Neutrality, Defence, and NATO

photo from the sun .ie

At the time of writing this, the topic of this post is receiving a lot of attention, both positive and negative, so I thought I’d add in my two cents, for whatever its worth – probably less than two cents.

I’m struck first of all by the blatant double standards on display by this government and it’s predecessors. Should the crystal ball be correct and we have a left leaning Sinn Féin government in due course, it appears that they won’t buck the trend based on what they’ve been saying, although it’s liable to chop and change depending on the mood of the news cycle so lets just wait and see.

The double standards I’m referring to are as follows:

  1. Wanting to be defended without paying for it
  2. Sucking on the teet of the US but shunning NATO
  3. Being a Republic, ex-colony, but relying on the UK

Like any sovereign nation, it’s population need to feel safe and protected, firstly from outside threats, and secondly from internal ones. It’s the basis for pretty much every country’s set up – a military to deal with external threats, and a police force for internal matters and law keeping. Let’s stick with an ideal scenario here where those lines don’t get blurred or completely broken in lots of jurisdictions and focus on our own patch – the Republic of Ireland.

As a nation, primarily, we take great pride in our military (albeit guerrilla) victories and battles against the English in our struggle for independence. We have celebrations, memorials, marches, ceremonies etc every year, barracks and streets named after prominent figures and revolutionaries and even our most prestigious trophy, the Sam Maguire is named after the famous IRB chief (amongst many other achievements). Our national pride in our Defence Forces continues throughout the decades and the highlights of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions are constantly to the fore – as they should be.

However, when it comes to actually exploring what the military in this country should, or indeed could be, there’s a sudden barrier erected in the conversation. The pride mentioned above is now met with skepticism, ignorance, bafflement, and sometimes anger.

Neutrality is what pops up in the aforementioned rebuttals to any inkling of increasing defence spending. And while it’s great to be Neutral, the reality is, in practical terms – we’re not. How can we be? Yes, we constantly say we are, but then look to the UK to defend our skies and monitor our oceans. That’s not neutrality, that’s being a protectorate, and as galling as it is, a protectorate of our former imperial colonisers. We can’t be neutral if we rely on an external military to protect us. People may think we’re neutral still, but that’s just burying your head in the sand. We’ve chosen a side for better or worse. What we are is impotent.

The only way out of this is to be self sufficient. Fully. Being able to fully, and meaningfully defend our own territory, by ourselves, in every aspect frees us from reliance on the UK (specifically, but not exclusively) and could allow us to be genuinely neutral. We provide our own deterrence to external threats allowing us to enact a proper policy of Neutrality if that is what we want. At the moment we’re the little child calling names and hurling insults whilst hiding behind our bigger brother. At the first sign of trouble, we get the UK or other allies to help.

Are you meant to have allies if you’re neutral?

The warm and close relationship with the US throughout the decades needs no breakdown or synopsis here I’m sure. I can see why the idea of joining the US led NATO alliance would irk people. That’s fine, there’s no pressure – if we are in a position to defend ourselves. Back to the point above. Because we’re not in a position to defend ourselves, there’s increasing pressure to explore options in defence that might be unpalatable for many. We’re heading towards a reality where there seems to be no way out of increasing defence spending.

  1. Increase spending (by around 3billion p/y according to report of the commission of the defence forces 2022) to gain proper capabilities in order to stand on our own two feet and be properly neutral.
  2. Join NATO, and be forced to increase defence spending anyway, but lose “neutrality”.
  3. Remain as we are, fake neutral, no defence capabilities. Continue to bury our head in the sand.

Point 3 seems utterly insane looking at it objectively. We don’t even have proper Radar!

I’m not sure there would be many countries in the world would tolerate the position we have found ourselves in regarding defence, but collectively as a nation we have become so indifferent to defence we have somehow lapsed into the thinking that we don’t need it. Below are some common statements arguing against defence spending increases and short counters.

  1. Who would attack us? We were colonised for 800 years by our nearest neighbour who now have total control over our sky and seas. It doesn’t have to be a full on invasion. Small erosions and incursions into our sovereignty add up. Deterrence and self reliance are the only way to stand on our own and protect our territory
  2. Money can be used elsewhere. There’s plenty of money. We’re looking at a ~20bn budget surplus next year. I fully agree and support extra funding on housing and Health etc, but it’s clearly not an issue of money, we can do it all.
  3. We’re Neutral – why do we need a military? Neutrality is not equal to impotence. Neutrality needs to be backed by force.
  4. We’re too small of a country, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves against an attack. Not at the moment – which is why we need to increase spending to be able to. A small more agile military can be very effective.
  5. We’re Neutral, the money will be going to waste every year. A capable military can be utilised for humanitarian and aid purposes both internal and abroad aswell as defence.
  6. If we were attacked the UK and US would protect us. Depends on who attacked us, and that’s the whole basis of having a defence pact. You can’t expect or rely on countries entering into a war to back us up when there’s no basis or agreement for them to do it.

Personally I’m unsure on the NATO question if it was put to a vote tomorrow. It would depend for me on if we were taking defence seriously ourselves (which it doesn’t look like). I’d be happier staying (in whatever version of) Neutral if we had a fully resourced and capable military. Failing that then I think a defence alliance is the smartest move – seeing as we’re already relying on the UK for it at the moment it’s not really too much of a change.

My thoughts on whats needed in no order of importance

  1. 3:3:3 split on Army Navy and Air force
  2. Increase total military size by a few thousand – bare minimum levels aren’t going to cut it.
  3. Proper cyber security
  4. Fully resourced special forces
  5. Proper military intelligence
  6. Radar and undersea monitoring
  7. Actual Air Force with intercept capabilities and actual air defence
  8. Proper reserve forces
  9. Proper Navy with actual missiles and anti submarine capabilities
  10. Properly paid staff

Many jaws have probably dropped upon seeing that but it really is just basic stuff that any modern military has, or should have.

Look at what our island is exposed to and you see what we need to protect. We have huge amounts of data passing through and stored in our country from data centers to under sea cables. We have massive national resources going into future offshore wind farms of vital strategic importance. Our natural resources of water, food, livestock, need to be protected from future climate related droughts, famines, conflicts etc.

Lastly, the value a society places on itself should be whats worth defending. On a global scale and relatively speaking, Ireland is one of the best countries in the world to live in. That alone is worth paying the price to defend because if push comes to shove, Neutrality is only a principal, and we know how principals stack up against a cruise missile.