The European Union, where notions of diversity, harmonisation, subsidiarity, and enlargement replace outmoded imperial paradigms of conquest, subordination, and acculturation, is the radical opposite of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and far more successful and sustainable because it is emancipating and empowering. Brexit notwithstanding, Ireland is doing its bit, but is it doing its best?
While heading the UN system in Serbia-Montenegro and later Ukraine, I used to give the Irish example of being an EU country that hasn’t joined NATO. All of that changed after Russia’s initial unprovoked aggression against Ukraine in February 2014. After a quick trip to Kyiv back then, I told the Irish joint parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and trade on April 9, 2014, that Ireland needed to reverse the neglect of its defence forces, then at 0.5% GDP.
Since then, it only declined further, to 0.3%.
The “levels of ambition” recommended by Ireland’s recent Commission on Defence Forces back in January pre-dated Russia’s invasion of and the ongoing war against Ukraine, but in hybrid form against the West. Russia’s war is now an attack on the very foundations of civilisation itself, an abomination of human dignity, of the very right to life, of self-determination, and of multilateralism. It is a repudiation of obligations, responsibility, compassion, contract, and treaty, i.e. of the Rule of Law.
Against this altered reality, Finland’s Lieutenant General Esa Pulkkinen already noted that the Irish defence review of which he was a member, should have been “more ambitious”, describing the defence forces as “seriously underfunded” and needing to “triple spending”. Yet ever since, our cyber-defence and marine cable defence capability are paltry, despite enormous investment by American digital giants in our economy. Our naval capability is dwindling, and we have no proper air force. Symptomatically, the ability to give “aid to the civil power” (e. g. non-military police support and security services) is now at risk.
The current government’s commitment to some type of upgrade is grossly inadequate and does not keep pace with inflation, let alone the threat to the environment, as others have noted. Successive governments of different shades underfunded our defence forces to such a degree that we are not neutral, but neutered. We depend on the RAF for aerial surveillance and interception over our vast Atlantic exclusive economic zone, and Ireland was recently described as “Europe’s weakest link”
We are part of a community of states that share common values that are quintessentially universal and enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but which the EU’s acquis, institutions and modus operandi render real and largely effective. For our small size, we are hugely influential in shaping it, but we must play our fair share in defending those values too. We are not neutral, but principled. We should put our money where our muscle needs it – or else join NATO and commit to a budgetary target of at least 1% if not 2% GDP for that partnership and for our collective security.
The debate should be about how much and how soon, not the sterile and outdated arguments on purported neutrality originally based on ideological republicanism during our state’s infancy. A century later, this is nonsense and does not serve our national interest. It runs counter to the consensual and integrative community which has brought us the greatest benefits ever in Irish history, namely our membership in the European Union, and through which we can bring greater peace to the world at large.
From our principled, early and often lonely diplomatic voice in favour of decolonisation, through our volunteers, military and civilian, engaged in UN peace, humanitarian and development operations and other exemplary services worldwide, Irish people, in all our rich diversity, have been a beacon of light against darkness, hatred and genocide.
This work-in-progress can never stop if we are to make this planet safe for all. More needs to be done: including contributing to the dismantling of autocracies, the self-determination of peoples still shackled by remnant empires and the emancipation and empowerment of all the underprivileged, defending their rights.
As Ireland’s two-year term on the UN Security Council concludes this month, having laudably upheld global norms, human dignity and the security and humanitarian needs of victims of conflicts, we also need to consider our own security.
In every respect, defence begins at home. This is especially true if we value our neighbourhood, especially on these Isles. In this regard, recent news of a forthcoming Strategic Defence Review of security threats will be welcomed, the ongoing retention crisis notwithstanding.
Of immediate concern, however, is how Ireland will engage on the matter of security for undersea cables and other vital infrastructure, such as cyber, at the European Political Community meeting next spring, which is set to be held in Moldova.