Thursday 17 October 2019

Dorcha Lee: 'A truly hard Border would need a Trump-style wall'

Checkpoint: An Irish Army soldier at a Border checkpoint, set up to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, back in 2001. Photo:
Checkpoint: An Irish Army soldier at a Border checkpoint, set up to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, back in 2001. Photo:

Dorcha Lee

For those of us veterans who served along the Border, particularly in the 1970s, it comes as a shock to see once familiar, but almost forgotten, place-names re-emerge in the news.

Long confined to the freaky tourist trail, the Louth Border townlands of Omeath, Flagstaff and Hackballscross are, like Churchill's dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, back to haunt us. It's like déjà vu all over again.

Of course, the context is Brexit, or rather the security implications of a hard Border.

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So far, the Government's main preparations for the security consequences of Brexit have been limited to reinforcing the Garda presence along the Border. This modest reinforcement is already producing results, with the recent discovery of arms and ammunition in Co Louth.

On February 1, 1,000 rounds of ammunition were found in Omeath in the Cooley Peninsula area, and on February 28, a more significant haul was made along the Omeath to Flagstaff road.

The find near Flagstaff contained a Steyr assault rifle, and a small quantity of Semtex explosive. The Austrian-built Steyr rifle, which is also the main assault rifle of the Irish Defence Forces, has optical sights. These sights magnify the target, making it virtually impossible to miss, even from 300 metres. The haul also included a small sample of Semtex, the near perfect explosive material for terrorist operations. Both arms dumps are recent and are believed to be part of preparations made by a dissident IRA group planning for post-Brexit operations. It is difficult to say if they represent the tip of the iceberg or are just one-off finds. It is also not known if the finds were accidental or as a result of information received.

Garda reinforcements to the Border include an Armed Response Unit, to be located in Cavan. In the past, the Garda, largely an unarmed police force, relied on the Army for armed protection. It seems this time the initial response will be confined to gardaí, and the operational decisions will be taken by the Garda Commissioner. It is normal procedure that these decisions will be influenced by current assessments of the risk posed by the dissident groups. If, or when, it might be considered necessary, the Army can be called in to support gardaí, under the 'aid to the civil power' provision.

In considering the threat to security caused by a hard Brexit, we need to fully understand the context. Talk of a 'hard' Border is a misnomer. Former deputy chief of military intelligence Lt Col Michael Murphy has defined three levels of security which apply to borders in general. These are uncontrolled borders, controlled borders and hard borders. What we have at present is an uncontrolled border, with total freedom of movement. A controlled border, however, would be somewhat like the situation we had before. It was focused mainly on controlling vehicular movement at designated crossing points, with light surveillance on cross-Border foot movement.

A real hard Border would involve the use of active and passive measures to prevent all unauthorised movements across the Border. This could include passive measures such as the closure of some crossing points, the construction of Trump-style walls along the Border, or possibly fencing off the Border with electrified wire. It could involve the flood-lighting of the entire Border, backed up with regular patrols of troops or gardaí. Some form of an air exclusion zone would be necessary, as would a naval presence offshore.

In the event of a hard Brexit, military and police chiefs have pointed out the vulnerability of soft targets along the Border to terrorist attacks. The static, lightly manned UK customs posts are obvious examples of soft targets for dissident IRA factions. The fact they would be on the Northern side does not get us off the hook. If the attacks originate from our side, the responsibility will be with our security forces to stop them. In an extreme scenario, dissident loyalists might retaliate against our customs posts.

At this stage, our political leaders are reluctant to spell out the full range of responses that might be necessary. The hope is that a soft Brexit will emerge, and that the security problems envisaged will not arise. However, it is always best to prepare for the worst-case scenario

Moreover, the presence of a hard Border alone is unlikely to be the catalyst for a breakdown in security. The biggest threat to security remains the ongoing failure to get a devolved government restored in the North. London and Dublin should not wait for the roller-coaster of Brexit to stop to get Stormont up and going again.

In the meantime, the Brexit show is still running at a cinema near you. The audience remain gripped in suspense, not knowing if they are watching a horror movie or a musical with a happy ending. It's all bordering on the ridiculous.

Dorcha Lee is a retired Army colonel and a commentator on defence issues

Irish Independent

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