Brexit poses an “existential” threat to the security of Ireland and the peace process, a leading Irish academic has warned.
Ben Tonra, Professor of International Relations at UCD, said the immediate and the longer term security threats have not yet been provided for – and said there were “no signs” that the Irish State was prepared to address them.
In a Working Paper, entitled Brexit and Irish Security and Defence, Prof Tonra said the prospect of the UK's withdrawal from the EU posed a “substantial existential challenge” to the Irish state.
He said that of the three goals of Irish security and defence policy, aid to the civil power was where the impact of Brexit was “most stark” (other policy goals being territorial defence and international security operations).
He said the Defence Forces once had eight military barracks along the 499km border, stationing up to 1,500 personnel – but was more recently experiencing an “ongoing personnel crisis” with a “virtual haemorrhage of mid-career offices and NCOs”.
Prof Tonra said a post-Brexit border posed three threats: from organised crime and cross-border smuggling; a renewed paramilitary threat targeting new border infrastructures; and a threat to constitutional security arising from a weakening of the peace process.
In relation to the peace process, he said the Good Friday Agreement was constructed within the context of Ireland and the UK's membership of the EU.
He said Brexit “critically weakens” the right of people of Northern Ireland under the agreement to hold both British and Irish citizenship.
He said Brexit also “cuts across myriad forms of cross-border cooperation” and the rights of citizens, regardless of passports, to access state services and to pursue employment and training.
He said the British and Irish governments had identified 156 specific areas or north-south cooperation underpinned by shared EU membership.
“In the worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit, this entire superstructure is demolished overnight, potentially upending the lives of many thousands of people," Prof Tonra said.
He said the Good Friday Agreement was accompanied by an “entire underpinning structure of human rights protections” and that EU law provided a critical framework sustaining equality provisions, most especially in employment law and non-discrimination rights as enshrined by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Brexit means – by definition – that British citizens lose all of their rights under EU law while Irish citizens in Northern Ireland lose the practical expression of those rights within the territory of the UK.
He said the “critical danger” was that Brexit not only changes the “geographical scope” within which Irish citizens in Northern Ireland can exercise and enjoy their EU citizenship and associated rights (such as voting in European Parliament elections) but that the “divergence” of rights North and South created barriers to those citizens having equal rights and protections with citizens in Northern Ireland who have elected to opt for British citizenship, creating differential treatment and inequality under the law.
“In such a scenario – where the consequences of Brexit were visibly pulling at the threads of the basic constitutional settlement provided under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – the scope for political mischief from minority/extremist political groups would be enormous,” he said.
“Brexit has clear potential to aggravate the root causes of conflict in Ireland and thereby threaten peace and security on the island.”
In relation to a second security and defence policy goal – of national territorial defence - Prof Tonra said that on the face of it, Brexit's impact was “minimal”.
He said Ireland had the lowest defence spending of the EU 27 member states, which translated into “exceptionally limited military capacity”.
He said: “In the absence of any fighter, attack or transport aircraft, combat tanks, heavy artillery or any naval assets beyond eight offshore patrol vessels, Ireland can be said to lack the minimum conventional combat capability necessary to provide for any territorial defence based on credible deterrence.”
Prof Tonra said Ireland had no meaningful air defence apart from a small ground-based air defence system.
“Uniquely in the European Union, Ireland lacks the type of radar system necessary to track and identify aircraft in its airspace that are unwilling or unable to use their transponders,” he said.
Consequently, Ireland has depended on the British RAF through a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding. He said it was understood that as of 2016 there was a formal agreement to “permit RAF identification, pursuit and interdiction of aircraft posing a potential security threat” which had been reportedly utilised twice to intercept Russian bombers 'probing' air defences.
He said a question arose as the whether the MOU provisions “will prove to be politically sustainable” post Brexit.
In terms of international security, he said that the UK’s withdrawal from Europe leaves Ireland “exposed” on several fronts.
He said Ireland’s “hesitancy and ambivalence” towards EU policy on security and defence “may no longer be sustainable” and that “hard choices” were coming into view.
Concluding, Prof Tonra said: “Notwithstanding the shape of any Withdrawal Agreement and the pursuit of a ‘new’ bilateral relationship between the UK and the EU, Ireland’s current security and defence posture is simply unsustainable. The immediate threats of a no-deal Brexit and the medium to longer term security threats posed by any kind of Brexit have yet to be provided for.
“The Irish state faces profound challenges in this regard and there are, as of yet, no signs that it is prepared to address them.”