There appear to be few doubts about the involvement of Islamic State (IS) in the Easter attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Some of the terrorists had been in Syria and Turkey; the materials in the bombs resembled those preferred by IS for mass killings; and the targets were Christian worshippers and hotels favoured by Western holidaymakers.
Perhaps it was a sickening answer to the mosque murders in New Zealand and, also very likely, IS telling us that although it has lost the hell-on-Earth that was its caliphate, it retains its determination and ability to strike at targets thousands of miles from the Middle East. Despite warnings, Sri Lanka — a soft target — was clearly unprepared for such an attack. Can the same be said of our country?
Comforting answers to that question are hard to come by this week. Senior military people, both in active service and retired, are never slow to complain about shortages of people and kit, but that does not always mean they are crying wolf.
A retired lieutenant colonel recently told a rally of Defence Force wives and partners that the service is broken and in crisis, with morale at an all-time low because it is “overlooked and undervalued, overworked, underpaid, over-stretched, and undermanned”.
His assessment was echoed by a retired brigadier general who reported the current strength of the service at a “dysfunctional” 8,400 persons, 1,100 south of the minimum needed to deliver what it is expected of it.
“Pay and conditions for serving personnel are simply not defendable. Families are living in genuine poverty. Some 30% of serving personnel qualify to draw social welfare Family Income Supplement,” he said.
The third alarm was raised by a security specialist — formerly with the Irish Naval Service — who was in Sri Lanka when IS struck. His judgment is that Ireland is a target for extremists, and that the country is not prepared.
“Our families are vulnerable,” he said, “Our State leaders are not prepared, and we have no effective response due to a decimated Defence Force.
To this chronicle of security alerts must be added the revelation that so far this year more than 50 data breaches have been reported by the Passport Service.
Attributable in most cases to staff errors, with passports being mailed to the wrong addresses, that level of malfunction isn’t at first sight concerning, given that few if any of us are very far from error and that the Passport Service handles more than 800,000 applications annually. But just one passport in the wrong hands could pose a threat to our security.
The instincts that had the Government sending more than 1,690 military personnel on 14 United Nations peace-keeping missions in 2018 are noble and unquestionable, but the prime responsibility of a Government is to maintain the security of its homeland. It cannot go on pretending that the Defence Force can perform adequately here and abroad without a serious policy to reverse early-retirement trends and improve recruitment and retention numbers.