Ben Tonra, Professor of International Relations, UCD School of Politics and International Relations


In view of the contemporary security environment, protecting EU citizens and European democracies is an urgent strategic priority. It is also clear that the security of Member States and citizens is deeply interconnected – to such an extent that no EU Member State can effectively meet today’s threats in isolation.

Now that’s a pretty big standard statement – a piece of boilerplate that, in one form or another, appears in most official speeches and documents. Is it true? Is it thought to be true in this room, in this county, in this country? I have my doubts – and this is something I want to pursue in this presentation.

Certainly the security threats are real; we see them on a daily basis:

  • Terrorism – five major attacks in recent months (Manchester. London)
  • cyber and hybrid threats by state and non-state actors – three major attacks over the same period, NHS etc
  • illicit trafficking and smuggling (thousands of refugees drowning annually in the Mediterranean)
  • attempted subversion of elections in France – and now Germany
  • proliferation of weapons – from the weapons that feed local and regional conflicts around the world to the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons
  • Regional instability – to Europe’s east and south
  • We’ve also seen a European state invaded, part of it occupied and part of it annexed.

We know too that these threats cannot easily be parcelled out between internal security and external security; between the jobs that the Gardai undertake and the jobs that the Defence forces undertake. Security is clearly indivisible – its starts overseas but it lives at home.

Furthermore, Europe’s external security environment has deteriorated in recent years – and is getting worse. Europe’s capacity to meet these challenges has been undermined from within;

  • Brexit inevitably entails a substantial loss of capacity from common European security efforts.
  • The rise of illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary undermines European values, undermines European credibility and undermines European solidarity.
  • The strength of political extremism elsewhere in Europe (watch the trend not the events) poisons our politics in responding to humanitarian and security crises.

The European Union offers us a democratic framework to deal with all these shared threats. This covers both the agenda of Sir Julian outlined here this afternoon, as well as that of his colleague Federica Mogherini as the Union’s foreign policy chief.

Over the last year – kicking off from the Brexit referendum result, developments in the security and defence field have accelerated almost exponentially. The level of ambition has been significantly raised, member states are agreeing on new structures, and – critically – there is new money on the table (€500m annually). All of this is directed towards a profound deepening of defence cooperation and even defence integration in some areas – even as it falls short of any shared defense of European borders such as that provided by NATO.

But is any of this our problem?

That’s not a rhetorical question.

Where stands Ireland?

To my mind our commitment to European security is compromised and tentative. I don’t even know sometimes that we take it all that seriously – most especially in terms of money. Rhetoric on security comes easily – resources? ­– ,not so much. To apply Winston Churchill to Ireland and European security “We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed” (Churchill, 1930)

Why is this?

First and foremost there is distance; geographic and strategic. That’s fair. We are an island far away from the centres of instability, tension and danger – and thank God for that. I like to point out to my overseas graduate students that Ireland suffered for 800 years by virtue of its geography – and has only benefitted from that same geography for the last 70 or so years.

We are entitled to be grateful for this strategic irrelevance – but should we be quite so smug about it?

I use that word deliberately – smug. “having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements”, synonyms: self-satisfied, complacent, self-congratulatory, superior, puffed up, pleased with oneself, self-approving, well pleased, proud of oneself;

It’s this smugness that I think creates a more insidious psychological distance from European security threats.

Think for a moment of some of the reactions we have seen to terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe: sympathy for innocent victims certainly – but then almost immediately drawing linkages between any particular terrorist attack and the foreign policy of the European country concerned; their history of colonialism, their position on the Middle East conflict, their role in the Iraq war – it’s almost as though the victims had been caught in an understandable crossfire between terrorists and European governments.

The corollary of this argument – the less ugly face of this argument – is the one that insists that because Ireland is not a member of NATO, because Ireland is critical of Israel, because we’re small and/or ‘good guys’, the prospects of attack are limited – ‘sure, why would they attack us?’

It’s as if we weren’t a global centre for social media and data storage, as if we didn’t rely on critical IT and energy infrastructures, as if we didn’t host the HQs of high profile global multi-national companies, as if we didn’t rely on access to global markets, as if we didn’t value the integrity of our democracy or the freedom of our teenagers to attend a concert without fear.

But the further development of this argument is that we need to keep our heads down, we shouldn’t work with European and other partners in terms of security because this will draw attention to us – might even make us a target.

This distance; geographic, strategic and psychological; generate Irish attitudes towards European security and defence that are almost wholly negative. It is a cost – even a penalty of our engagement in Europe. It is a bill we reluctantly pay in return for markets and money. It’s a case of how little a contribution to security and defence we can get away with before ‘they’ notice and it becomes a problem. I’ve used this argument myself – we saw it last week in the short debate on Irish engagement in the EU’s Operation Sophia.

Domestically, Ireland’s engagement in European security is something to be hidden at best, to be minimized at least and in some political quarters it is perhaps even something to be avoided at all costs.

I recall pressing a former Defence Minister – back in the old days when we had a Defence minister who actually sat at the cabinet table – as to why he was unwilling to have a substantive debate on some of these issues. His reply; that he didn’t make a practice of ‘kicking sleeping dogs’ was both honest and depressing.

As this summer school is highlighting, many are arguing that we are at something of a turning point in Europe. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union leaves us dangerously exposed on several fronts; I would include the pursuit of security in that list. Ireland’s hesitancy, our ambivalence towards security and defence may no longer be sustainable – hard choices are coming into view. It may be useful for us to discuss whether we think security matters – and if it does – what we are going to do about it – if anything.




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