The debate on PESCO in Dáil Éireann on 5th July has revealed the undemocratic and damaging approach of the Government to the role and future of our Defence Forces.
For decades now, governments have been entering into ever deeper military engagement with an increasingly NATO-directed EU ‘defence’ structure, while claiming that something they call ‘military neutrality’ allegedly hovers unharmed above the fray.
The decisive majority of the people of Ireland – the ultimate owners of our defence policy – know that neutrality flows from the clear, practical commitments of Article 29 to ‘peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations… the pacific settlement of international disputes… [and] the generally recognised principles of international law.’
Ireland’s early UN membership therefore enacted our neutrality through a commitment to nuclear disarmament, decolonisation, peaceful conflict-resolution and genuine peacekeeping. Since the 1980s, Official Ireland has acquiesced in the usurpation of the UN’s authority by NATO, and the EU’s absorption of NATO’s militarist mindset.
One of the most alarming aspects of the recent debate is Minister Coveney’s explicit promotion of the new PESCO engagements as choices made not by the Government but by the Defence Forces themselves.
This is particularly significant, as the recent Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces has recommended that the position of Chief of Staff should be upgraded to Chief of Defence (CHOD) ‘with the authority and appropriate military command and control of the Defence Forces at the strategic level’ (p. 58).
The Commission of course tells us ‘CHOD’ will be ‘fully accountable to the Minister’. But then we find the Minister boosting the new PESCO engagements by our Defence Forces as ‘projects they choose to be involved in’ (emphasis added). ‘The four projects I am asking this House to support are projects the Defence Forces have chosen.’
An Irish Minister for Defence dilutes his responsibility – in a country currently marking the centenary of the Free State and of the painful, precarious establishment of its unarmed police force and its civilian-controlled army.
The Government is eager for yet more involvement with PESCO, while An Taoiseach vaguely muses at the NATO summit in Madrid that ‘to change neutrality is something that ultimately the Irish people would have to have a say in’. He seems to forget that under Article 6 of the Constitution the Irish people have not ‘a say in’ but rather the say over such vital matters as defence and security.
The Minister claims that we can and should now consider yet more PESCO, and leave what he vaguely calls ‘the neutrality debate’ to some equally vague future date. This is straight out of their decades-long twin-track playbook: get things done on the ground, and leave ‘military neutrality’ to Cloud Cuckoo Land.
But the two issues are one and the same, and the twin-track strategy is, inevitably, wearing extremely thin. The Commission believes that the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) ‘should have a range of capabilities across each domain… which includes war fighting capability’ (p. 49).
The Report also proposes upgrading the ARW to ‘Ireland’s Special Operations Force (IRL SOF) to align to international norms’ (p. 66). And the Commission know where those ‘norms’ come from: ‘NATO standards have become the accepted standard‐setting benchmarks for modern military forces’ (p. 57).
Do we really believe that NATO, or the various other armies and alliances that currently scourge the planet with warfare, set ‘international norms’ of behaviour rather than merely of structure? For example, what standards of behaviour does NATO’s record from Kosovo to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, uphold?
The Minister says he will soon bring to Cabinet structural recommendations which ‘are loyal to the report’. So the Irish Cabinet has a job to do for the Commission, rather than the reverse. The Minister hopes it ‘will be possible’ for the Dáil to appraise this loyal service, but ‘if not, we will have a long debate on this in September and October’.
The issues ‘will be as significant in September as they are now’ – but momentous steps would have been taken by then. Or maybe the Minister will be ‘loyal’ to the Commission’s own recommendation ‘that the Government and Oireachtas urgently address the need to define a clear level of ambition for the major roles of the Defence Forces’ (p. 143; emphasis added}.
But maybe the Commission are naïve, and do not realise how power actually operates in Official Ireland. They seem not to have been briefed on, or else to have loyally chosen to ignore, Bunreacht na hÉireann and the decades-long undermining of its structures and its values.