The Department of Defence has refused to comment on claims by a number of Irish Examiner sources that an agreement was reached some years ago between the Irish and British governments about protecting this country’s airspace from terrorist threats.
Five well-placed sources in Ireland and one in Britain have pointed to the agreement being in place, with a number saying the Defence Forces was not involved in negotiating it, despite the RAF asking for its inclusion.
Civil servants from the Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) entered into a bilateral agreement with British counterparts: the RAF, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Ministry for Defence, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The agreement permits the British military to conduct armed operations in Irish sovereign or Irish-controlled airspace in the event of a real time or envisaged threat of a terrorist-related attack from the skies on either this country or a neighbouring state.
The Department of Defence refused to comment on a number of questions posed by the Irish Examiner about the agreement.
It said that primary responsibility for the internal security of the State rests with the Department of Justice and Equality and the gardaí, and that it is the long-standing practice of the department not to make any comment on operational or security matters that may affect the State.
One British source said that if a plane coming from the US was hijacked close to this country “the Irish would expect British help”.
The Air Corps has no jet fighters which would be capable of shooting down commercial jets.
The lack of such firepower was made abundantly clear when it was confirmed that Air Corps planes could not climb high enough or go fast enough to intercept ageing propeller-driven Russian bear bombers which came close to Irish sovereign airspace on a couple of occasions in early 2015.
The Russian bombers were reportedly playing Cold War-style cat-and- mouse games with British fighter aircraft. On one occasion, on February 18, 2015, two of the Tu-95 Russian bombers flew “cloaked” with their transponders turned off, just 40km off the coast.
They criss-crossed into major civilian airline traffic lanes and the IAA was forced to divert commercial jets in midair or else prevent them from taking off to avoid potential collisions.
Earlier this year, then Minister for Defence Simon Coveney published the white paper on defence, which set out a 10-year strategy for the Defence Forces.
Despite there being calls for jets to be purchased for the Air Corps, there was no mention in the white paper of this happening any time soon, even though the threat of 9/11-style hijackings had risen with the emergence of fundamentalist terror group Islamic State, which has carried out several attacks on mainland Europe in the last 12 months.
Instead, the white paper said the Air Corps will continue to operate a range of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
The seven existing Pilatus PC9 aircraft provide a very limited air-to-air and air-to- ground capacity and these are due for replacement in 2025.
The development of a more capable air /intercept capability will be considered as part of the white paper update, the next of which is likely to take place in 2019.
The Air Corps currently provides surveillance capacity primarily through two CASA Maritime Patrol Aircraft and five Cessna aircraft. The CASA 235s are due for replacement in 2019.
The white paper added that should additional funding become available, the development of a radar surveillance capability is a priority for the Air Corps.