While the defence debate had been dominated by pay and conditions, we need to identify exactly what it is we want our defence forces to do, he said.
“That will come at a cost,” Ged Nash said.
“We have got lucky and got away with it, since we identified ourselves as a neutral country,” he said.
We haven’t been at risk of conventional military attacks, he said but it’s no longer the traditional nation state that we have to fear.
Nash said that these questions of justice and defence are not purely about security but are a matter for parliamentary democracy oversight.
“It is our national parliament that sets those relationships and not the executive,” he said.
However, he said that in Ireland, jobs and trade currently take precedence and very little attention is paid to defence and security.
Nash said that unless these matters are identified at the front and centre of a programme for government, then very little gets done.
“You don’t see placards or public meetings around air defence capability,” he said.
“There are huge competing interests but in light of Brexit this is a massive challenge,” he said.
'The people are sovereign'
“This is a public conversation we have to have in this Republic. The people are going to have to be involved. We are in a Republic and the people are sovereign,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Niall Buckley said that the defence forces must take a ‘Swiss Army knife’ approach in terms of platforms, given the reality of the cost environment.
Speaking from the floor, former RAF Group Captain Dick Hemsley gave his opinion that defence planning always involves “hard choices”.
A hard-nosed analysis of the core defence interests of the Irish Republic would lead to conclusions about its ability to manifest sovereignty in the maritime domain, air domain and the land border, he said, acknowledging what he called the ‘impertinence’ of making these remarks, as an Englishman.
Ireland should view its commitment to operations under both UN and EU banners with a cold, sceptical eye, he said, given the changing nature of its defence needs.
Defence and international relations academic Dr Ed Burke of the University of Nottingham said the key question post-Brexit, is where is the Irish defence region and whether it extends to the Common Travel Area.
“What do we jointly want to do with the UK, potentially?” he asked.
Potential joint air policing of the whole island of Ireland will have political costs, he said.
“Can we treat the UK as a normal defence partner?
“We need to think about protecting Irish sovereignty,” he said.
“What do we want the UK to do, and not to do, when it comes to co-operation on air defence?” he asked.
He said that as an Irish citizen he didn’t want to feel gratitude to the RAF squadrons who suddenly find themselves rushed to the Western seaboard of Ireland, where they haven’t even trained that often.
This ad hoc reliance has its limitations, he said, and leaves us completely dependent.
Joining defence alliances will have a cost in terms of time and equipment, the seminar heard.
Combat airpower research fellow Justin Bronk cautioned the Irish Defence Forces against emphasising people, and their development potential, as its most important asset, since the current threat comes from Russia which cares very little about its people.
“If the conversation you are having is about deterrents, or any international messaging, quite frankly, stop talking about people being your greatest asset,” he said.
This may be valuable in an internal sense but it sends the message of being terrified of losing people.
“Why are we scared of the Russians? It’s certainly not because they get the best out of their people and treat them well,” he said.
“It’s the opposite. They are willing to lose a large number of them in horrible circumstances, for political gain,” said Bronk.
Major General Ralph James (retired) pointed out that what Ireland does will affect foreign direct investment and companies come here because Ireland is seen to be secure.
“Nobody will come here if we are deemed to be unstable,” he said.
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