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Intelligence in Ireland ‘stopped with Michael Collins’ says terrorism academic
Pic: RollingNews.ie

27 Feb 2020 / ireland Print

Intelligence here ‘stopped with Michael Collins’ says terrorism academic

In the 21st century, sovereignty will be measured largely in terms of data and who can secure it, Dr Ed Burke said at the Slándáil security conference in Dublin this week.

“Intelligence as a public good in this country stopped with Michael Collins,” he said.

There was a subtle sense that Ireland could somehow be exempt from world events and that intelligence was for other people, said the University of Nottingham terrorism and insurgency specialist.


“We need a ‘public good’ conversation about why it is important that the State secures us from threats,” he said.

Intelligence is a measure of sovereignty, he said, and Ireland also has an obligation to other states not to allow extremism to be peddled here.

“We need to be really frank about acknowledging how much water the UK carries for Ireland’s security. It’s substantial in terms of intelligence, air space and maritime,” he said.

Dr Burke said this is a reflection of a very good relationship with the UK – a key ally in terms of security. 


While Brexit is painful for the two islands, Ireland also needs to exercise more sovereignty as well, he said.

Post-Brexit, there will be difficult diplomatic questions of what information Ireland can share, once the UK falls out of the Schengen SIS II database.

“Ireland doesn’t want to be seen as giving the UK advantages that it has already lost because of the Brexit process,” he pointed out.

On the other hand, the security of the common travel area needs to be balanced because we share these islands.

He said shared air policing of the island of Ireland would be politically controversial, since RAF Typhoons already dealt with Russian incursions into Irish airspace in 2017.

Air defence is far too expensive for small countries and generally done on a regional basis.

“Our region is Britain and Ireland,” he said.

“I would prefer to be a partner in the room, rather than a dependent," he said.


Extradition agreements will also be on the radar, he predicted.

“We should begin to treat the UK as a normal state,” he said.

A Department of Foreign Affairs official speaking from the floor said that she wanted to correct the record that Ireland does not exercise sovereignty over its air space.

“It is not the case that Ireland has an agreement with the UK to defend our air space or our sea space,” she said.

Dr Burke responded that he had not said it was a formal arrangement but an ad hoc one, and that there was a persistent pattern of the Air Corps lacking the capacity to defend our air space at high altitude.

“I never said there was a formal agreement or treaty,” he said.


Ireland also runs the risk of other nations taking measures to protect their data-rich assets from being targeted in this country, given the HQ presence of numerous multinational tech companies in Ireland.

National security needs to be considered in terms of 21st century cyber threats and the state’s security needs to be rebooted in terms of investing in this capacity, Dr Burke said.

Cyber attacks can wreck an economy, the conference heard, and are currently the number one threat to this state.

Non-traditional threats such as meddling in elections can also ruin trusted institutions and pull apart differences in national identity.


A national security strategy could help to articulate a vision of what a nation is trying to accomplish, that everyone can get behind, the conference heard.

“We are very reliant upon our larger friends to tell us exactly what’s going on in terms of our own security,” Dr Burke said.

It would be preferable to have our own analysis, and Ireland needs to invest in its counter-intelligence capabilities he suggested, since other states will have their own interests and can be selective in how they pass on information.

Category one attack

GCHQ has predicted a category one cyber attack, likely linked to state intelligence services, within the next three or four years, he said.

“The obvious risk of contagion from the UK is clear, and very hard to contain,” he said.

Other rogue states’ intelligences services are increasingly stealing intellectual property, he said, and there is a strong case for investment in signals intelligence.

The regulation and protection of artificial intelligence will be a huge challenge for the state he predicted.

“Ireland is proudly a global hub with many US multinationals here,” he said.

Common travel area

Dr Burke said that security in the common travel area will become complicated, since the UK will no longer has access to the Schengen Information System, which Ireland has now, belatedly, joined.

EU data laws will prevent Ireland from sharing information with the UK, post-Brexit.

Dr Burke’s view is that mechanisms are needed for the CTA that allow Ireland to deal with the vast flows of information that the UK is going to need, and won’t get anymore.

Former Irish ambassador to the UK Bobby McDonagh said “Ireland is part of the European Union.

"It is not and will not be part of the UK.

Pulled apart 

“Brexit has pulled us apart from the UK, not just because of the UK’s departure but also because it is increasingly clear that we think differently about the world.

“The recent statements from the Johnson government about Brexit imply a backing away from multilateralism.

“Quite extraordinarily, [Boris Johnson] has banned people from even talking about a partnership with the EU. It’s very hard to deal with that sort of irrationality,” he said.

“Sovereignty is driving everything in the UK at the moment … for us, sovereignty is something to be deployed in the interests of a country rather than something to be buried in the back garden.

“We know that the best way for European countries to go global is by being part of the EU.”

Expanded embassies

He pointed out that since Brexit began, Ireland has expanded its embassies in Paris and Berlin, Rome and Madrid as it seeks to redouble the development of external relationships.

However, McDonagh said that history, geography and friendship will require us to find ways of continuing to work with the UK, despite their choices.

He described the Queen’s visit in 2011 as one of the greatest acts of reconciliation in the whole world, given the history of our two countries.

Deep irrationality

However, he said there is a deep irrationality about Brexit.

“At the heart of it is an intellectual void, created by the rejection of expertise.”

Bobby McDonagh said that our history and geography has allowed us to stand back from the security debate up until now.

We have to recognize the existence of Putin, what China is up to, and the instability of north Africa, he said, and that security concerns are now broad and evolving threats in terms of data, cyber-crime and climate change.

“We should stimulate, organize and encourage public debate.

"The public is a powerful thing and we should not presume or pre-judge that public debate, or get out ahead of it, or condescend to it," he said.

(Copyright: Law Society Gazette ©. Please attribute the Law Society Gazette or Gazette.ie)


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