Sean O’Riordan examines how the government is willing to turn a blind eye to some incursions into our territory by other nations but finds others to be unacceptable
WE LIKE to claim we’re neutral, but the reality is far different.
The Americans use Shannon as a base for shipping troops to fight in Afghanistan, the RAF protects our skies and we make belligerent noises when Russian military aircraft enter our airspace — but our silence is deafening when anyone else does.
It’s not just recently that we adopted a behind the scenes bias. During the Second World War, then taoiseach Éamon DeValera ensured that all German military personnel found in Ireland were sent to a detention camp. However, Allied aircrews who crash-landed here were quietly sent across the border to fight another day.
While the British were grateful for that, they were sore that DeValera didn’t enter the war on their side and Churchill saw red when the taoiseach offered his sympathy to the German people after Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker in 1945.
In the intervening years, Ireland has managed to largely keep its head down when it came to been seen to be on one side or the other.
In fact, the role of the army in UN operations in the Congo, Lebanon, etc portrayed us as a neutral and friendly nation which just wanted to stop other countries kicking the crap out of each other.
Eyes were then raised when the US, a long-standing good friend, decided it needed to use Shannon as a base to transit its troops to the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely this was a significant shift away from neutrality?
The power of the US dollar and the Irish diaspora there must have had a significant bearing on the Irish government’s decision to allow the Yanks to use the airport as a base.
Exactly what passes through there remains a well-guarded secret and while some groups continue to protest about it the public seems largely not to care.
Then there’s our nearest neighbour with whom relations have never been better.
In fact, they’re so good that a few years ago the Government decided to enter into a secret deal with the British which has only recently emerged.
Last August, this newspaper revealed that British fighter jets would shoot down aircraft in Irish airspace if they are hijacked by terrorists for a 9/11-style attack.
Civil servants from the Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs, together 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 Defence Forces were not consulted on the matter, despite the RAF saying they should have been.
The agreement allows the RAF 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.
It suits both sides.
There’d been a major clamour for the upgrading of the Air Corps after it emerged they hadn’t the capability to even shadow aging Russian Bear bombers which were straying into our area of control while invisible to radar.
The Soviet-era bombers could fly faster and higher than anything the Air Corps had.
A shortage of pilots, aging planes and no jet fighters meant we couldn’t prevent incursions by the Russians, or anyone else for that matter.
It was little wonder that then minister for defence Simon Coveney didn’t see the need to buy jet fighters. Why would he as the British were there in case anything serious developed in our skies.
And the British weren’t just doing this to give a friend a dig-out.
The advent of fanatical Islamic State terrorists make another 9/11 type a very real possibility.
If an aircraft was hijacked in Irish airspace it could be crashed into the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace or elsewhere.
The British would need to intercept it before such a catastrophe took place and although we have surface-to-air missiles, by the time we’ve deployed them the hijacked aircraft will probably be out of range.
Then there’s the Russians.
The RAF has been playing cat and mouse with Russian bombers around the North Atlantic for the past few years as tensions between the two countries have increased.
On two occasions in 2015 Russian TU-95 Bear bombers attempting to shake-off the pursuing RAF jets flew down the west and southern coast of Ireland.
On the first occasion they entered into our area of airspace control, but didn’t enter our sovereign airspace.
The problem was that they were flying with their transponders off, so they were not identifiable on other aircraft radar.
The fact that they flew cloaked through one of the busiest air lanes in the world caused considerable alarm as they could have crashed into a passenger aircraft.
The Government was highly miffed and told the Russians in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable.
This threat from a nation which didn’t have any jets to shadow the Bears wasn’t about to cause Vladimir Putin and his colleagues any sleepless nights.
So just a few weeks later it happened again.
The Irish Aviation Authority this time let it be known that the bold Ruskies’ intrusion into our area of control had led to the grounding and diversion of commercial jets to prevent a mid-air collision.
However, the IAA then refused to say how many such incidents occurred in recent years and if other superpowers such as the Britain and America had been involved in cloaked flights over our skies.
One could deduce from that we lean in a certain direction.
Any shift from the purely humanitarian approach to saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea to a more aggressive mission will require Cabinet and Dáil approval, according to the Department of Defence.
It seems strange that the same department has repeatedly refused to comment on the deal with the RAF and there was no sanctioning of that by the Dáil.
It doesn’t make sense that the Naval Service is operating outside of the EUNAVFOR mission, especially as 25 other EU states are in it.
EUNAVFOR is taking a more robust approach to people-smugglers and Islamic State, which is benefitting financially from hapless migrants.
On the other hand there is little doubt that a number of Irish people will worry about the navy possibly coming into conflict with IS and what repercussions that might have for this country.
Every time there is a terrorist outrage in neighbouring countries we sympthaise with their plight and offer solidarity.
Unfortunately, we are not immune to attack either. Some security experts believe it is not a question of if, but when one occurs here.
Islamic State fighters are unlikely to differentiate between so-called neutral Ireland and the British, or other predominantly Christian countries in Western Europe.
Already far more migrants have tried to get to Italy this year than in the comparable period for 2016. If this trend continues it will outstrip all records to date.
So, too, is the unfortunate likelihood that more migrants will end up drowning than ever before.
Security experts argue that the West can’t stand by anymore and allow this slaughter to continue to happen. They have to put boots on the ground in Libya to prevent migrants being jammed into deathtrap vessels.
In the meantime the Naval Service has been operating outside the safety in number of EUNAVFOR in an area which is becoming increasingly volatile.
Islamic State and a host of different militias are fighting for control in Libya. Some are UN-backed and some Russian-backed.
Naval Service personnel are never happier than when they’re saving lives and are genuinely proud of what they’ve done.
It seems likely that the Government will give serious consideration to joining the EU mission.
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