Ireland and NATO

A senior diplomat once told me in fluent Yes Minister mandarin that countries encouraging the Irish Republic to join the Commonwealth should do so alphabetically. In short, there was little chance of the UK as the old imperial power being heeded.

The impetus in the 1990s for Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth was to assuage unionist fears about a united Ireland and the Irish President backed it. It may grow if unification becomes viable but that seems improbable any time soon.

But membership of another international body, Nato, may be different. Traditionally neutral countries, Finland and Sweden speedily joined the defensive body thanks to increased threats from Russia.

Neutrality is a deeply held belief in Irish thinking. Ireland was neutral during the “Emergency,” as they officially describe the Second World War. The Republic left the Commonwealth and refused to join Nato in 1949.

Today’s Irish army is small but admired for peacekeeping for which 8% of its personnel are overseas at any time. But growing concern about countries not pulling their weight on defence puts Ireland’s overall position in question.

A recent report from the centre-right Policy Exchange think tank explores the issue. Two former Defence Secretaries, George Robertson (also a former Nato General Secretary) and Michael Fallon argue in their forward that Russia poses “an acute maritime menace to both our countries” through targeting undersea fibre-optic cables, pipelines, and interconnectors that underpin critical digital and energy systems. The Irish Republic receives 75% of its gas through pipelines from the UK.

Three quarters of the most critical Atlantic cables pass through or near the borders of the Republic, which hosts a third of Europe’s data companies. The growing Russian, Iranian and Chinese presence in the Republic also poses a “backdoor threat to the UK” and makes European security vulnerable. 

The full report paints a detailed and shocking picture of deep flaws in Irish security. These include a political culture opposed to deep strategic thought, no robust counter-intelligence apparatus, almost no cyber-resilience, and the lack of a primary air radar and suitable aircraft. This means the Republic is entirely undefended by national means and a blind weak spot of the transnational systems into which it is plugged.  

Irish politicians used to think that their geographical isolation on the European periphery was a source of strength but that is now a weakness for all, not least when the melting Arctic ice cap opens new sea routes. 

Its Foreign Ministry’s current consultation document says that “a rapidly changing global environment requires that we be flexible and adaptable.” The view of Sinn Fein, often slated to win next year’s election, could be critical and the party seems to be changing on these issues. 

Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald berated the government for breaching neutrality by expelling Russian diplomats after the Salisbury attack in 2018. Four years later, the party erased over 2,000 documents from its online archive. Last year, it abandoned firm pledges to withdraw from the EU common defence arrangement, Pesco, and from Nato’s Partnership for Peace, often seen as a stepping stone to membership, while a senior party source said that the party was seeking to “refine” its policy “in a way that’s contemporary”.

On news of secret Anglo/Irish arrangements, apparently dating from 1952, allowing the RAF to police Irish airspace against Russian military intrusions, Sinn Féin said it wants to know more before deciding whether to discontinue it.

Sinn Fein faces opposition on its left. The People before Profit party pooh-poohed Ireland joining a Nato exercise to monitor undersea cables. It laughably sloganized that “the biggest threat in the Atlantic comes from the British navy which has regularly cut the nets of fishermen. It is absurd to think that Russia, which is bogged down in Ukraine, wants to open up another war front.”

But Irish public opinion may resist changing the “stubborn shibboleth of neutrality still acting as a brake on ambition,” judging by surprise defeats for the political class in two recent referendums. All major parties clumsily advocated amending the Irish constitution’s arcane references to women’s duties in the home. The No vote trounced the proposed changes.

Ireland is a popular place thanks to large and loyal Diasporas in countries such as America where the Green Guinness will soon flow on St Patrick’s Day. It’s said that St Patrick banished snakes from the island. But Russian vipers in the nest, vultures in the air, and sharks in the waters plus Chinese and Iranian subversion make a persuasive case for more defence spending and joining Nato. That could require a five-fold increase in defence expenditure. 

They are not the only ones who have to change. Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey recently addressed Policy Exchange. He said that UK Armed Forces have been “hollowed out and underfunded” over the last 14 years, as Ben Wallace had admitted, and Labour “seeks to restore the military readiness needed for Britain to deter – and if necessary – fight the conflicts that threaten us.”

Whether we like it or not, we face a militarist challenge from Russia and others. Ireland is a weak link in our collective security. Its friends may form a diplomatic queue urging change in Ireland’s security stance.


To read more from Gary Kent, see his previous piece, Unity is the only path to victory in Ukraine.