One of the biggest surprises during the recent negotiations on the programme for government was the speed with which defence issues were agreed, despite the sharp differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Those differences were already there in black and white in the respective parties’ general election manifestos. Strategic controversial issues, such as neutrality, were wisely left unchanged, however.
The main agreement was to set up a Commission on the Defence Forces to deal with medium and long-term issues, including a pay review mechanism for serving personnel.
The title itself has created unease in the defence community. Limiting the scope of the Commission just to the Defence Forces is much too narrow. It should be broadened, at least to include those aspects of Defence that have a bearing on the forces itself.
Worryingly, a pay review seems to be delayed yet again, at a time when the organisation is in its fourth year of the retention-in-service crisis. Strengths have fallen by more than 1,000 from its authorised level of 9,500 personnel to a new low of 8,424.
While waiting for a debate on the commission’s terms of reference, we need to go back to basics and reflect on what national defence means in the Irish context.
Why do we need an army? Ireland has no enemies, and no one is threatening to attack or invade us. The question should be phrased: “Why do we need the Defence Forces?” since war is often three-dimensional – land, sea and air.
This is not a question you would hear in any other European country, certainly not in any country that has suffered the ravages of war in recent memory. The question never arises in Sweden or Switzerland, countries that have been at peace for several hundred years.
Apart from these two exceptions, every other country in Europe has been at war in the past century. For most of us older lemons, that is within our grandfathers’ time. But why is it that, in Ireland only, the basic requirement for national defence is not understood?
Part of the reason may be the way we teach civics and history in our schools. As regards civics, all children should have a basic understanding of the Defence Forces. As regards history, the very idea of removing it as a compulsory subject is dangerous. An amnesiac society would be destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Children should know about past conflicts, including how wars happened and the consequences for those nations that neglected their national defence. There can be consequences also for political leaders who betray their country by neglecting their national defence. Some lose their jobs, others their heads.
The threat of war, or external aggression to the state, has to be considered in the long term. If it happened in the past 100 years, it could happen in the next 100. Nor can we simply decide to wait until the crisis arises. It takes years to raise defence forces and decades to bring them up to acceptable standards.
National defence, from both external and internal threats, is the core reason for having the Defence Forces. Other tasks, such as peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, emergency support for natural disasters, are secondary. These functions are important in themselves and may help lessen the risk of war in some cases.
Perhaps one way to explain national defence is to consider how we secure our homes. We lock our doors and close our windows. We might invest in a house alarm or even the best deterrent against a break-in, a dog. We might even engage in “collective security” by joining in Neighbourhood Watch.
We know that these measures can be easily overcome if somebody really wants to break in, but our security measures make it more difficult and are a deterrent.
National defence is based on the same principle. In this time, no country can really defend itself, but it can provide for its own deterrent to make it too costly for a potential enemy to attack or invade. This is what a sovereign nation must do to preserve its independence, to protect its people and defend its national interests.
Just like the other neighbours on the street, we adopt similar security measures, broadly to a comparable level. We know that the one unlocked, unprotected home is at greatest risk of being broken into. We take out insurance.
Similarly, at national level we have the Defence Forces. But, to be an acceptable deterrent, it must be equipped broadly to a comparable level with neighbouring states. This means having it equipped with the necessary inventory to provide a minimum deterrent for combat on land, sea and in the air.
Right now, the Naval Service has not got a single warship capable of naval combat, the Air Corps has no jet fighters to defend our skies and the Army has not got the combined arms capability to function on a modern battlefield. We have opted to remain neutral, but we have not invested the minimum amount in Defence to meet the minimum deterrent criteria to defend our neutrality.
Ireland only spends about 0.3 per cent of GDP on its Defence Forces, as against an EU average of 1.2 per cent. In 1980 Ireland’s defence spending was 1.67 per cent of GDP.
Ireland has been described, in defence terms, as a “free-loading Celtic nation on the periphery of the North Atlantic”. Our national defence should not be based on the assumption that others will help us in our time of need. In times of crisis each nation will be preoccupied with its own situation. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that, when the excreta hits the fan, it is every country for itself.
Investors, both foreign and domestic, require a secure environment to work and trade. Should the international security situation deteriorate, Ireland is a weak link. We could expect a rapid and devastating exit of capital and assets to more secure jurisdictions.
The Defence Forces is our insurance, but we must fund it properly. We pay for it, hoping we never have to use it in a national defence role.
The undefended nation ultimately loses its independence.
Colonel Dorcha Lee (retired) is a former Defence Forces provost marshal and director of military police