Unserious Ireland

Politics - June 5, 2024

The Republic of Ireland is a small country found on a big island, as islands go. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of submarine area that extends to 200 nautical miles from its territorial sea baselines, or further if the natural prolongation of its land mass is beyond this. A coastal state exercises sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources. Where a margin extends beyond 200 nautical miles, a coastal state may extend its continental shelf limit, subject to the criteria set out in Article 76 of UNCLOS. When her seabed territory is taken into account, Ireland is one of the largest countries in Europe.Ireland’s marine territory comprises over 220 million acres (880,000Km2), which is ten times the size of the island of Ireland. The total coastline adds up to 6883km from, from which extends the to 22km or 12 miles the sovereign territory of the state. That’s a lot of sea. At the end of March this year the operating capacity of the Irish Navy was one vessel.

The Irish navy has 764 active personnel with 77 reservists working 6 ships (including 4 in reserve) To provide context Norway has an exclusive economic zone of 819,620km around its coast and as of 2008, the Royal Norwegian Navy consists of approximately 3,700 personnel (9,450 in mobilized state, 32,000 when fully mobilized) and 70 vessels, including 4 heavy frigates, 6 submarines, 14 patrol boats, 4 minesweepers, 4minehunters, 1 mine detection vessel, 4 support vessels and 2 training vessels. On the 6th of April this year Naval News reported

The Norwegian government today announced their new long-term defence plan for the period 2025 to 2036. Under the name of The Norwegian Defence Pledge, the plan envisions significant growth which not only will see the country reach NATO’s target of 2 % of GDP to defence already this year, but also see that figure pass 3 % towards the end of the period.

It would be unfair to say that the naval needs of these two countries are exactly analogous. The exclusive economic zone and the fishing zone are very important to Norway with its vast rich fishing waters and its Gas and Oil industry. Ireland of course gave away control of teeming Atlantic  fishing grounds  when it joined the EEC in return for supports for her beef and dairy herd. That herd which is now on the block for culling to demonstrate our commitment to the climate agenda. Also unlike the Norwegians the Irish far from extracting natural gas from the sea bed have committed to stopping even looking for it. However it does mean our ocean going wind mills are largely undefended.

The crisis in staffing and investment in the naval service is not new and it is paralleled in the experience of the Army and the Air Corps. Six years ago The Times carried this headline

Irish Air Corps in crisis as four senior pilots join Aer Lingus.

The departure of the four pilots  left 31 pilot-officer vacancies from an intended staffing level of 107, and bring the total number of departures ahead of retirement since 2010 to 56. At the time a spokesman for the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers asserted that the problem had its roots in the spending cuts seen in the wake of the 2010 economic crisis when the financial retention inducements for pilots had been abolished at a time when both Ryanair and Aer Lingus were actively recruiting. Despite official denials that Ireland relies on any other country for national defence it is widely believed that in fact there has been a decades old agreement with the UK that the Royal Air force effectively provides cover and protection of Irish air space. In 2022 in what in Irish government circles was regarded as an excessively candid response to a parliamentary question James Heappey, UK minister of state for defence said

“RAF jets have deployed into Irish airspace on occasion. It is for the Irish Government to set out their policy on why, when and how.”

Even when and if the Air Corps can put pilots in planes the age and type of machinery and tech it has at its disposal makes it a mute point about how effective it might be, The Corps for air-to-air defence relies on the Pilatus PC-9, a propeller-driven trainer acquired by the Air Corps in 2004, shortly after the last jet trainer was retired. It has a notional service ceiling of 25000 feet but i has a practical ceiling of 10000 feet. Most commercial airliners fly at between 33,000  and 42,000ft.

If you can rely on someone else to pick up the tab then why should you pay seems to be the position successive Irish governments to the question of national defence. It has up to now been happy to accept that ultimately we can look to the USA, the UK or the EU to patch the holes in the threadbare garment that of national defence. In a reply to a parliamentary question the on spending published these figures showing a very clear trend.

Year Defence expenditure €m Gross Domestic Product €m Expenditure as % of GDP
1999 760 92,669 0.82%
2000 820 108,400 0.76%
2001 731 122,010 0.60%
2002 725 135,956 0.53%
2003 711 145,534 0.49%
2004 733 156,189 0.47%
2005 759 170,231 0.45%
2006 772 184,914 0.42%
2007 817 197,130 0.41%
2008 880 187,620 0.47%
2009 804 169,786 0.47%
2010 744 167,674 0.44%
2011 704 170,951 0.41%
2012 657 175,104 0.38%
2013 667 179,616 0.37%
2014 673 195,148 0.34%
2015 671 262,853 0.26%
2016 671 270,809 0.25%
2017 681 300,387 0.23%
2018 701 326,986 0.21%
2019 756 356,051 0.21%

In the interests of fairness we should point out that latterly the increase in GDP figures does distort somewhat the per percentages but even using a modified GNI as the base Ireland will barely break half a per cent and still sit comfortably at the bottom of the table for spending in Europe. In an article in in Foreign Policy in 2022 Eoin Drea  said “Forget Germany and Europe’s other defence laggards—we need to have a serious conversation about Ireland, Europe’s worst security policy free rider”

The conclusion of the Commission on the Defence Forces published in 2022 was that Ireland is defenceless on land sea and air. That might once have been Ireland’s problem but not any more. Drug smuggling, people trafficking, illegal arms and hostile nations to the east all can exploit gaping holes in Irish security. At it simplest if you know that there is only one naval vessel patrolling a vast area at sea and you know roughly where that vessel is it makes the task of evasion child’s play. Especially when you also know the likelihood of being observed from the air is slim to none, It is estimated that 75% of the transatlantic cable connecting to Europe to the Americas pass through or near the Irish EEZ. NATO’s Critical Undersea Infrastructure Protection Cell was set up in February 2023 to map vulnerabilities, and coordinate efforts between NATO allies, partners, and the private sector, Ireland has yet to join.

A chronic problem of staffing and funding has been allowed to continue for so long that it has become acute. The investment required now bring the defence forces up to a near tolerable level in a short space of time is prohibitive. Politically the idea of Ireland abandoning its historical position of neutrality is difficult. Even if the case for NATO membership was made and accepted the 2% of GDP minimum requirement would mean a ten fold increase in the budget. Considering that the current government is trumpeting its intention to raise spending from 1.1 billion to 1.5 billion by 2028 an increase to 10 billion euro seems unlikely. It is a truism of politics that the first duty of the state is the protection of its citizens. It is unfortunate that in this area unlike so many others Irish politicians seem unconcerned to have the good opinion of their colleagues in Brussels. Perhaps it is time for those colleagues to demand rather more of Ireland.