Opinion Columnists

Tuesday 19 November 2019

We need a proper debate on the future of Ireland's security and defence policy

Ireland should actively participate in the emerging European Defence Union, writes Brian Hayes

Under-funded: Our defence forces deserve better.
Under-funded: Our defence forces deserve better.

Brian Hayes

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, very recently said that the EU has moved more in 10 months than in the last 10 years on security and defence cooperation. Yet because of Ireland's so-called policy of neutrality, we have largely remained on the sidelines of this ongoing EU debate.

Irish neutrality is not some tablet of stone or some policy position hewn out of Irish rock that can never be debated or never changed.

Like any major issue, Irish politicians must be able to reflect the international and European debate that is currently taking place. Pretending to the Irish public that we are masters of our own destiny when it comes to providing security to the Irish people is utterly delusional.

Whether we like it or not, the issue of integrating European security and defence systems is on the agenda. Pesco, which the Government signed up to last year, is a good start but is a project-based plan. Many want to go further by putting in place a deeper European Defence Union - a key priority for the EU into the future.

Do I think that will lead to the creation of a European army? Absolutely not.

Can we be forced to do something or commit troops to some mission that we don't want to do? Absolutely not. However, Ireland, as one of the most successful small countries in the EU, a country transformed because by EU membership, must be aware of other countries' concerns. It would be bad politics to do otherwise.

The new threats that face Europe are as much threats that face Ireland also. The new forms of extreme Islamic terrorism, cyber security, international crime and human trafficking represent threats that all Europeans want to confront. Modern military and security engagement is not about troops going on to the battlefield. Today's threats are less visible and less predictable.

That is why the four Fine Gael MEPs last week published a position paper entitled Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home, which calls for closer cooperation with our European partners on security and defence matters.

This paper provides the blueprint for Ireland to go beyond Pesco, to move past our historic under-investment in Defence Forces infrastructure and to take practical and mature decisions to provide the best security for Irish people.

We are proposing 10 policy recommendations that align us closer to our EU partners on security issues. We believe that Ireland should actively participate in the emerging European Defence Union; we think that a serious re-evaluation of our policy of neutrality is needed and we believe that the Triple Lock System is not fit for purpose and should be amended.

Irish spending on defence is the lowest in the EU, at 0.3pc of GDP, according to the World Bank.

Our position paper argues that defence spending needs to increase significantly, not only to improve our security capabilities but also to enhance the pay and conditions for our Defence Forces.

EU member states want to know our position. They want our view. Too often in the past, we have followed the debate and refused to take a leading role.

We as MEPs are useless to the Irish people if we cannot be frank about this issue. Representing Ireland in the European Parliament is an extraordinary honour. However, that representation must be able to match our rights as EU citizens with our responsibility as EU citizens. I believe passionately that if we involve ourselves more in the emerging EU security and defence landscape, it will not only help our own security needs at home but will also help Ireland to stand firm on the real red lines for Irish negotiators in Brussels.

In recent years, we have become known as one of the 'Doctor No's' of EU politics. We have secured so many opt-outs and we have battled against some major EU reforms. By cooperating more on security and defence issues, we can hold firm on our priority areas like tax and FDI policy.

I welcome what the Taoiseach said recently on paying more into the EU budget. That is the type of solidarity that wins people over and more importantly puts Ireland in much greater control of the EU budget.

A policy of developing our security and defence interests, similar to what Sweden and Finland have done in recent years, will make it easier for us to be part of the core of EU decision-making and EU design.

Our Defence Forces deserve the best. We don't spend nearly enough on them or on the capital infrastructure that they must work with. For 40 years, they held the line against armed thugs and paramilitary criminals - providing support and assistance to An Garda Siochana.

Their professionalism and discipline, especially in the area of humanitarian and peacekeeping international efforts, is something that can be built upon in the years to come.

The four Fine Gael MEPs want a proper national debate on these issues. Our position paper is intended to spark a discussion and to get people talking about these issues. We invite everyone to bring their views to the table. Whatever people believe, we can no longer keep our heads down and remain silent on security and defence as new global threats intensify.

Brian Hayes is the Fine Gael MEP for Dublin

Sunday Independent

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