreover, neutrality remains emotive to a large section of the electorate. This is in large part due to a lack of informed debate. There is a lack of a public-facing defense/strategic studies institute or independent think tanks to stimulate and contribute to the national debate. Another major factor is the rather one-dimensional discussion of neutrality and peacekeeping in the national curriculum. Karen Devine’s long-running research on Irish attitudes to neutrality has highlighted the need for a program of debate and public education on defense issues, but this has failed to materialize. Meanwhile, like the new Tanaiste (deputy leader), Foreign Minister and Defense Minister Micheál Martin, Ireland has not had a dedicated minister of defense for decades; the role has been added to others or relegated to being the portfolio of a junior minister. There is a lack of political interest in this role as defense is not seen as a “vote-catcher”. Taken together these have allowed a policy to develop in which Ireland has remained at least nominally “neutral”, regardless of the global security horizon, but increasingly poorly defended. Despite being an island off an island off the west coast of Europe, Ireland’s rapid economic growth, geostrategic position, and the reduction in the size of the Royal Air Force and Navy mean Ireland can ill afford to hide anymore.
What Can Ireland Do?
Although there are some positive signs regarding upgrading naval, air, and radar capacities, in reality, there are no short-term solutions. An initial starting point would be an open, national discussion about the country’s own defense and security. For this to be effective, the government would have to lead it, beginning with a realistic assessment of Irish neutrality, the obligations of being neutral in a rapidly changing world, and the lack of capacity to meet those obligations. In the past, the tendency has been to refuse to discuss such issues publicly due to “security concerns.” Due to the amount of media commentary on this subject in recent months, the public is increasingly aware of how threadbare an excuse this is. A serious debate about neutrality is needed, similar to that which has occurred in traditionally neutral European countries recently. It is perfectly reasonable for Ireland to remain neutral, but if that is the choice the defense forces must be resourced to maintain that neutrality.
In terms of the problems of recruiting and retaining personnel, there should be immediate action to stop the hemorrhaging of trained personnel and a means must be found to recruit new people to all three services. A thorough overhaul of pay and conditions, married to revised training, education, and enhanced promotion prospects, must occur rapidly. There must also be an investment in actual infrastructure to dispel the sense that many personnel have that they are serving in a crumbling system. The Defense Forces have tried to recruit more female personnel, with limited success, while also remedying the culture of negative behavior towards female personnel would be a good step forward.
The question of the organization and use of reserve forces would surely be key in any future reform. Ireland has struggled to envision a reserve force that does not simply involve unpaid 17-25 year-olds running around the mountains on weekends. It is noticeable that a year since the Commission recommended a Department of Defence Office for Reserve Forces, none still exists. There are numerous successful models that could be applied from across Europe, and in the Baltic states we can see a move towards all-society defense and the integration of people with specific, useful skill sets into combat service support. A more imaginative role for the reserve forces would see them tapping Ireland’s cyber, logistics, and engineering sectors. Paying reserve personnel is a vital first step in this regard.
There will be considerable debate about how the proposed new investment in defense should be spent. We don’t need to repeat the Commission’s detailed recommendations here. All three services are competing for funds. A sensible approach might be to invest in the navy and air force to enhance maritime security and air defense, but this needs to be done in a way that does not leave the army the loser. Although a capability development branch has recently been created in the Department of Defence, it does not yet have the skills to craft a coherent Capacity Development plan. Modern ships with anti-submarine capacity, modern aircraft, radar, and air defense systems are all needed. While there were some welcome signs of progress on some issues recently, a commitment to maintaining defense spending tracking at least 1 percent of real GDP over the long term would be a start.
In the wider sense, Irish defense and security need to change to reflect functional systems in Europe and the transatlantic space. One of the oft-repeated phrases from the government is that Ireland follows “best international practice”, which, by the application of any criteria, is patently nonsense. For a country on the United Nations Security Council until two months ago, this is a joke. Ireland should match European best practice on defense and security architecture. A significant start in any process of reform would be to define this role as a permanent ministerial appointment, create a functioning national security council, a defense and security oversight committee in the Oireachtas, and an independent inspectorate of the defense forces. The Department of Defence needs dedicated and dynamic leadership, a clear mission, reorganization, and an influx of new talent dedicated to, and interested in, positive change for the Defence Forces and the nation. Following recent Swedish practice, a separate portfolio in civil defense could be established. This would help deconflict the use of defense force personnel in non-military roles. The Commission was surprised that Defence Forces personnel were assigned to non-military roles whilst simultaneously not being equipped to perform their military roles.
Finally, there’s an important education and public engagement effort to be undertaken. The historical nuances, and tensions, of Irish neutrality need to be part of the national curriculum for all second-level students, and having serving or former defense forces personnel explain this and their day-to-day roles could be a useful mode of delivery. Moreover, the true and often distinguished nature of the “fighting Irish”, be it in the service of Ireland or other nations (for example, at least 70,000 men from the Republic joined British forces to fight fascism in World War II and 2,000 served the United States in Vietnam), must be openly reconciled with this tradition of neutrality.
In the wake of the financial crash, the government created a Citizens’ Assembly to collect the views of the population and advise on constitutional reform on numerous topical issues, often resulting in new legislation. A similar assembly on neutrality would help sustain public and media engagement. Certainly, Ireland’s well-meaning “triple lock” — the requirement that Irish military deployments of more than 12 personnel have a United Nations Security Council or General Assembly resolution; a decision of Government; and a Dáil resolution — could be reviewed with perhaps one being dropped, or the number of personnel increased to say, 30 or 100. This is especially important in emergency evacuation scenarios such as in Kabul.
How Can Ireland’s Partners Help?
Ireland’s international partners like the United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom should continue to remain sensitive to Ireland’s tradition of neutrality. The same goes for its internal politics. The most popular party at present, Sinn Fein, are in opposition but are staunchly in favor of neutrality and anti-NATO. Although they currently trail the combined Fine Gael/Fianna Fail/Greens coalition by 12 points, this lead is too small to ignore, and spending to alleviate a housing crisis is the pacing priority. Push the neutrality policy too far and it risks alienating enough voters to be problematic.
The aim here has to be the reform of Ireland’s security architecture in a meaningful and funded way that truly reflects best practices in Europe and the transatlantic, and at a reasonable scale for Ireland’s size and strategic importance. Offers of capacity building, sharing of experiences, and exchanges are two other, lower-level practical solutions. Offer or deals on surplus kit — F-16s, Typhoons, or Gripens are another potential set of options — but unlike in the past, Ireland’s leaders need to recognize it needs surplus equipment too. Ultimately, this is about Ireland’s trusted friends explaining that although they respect Ireland’s tradition of neutrality, maintaining that tradition in the 21st century comes with more responsibilities.
Ultimately though, this is about Ireland’s partners nudging the country’s leaders to take especially defense and security seriously and to lead their populace on the issue, rather than follow. The key thing is political will, and that can be informally impressed upon the Taoiseach and government bilaterally and multilaterally, in Washington, Brussels, and European capitals. Given that current defense minister Martin was until very recently Taoiseach, and is now also the foreign minister, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Indeed, the minister only recently returned from the United States, where he emphasized the cultural — rather than structural — problems in Irish defense. Any open or formal discussions in some of these capitals will have NATO connotations and will raise issues in terms of perceptions of neutrality. However, Ireland has a tradition of cooperation with Scandinavian countries and the Baltic States. Irish troops have been associated with contingents from these countries on United Nations missions and also through the E.U.’s Nordic Battlegroup in 2008 and 2011. Perhaps turning to these countries, some of which also have long traditions of neutrality, might make cooperation and capacity-building programs more palatable for the Irish public. The European Union also has scope to set benchmarks within the constraints of the Lisbon treaty — the broadly successful reform of European counter-terrorism architecture is a case in point, and another that Ireland has missed. The benefits of reforming the Irish security and intelligence apparatus should be made clear by both European and transatlantic partners, especially given the rise of hybrid threats in Ireland.
As an indicator of the current malaise and the risks it runs, we leave you with a final anecdote. After working for years on an international transatlantic counter-terrorism trust and capacity-building project, we held our first workshop last year. Multiple agencies in the transatlantic space, including neutral countries, attended. Ireland was invited but did not. No one would sign off on it due to the potential optics back home. A real opportunity was missed and this must be considered in light of recent failings in terms of security vetting. This lack of political will must end, and sometimes good friends are best placed to tell hard truths. The traditional meeting between Taoiseach and the U.S. President on St. Patrick’s Day would be a great place to start. But across the transatlantic space, long-term political interest in, and pressure for, Irish defense and security reform is needed to ensure it is prioritized by our own leaders.
Dr. Patrick Bury is a Senior Lecturer in Security at the University of Bath, and a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment.
Dr. David Murphy is a lecturer in military history and strategic studies at Maynooth University in Ireland. Both are Irish.
Image: Irish Defence Forces