On Tuesday evening, 24 August 2021, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney sent a number of Irish military personnel to Afghanistan to better coordinate the evacuation of the citizens and dependants of Ireland who want out of there. This followed an effective social and traditional media pressure campaign by Leinster House’s resident veterans—Deputy Dr Cathal Berry, and Senator Gerard Craughwell—who quadruple-handedly hectored and shamed the Irish military establishment into the deployment on the effective premise of “If not us, then who, and why?”
Cue Thursday morning, and the Air Corp’s 1994 Casa CN 235—which would not have looked out of place at Kittyhawk—had scarcely touched down in Kabul International before the order came to withdraw our soldiers due to Afghanistan’s apparently unforeseen and unopposable “growing terrorist threat.”
Simon Coveney’s decision to adopt the style and mannerisms of the Grand Old Duke of Cork by marching the army up to the top of radical Islamism’s hottest new hill before marching them back down again 36 hours later has reopened the debate on Ireland’s military capability, our self-reliability, and the degree to which we depend on the likes of the UK for our defence. Predictably, discussion gravitates towards national pride, our ability to meet our peacekeeping and EU border control obligations, and the ever-itchiness of some to join NATO.
Some of these arguments hold water, and the sight of Britain’s “Parachute Regiment” rescuing Irish people from Afghanistan due to our national incapacity to do so certainly left a stinging, humiliating mark on our century-long attempt to come across like a real country. But at a time when an annual spend of €780 million gets us under- and unmanned ships in Haulbowline and the odd Cessna fly-by at Easter, it’s fair to ask whether Irish defence actually needs more money, or simply better spending of it.
Look at the way we measure up to the UK. Where we spend 0.27% of GDP on the military, they spend 3%. This modest-sounding difference translates to a UK military budget of £47 billion per year, due to increase by a further £20 billion over the next 5 years. In return for this, they are a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN’s fabled (but as toothless and stupidly obsessed-with-Israel as ever) Security Council, with the ability to project its power around the world to meet its global ambitions and post-colonial obligations, while protecting its people from the enhanced terrorist threat they live under.
Ireland’s needs, by comparison are far more modest.
Notwithstanding the presence of 36 Irish dependants in Afghanistan in August 2021, Ireland doesn’t generally need the sort of global, regime-changing presence that so many others seem to. The (albeit late) deployment of the Army Ranger Wing in and of itself indicates that: i) we already have the special forces capacity required to arrange a short notice evacuation from a dangerous, remote, and very busy runway on the other side of the world, such as it is; and ii) the Irish government engaged in some traditional dithering before caving to the pressure to deploy, before completing their about-face and ordering a withdrawal essentially straight away. The problem in that instance is not the capacity or budget of the Defence Forces, but the capacity and intelligence of our politicians, which no amount of money can fix.
That is not to say that we are currently covering all our bases in terms of national defence. If the many, many catastrophies of 2020 and 2021 have exposed any of our weaknesses, it must be in terms of our cybersecurity.
You will recall the 14 May cyberattack on the infrastructure of the HSE that hobbled it, that we are still all reeling from, and that has provided our health service with a new, high-tech, and, therefore, uncontradictable excuse for its many failings. In the wake of the attack, it transpired that Ireland actually has a National Cyber Security Centre but that its managing director’s position was (and is, as far as I’m aware) vacant, and on offer for suitable candidates waged at €89,000. The difficulty, as pointed out by Deputy Dr Berry in May, is that we will not find suitable candidates for a wage as industrially low as €89,000, and, as a result, we can expect to suffer the dire consequences of our misdirected tight-fistedness again and again, as the world becomes more digital, and criminals and foreign actors find even more inventive and painful ways to exploit us.
One of these incidents had real, life-threatening, and lasting effects on the lives of people living here, and could have been defended against by the Irish government agencies charged with our defence had they been properly prioritised and resourced. The other is a tragic international travesty in which Ireland can and should help, but in which we ultimately had very little involvement and have very little power or influence; “soft” and by virtue of our Security Council seat or otherwise.
Instead of continuously acting the spaghetti-armed hardman swanning into the rattly death-throes of foreign wars in which we have no hand, act, or part, we should confront the real threats that are already crippling us at home. Decision makers’ opportunities for photo-ops and virtuous tweets will be reduced, but that’s a price the rest of us should enjoy paying.
Kilian Foley-Walsh is a writer, and the former President of Young Fine Gael