Is Ireland in danger of becoming a de facto British protectorate?

Deals with the British and EU to protect our seaboard mean we are no longer truly neutral, but we can’t fight for ourselves either, writes Defence Correspondent Sean O’Riordan
Is Ireland in danger of becoming a de facto British protectorate?

A few years ago it was revealed that the Irish government had reached a secret agreement with Britain that the RAF (Royal Air Force) would protect Irish skies as we didn’t have any fighter jets to do the job. Picture: File photo

Is Ireland becoming a type of British protectorate, and can we keep pretending we are neutral when experts here and in other nations must think it’s patently obvious we are not?

These are questions the Irish public will have to mull over in the months ahead, because, whether we like it or not, where we officially stand, or who we side with has been brought glaringly into the spotlight by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When Britain had the largest empire in the world, it conquered many countries and ruled them directly itself — us included. However, there were a few, for logistical and political reasons, that it had a big brother-type relationship with.

These were known as rotectorates. The difference was that their local rulers still retained absolute control, allegedly, of the day-to-day running of their countries and were given guarantees that they would be protected by the British forces, then the most powerful in the world.

However, the deal was that Britain then represented these countries’ interests diplomatically on the international arena. Such countries at one time or another included the likes of Barbados, Aden, the Maldives, Kenya, Malta and Cyprus.

A few years ago it was revealed that the Government had reached a secret agreement with Britain that the Royal Air Force (RAF) would protect Irish skies, as we didn’t have any fighter jets to do the job.

Nice of big brother next door to do this for us, but then again there was some self-preservation involved on the British side.

After 9/11, it became apparent that terrorists would and could hijack commercial airlines to carry out attacks. The likelihood of them hijacking a Europe-bound commercial airliner over the Atlantic and crashing it into Croke Park or Leinster House was minute, if non-existent.

More likely a target would be Downing Street or Buckingham Palace.

The British knew we didn’t have the fighters to intercept and shoot hijacked planes out of the sky. They therefore offered to protect our skies in a deal from which the Defence Forces were excluded, even though the RAF asked for their input. This lack of consultation between the Government and its own military baffled the RAF. It also baffled the Defence Forces and questions are still being asked today about their exclusion from the talks.

Now, it has emerged that the British navy is planning to launch a ship or ships with the capability to monitor threats off the Irish coast to data information cables running under the Atlantic which connect North America with Europe.

These cables have global economic significance, transmitting millions of messages between banks, businesses, and ordinary people each day. Cutting them would lead to international chaos.

Russian ship Yantar was anchored over those cables off our western coast for some period of time last August.

It is believed that ship is equipped with submersibles which could dive down to the cables.

Sources within the naval service have expressed concern that the Russians could have laid charges along parts of them, which in the event of an all-out war, or something leading up to it, could be detonated from the sky by Tupolov Tu-142 Bear bombers, which frequently fly exercises off our coast.

The naval service wanted multi-beam echo sonar to monitor the seabed cables, but to date no information has come from our government about if this equipment might be supplied.

News that the British navy is preparing to monitor the cables might well scupper any plans for our naval service to get sonar.

Tass, the official Russian news agency, recently said its country’s navy regarded five different areas in the world as strategically important and one of them is 200 miles off the coast of Cork, where some of the cables are.

The Bears are Soviet-era nuclear bombers. They are slow and cumbersome, but still very menacing and cause panic among Nato countries when they go on exercises in Westerns Europe. The RAF regularly gets involved in cat and mouse ‘shadowing’ wargames with them. Our country’s impotence in the face of the Bears was brought starkly into the international spotlight in 2015 when they flew a couple of ‘cloaked’ missions down our western coast.

They were shadowed by RAF fighters, but commercial aircraft were unaware of the bombers’ presence in the skies off our coast because their transponders were off.

However, air traffic controllers here were able to monitor the Russians flight path because the bombers emit a little ‘sqwark’ which can be faintly picked up on their radar.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) was so concerned that the bombers were crossing the busiest flight path in the world — between North America and Europe — that they ordered many commercial aircraft to divert in mid-flight and advised others to remain grounded until the Russians had moved out of the danger zone.

The Irish air corps’ planes don’t have the speed or the ceiling (height attainment) to shadow the ageing Bears. Yet another reason the British want to monitor our skies.

Days prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russians informed the authorities here — knowing full well it would become public knowledge — that they intended to hold a naval exercise off our south-west coast, in an area directly over the transatlantic cables. While they’re located in the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ), warships from foreign nations are entitled to carry out patrols there, including live-firing exercises and they regularly do so.

However, the timing of the Russian exercise caused international consternation. The Irish fishing fleet threatened to go out and meet them head on. The Russians ‘gracefully’ withdrew. The fishermen declared a diplomatic coup. No doubt the Russians were grinning from ear to ear as they’d showed how vulnerable the West was to Ireland’s military incapabilities and not a shot had been fired in anger.

Representatives of the Irish fishing industry Brendan Byrne, CEO of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, and Patrick Murphy, CEO Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation hold a Fisheries Management Chart outside the Russian embassy in Dublin in January, ahead of a meeting with the Russian ambassador amid an ongoing row about navy exercises off the coast. Picture: Brian Lawless
Representatives of the Irish fishing industry Brendan Byrne, CEO of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, and Patrick Murphy, CEO Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation hold a Fisheries Management Chart outside the Russian embassy in Dublin in January, ahead of a meeting with the Russian ambassador amid an ongoing row about navy exercises off the coast. Picture: Brian Lawless

After the furore, the Russians simply moved further afield, outside our EEZ, but still sitting over the cables. In other words: “We know they’re there and you know what we might do to them, because the country nearest is incapable of stopping us.”

Now the British navy is planning to cover the gap created by our incapabilities. Has this also come into the public domain, probably deliberately, to tie in Ireland to the Western powers yet again?

A further question has to be asked. US, British, and French nuclear submarines regularly pass off our western coast on surveillance duties and routine exercises, shadowing the Russian subs and vice versa. Are the Western superpowers not monitoring any potential Russian threats to the subsea cable? It would seem highly unlikely that nuclear submarines aren’t equipped with technology to sweep the seabed for potential issues, especially over such a vitally important piece of infrastructure. It is even more unlikely that they haven’t ratcheted up such missions following the Russian naval exercise and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Therefore, why would the British navy put into the public domain that they’re to use surface vessels to carry out such monitoring? Why also is the US tying us into its military sphere with troop-carrying planes which regularly land in Shannon for stop-overs, although they have the capabilities to over-fly us into their bases in Europe?

Is it further evidence of trying to tie this country even more into the Western alliance, be it Nato or a European military force?

The reality is that we can’t defend ourselves against an outside aggressor for very long, even in a conventional war, because we have run down the Defence Forces to such an extent that they have neither the manpower nor the firepower.

It’s through no fault of the Defence Forces, who are among the most highly trained and respected military forces in the world and who have won accolades for their peacekeeping duties around the globe.

Not so long ago, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) defeated other special forces in a competition which the US lost for the first time on home soil.

However, the Defence Forces are paid such a pittance that many experienced personnel have voted with their feet and got jobs elsewhere. So you pay for what you get — an army which is so stretched it can barely maintain its home and overseas commitments, a naval service which has ships tied up because it can’t crew them and an air corps which would be envious of some of the planes Third World countries possess.

If we are allowing the British to increasingly watch our backs like their old empire protectorates then what are they getting in return? Have there been any other secret deals that we don’t know about while our Government continues to harp on that we are neutral and the only way that can be changed is by a referendum?

The strict definition of neutrality is contained in the terms of the 1907 Hague Convention. It says that, to call yourself neutral, you are obliged to be able to defend that neutrality. So if we are increasingly relying on Britain to do that how can we claim to be neutral? Also under the Hague Convention, you must not support any of the combatants in a war. We didn’t do this during the Second World War and we are not doing it now with Russia against Ukraine.

And please don’t get me wrong. I am no apologist for Putin and what he has done. Any decent person, and I’m sure there are many in Russia who are afraid to speak up, watch daily how he’s trying to bully a smaller nation into submission with countless and needless deaths of innocent people.

It wasn’t that long ago that our neighbour was oppressing us. Now it’s our protector, because we took our eye off the ball and effectively surrendered our neutrality by penny-pinching on our own defence.

It’s just a few days until we commemorate the centenary of the death of a man who is widely credited with showing small nations that they could stand up and fight for themselves.

Michael Collins led the most successful intelligence campaign ever mounted against the British empire. How would he, as the first Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, react to what’s happened to Ireland’s inability to defend itself today?

In the Soviet era, Russian children learnt about Ireland’s successful fight for freedom, primarily because it suited the Russians to point out the woeful things a big bully imperialist had done to a smaller country. They don’t seem to adopt the same philosophy about the Ukraine situation for some reason.

Today’s young Russians probably know very little about our history and those with a poor education are likely to still connect us with being part of the UK, because Northern Ireland is and they don’t differentiate between the two states on this island.

The people who lead the new Russian generation and their allies in Putin-supporting states have little doubt about our country’s allegiances.

Even before the attack on Ukraine, they had probably aligned us, in their own minds, as being pro-Nato/European Defence Force.

But the Russians have recently included us on their list of what they feel are ‘unfriendly countries’ lumping us in with the rest of the EU member states and the US, Britain, Japan, and South Korea.

So now there’s no doubt where we stand with them. The issue is where we stand with ourselves.

Independent senator Gerard Craughwell, who has served in both the Irish and British armies, said it’s time for an honest debate on neutrality.

“It must be based on fact and not some romantic notion of our role in international affairs,” he said.

Some commentators talk about how neutrality is enshrined in our Constitution, but I challenge anyone to point me to where it is. Some believe it is enshrined in legislation but here again there is no such legislation. The truth is Ireland in not neutral now nor has it ever been. 

"At best we can describe Ireland as non-aligned, but here again as a nation, we have never moved to join the non-aligned group of some 120 nations.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs sets out a definition of neutrality as follows in ‘Challenges and Opportunities Abroad’; Ireland’s White Paper on Foreign Policy 1995 International Security; Chapter Four, Paragraph 4.5’: “In the strict sense of international law and practice, neutrality and its attendant rights and duties do not exist in peacetime; they arise only during a state of war. Neutrality represents an attitude of impartiality adopted by a state towards the participants in a conflict and recognised as such by the belligerents. Such an attitude creates certain rights and duties between the neutral state and the belligerents which commence at the outbreak of war and end with its cessation.”

Mr Craughwell insists Ireland has failed to meet this definition.

“The only time that Ireland’s neutrality has been tested was between 1939 and 1945 and we failed miserably,” he said. “We provided safe passage for Allied forces to cross the border with Northern Ireland, safe flight pathways across Donegal for aircraft and we provided intelligence to the Allies. Overall, we were fully on the side of the Allies in all but the battlefields.”

Indeed he is right. When a German bomber landed in Ireland towards the end of the war the government handed it over to the British because they wanted to see some of the technology the Germans had developed.

Germans were interned in The Curragh, although it has to be said they were let out to dances, albeit constantly supervised. When a US bomber crash-landed due to engine problems at a marsh near Clonakilty, Co Cork, its crew were put up in a local hotel and allowed to go where they pleased, mainly to local pubs and they were treated like celebrities.

The Irish army was instructed by the government to help repair the plane and build a runway so it could take off again. The original crew were eventually dropped off at the border and a replacement US crew was allowed to fly the aircraft out.

“Modern so-called neutral Ireland is unable to defend its airspace, has insufficient resources to patrol its seas and remains vulnerable to cyber-attacks,” said Mr Craughwell.

“We depend on a secret deal with the UK Government signed in Dublin by unknown persons which provided for the RAF to intercept aircraft that may be a threat. The EU has often provided ships to patrol our seas for fishery protection which in an international embarrassment. 

We are so lacking in defence capability now that the UK has decided to build a ship to monitor cables passing through our EEZ.

“We are a so-called neutral state, but talk is cheap. Unless or until we are in a position to defend our vital resources at sea, on land and in the air we should defer any discussion on neutrality. I believe there needs to be a national conversation on neutrality before a citizens assembly. We need to understand exactly what we want for our country.”

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