If a united Ireland came suddenly and loyalists went on a murderous rampage, what would happen? Based on the current Irish Defence Forces, the insurgents would be faced with something closer to Dad’s Army than the British forces which struggled to contain 30 years of sectarian slaughter.
n many ways, the strength of the Irish Army is a crude barometer of how seriously the Republic takes the possibility of unity. The shambolic state of the Defence Forces reflects the Government’s belief that a united Ireland is not remotely close.
The Air Corps must ask the Royal Air Force to check out anything which looks vaguely dangerous, the Navy has some of its handful of boats tied up in port because it hasn’t enough sailors, and the Army has soldiers quitting faster than they can be recruited.
Last week’s revelations in the report by retired High Court judge Bronagh O’Hanlon help explain the chaos. The report set out a “discernible pattern of rape and sexual assault” which had been covered up; regular drink spiking; grooming of young recruits; extreme bullying; and a culture in which “at best, the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women”.
It’s not quite the image conveyed by Simon Coveney in 2014 when he said: “If there’s one thing the Defence Forces do very well, it’s they stick together, they work together and they look after each other.”
This matters for the immediate defence of the island. Just because Russia is unlikely to storm the Wexford beaches doesn’t mean Ireland doesn’t need to be defended. In today’s world, physically attacking undersea infrastructure or virtually attacking anything connected to the internet — which is now almost everything — can cripple a nation at little cost to the aggressor.
Without primary radar, Ireland can only detect aircraft which announce their presence through a transponder; without a navy commensurate with Ireland’s status as an island the State has almost no idea what is happening beneath its waters — and could do little about a hostile submarine even if it was detected.
In an article for the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence think tank, Eoin Micheál McNamara recently wrote: “Seventy-five per cent of the northern hemisphere’s telecommunications cables pass through or near [Ireland’s] maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Hybrid threats to global connectivity mean that Ireland is no longer an island ‘safely tucked away behind Britain’.”
Ireland has made clear that military neutrality does not extend to political neutrality. It is on the side of the Ukraine — and presumably will take sides in future conflicts. By necessity, that means Ireland has enemies. Attacking Ireland is a way to attack key US businesses without doing so on US soil. But if the timetable for Irish unity is anything like that set out by Mary Lou McDonald, who predicts a border poll within a decade, an older land-based threat exists.
To some ardent republicans, even discussing the possibility of loyalist attacks is taboo; violence is either dismissed as impossible or derided as feeble. But this can’t be wished away. Confronting what history suggests is likely, even if its scale is unknowable, is very different to deciding such a threat should be an impediment to a united Ireland, if that is the wish of a majority on both sides of the Border.
In a democracy, he who wields the biggest stick cannot decide on the shape of society. But if someone has a big stick, has used it in the past, and is quite open about using it in the future, then only a fool would refuse to consider how to wrest the stick off the belligerent.
Professor Brendan O’Leary, one of those who has thought most deeply about unification, has described it as an “entirely legitimate fear”. That fear must be confronted, he said: “Blackmail must be expected; it should not be tolerated.” The way to address it is to build up the Irish Army and have as “a central goal” the acquisition of good intelligence on loyalist paramilitary groups, he said.
After 97 interviews for his new book on unity, another political scientist, Professor Padraig O’Malley, agrees that loyalist violence is likely, and the Irish Army needs to prepare for it. We don’t take sufficiently seriously the threat of violence around a border poll, he said, quoting interviewees who told him that “all it would take to stop a united Ireland was a few loyalist bombs going off in Dublin”.
Such a tactic could in fact rebound on loyalists. Centrist northern voters who will decide the outcome of a referendum north of the Border would detest such thuggery. The greater threat is after a border poll which unionists believe has been stolen. There is more than a century of unionist rhetoric which lauds resistance in such circumstances.
In 1986, the late Ian Paisley told a church magazine: “If the whole constitutional position of our country is destroyed by an act of treachery by the British government, the people have the inalienable right under God’s law to resist that… all the just wars in history were fought on that principle.”
That was merely reprising Conservative leader, and future British prime minister Andrew Bonar Law, who said in 1912: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities. I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”
But rather than start to prepare for this, the budget for the Defence Forces is shrinking in real terms — a 5.7pc cash increase in its most recent budget (€1.174bn) doesn’t come close to matching inflation. MI5 alone spends more than £500m (€568m) — 20pc of its total budget — on Northern Ireland.
This decision indicates the State doesn’t believe there’s any prospect of the Border going in the foreseeable future. In effect, the State is saying: If unity is at best decades away, why waste huge sums on troops unlikely to ever be required when it could be spent on roads and hospitals?