Building an Irish Intelligence Service

Strategic Insight 023/2023


03 August 2023

The Irish government’s public Consultation on International Security Policy is a useful and wide-ranging discussion on Ireland’s approach to peace and stability around the world. This level of policymaking will involve difficult and complex decisions on an ongoing basis, but there appears to be no discussion about an intelligence infrastructure to support this. Intelligence is a vital support mechanism for policymaking, but in order to be effective it must be a tangible part of the process. It will be essential to develop a strategic intelligence capability for Ireland to realise an effective approach to global peace and stability. There needs to be a focus on developing an intelligence infrastructure that is both fit for purpose and commensurate with Irish values.

Intelligence is vital for strategic decision-making about national security

Ireland’s approach to national and international security emphasises diplomacy, consensus, and ‘soft power’, using its military for self-defence and as a contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts, rather than using economic and military power to gain influence and ensure security. Ireland is not alone in this approach to the international system, but it suffers the same security vulnerabilities as other nations that take a similar stance, exacerbated by its relatively small size and low military capability. This positioning within the international system does not make Ireland immune to the actions of nations that do engage in ‘Great Power competition’. Russia, engaged in a long-standing rivalry with the United States, the EU and NATO, regularly encroaches in Irish airspace and Irish waters as part of its continual probing and testing of European defences.

Most definitions of intelligence at the national strategic level emphases security, power, competition, and secrecy. ‘Intelligence’ can be defined as comprising ‘the mainly secret activities – targeting, collection, analysis, dissemination and action – intended to enhance security and/or maintain power relative to competitors by forewarning of threats and opportunities.’ However, Ireland does not see itself in competition for power. Yet it exists in a world in which many nations do see the international system in those terms. For other states similar to Ireland, intelligence is therefore used to offset the lack of ‘hard power’ by providing decision advantage. Investing in intelligence to provide better ‘forewarning of threats and opportunities’ can enable Ireland to take decisions that allow the nation to avoid harm and seize opportunities to either further its interests or help defuse potential international crises.

Small states usually have three options when faced by a potential threat from larger states, namely balancing, band-wagoning, or hedging. Ireland has taken a fourth option, neutrality, which also brings with it difficult and complex decisions about engagement with the international system. Making decisions about those approaches requires a great deal of information about potential partners, allies, and rivals, and this is where effective strategic intelligence can provide that decision advantage. Effective intelligence can also increase security by preventing efforts to undermine the state through espionage, sabotage or subversion by employing robust counterintelligence.

Building a strategic intelligence capability

Ireland is not completely without an intelligence capability. The Irish Defences Forces and An Garda Síochána provide military and security intelligence about potential threats to the State, and its overseas interests. But, useful as this is, it is insufficient for Ireland’s needs. The existing intelligence services provide ‘current’ and ‘warning’ intelligence but are limited in their ability to provide strategic intelligence or the kind of in-depth national intelligence estimates required for decision-making at an international level. Expanding the remit of these organisations to include that task would be a mistake; it would put an undue strain on their resources and distract them from their core missions. A separate national intelligence agency, in whatever form, with a clear chain of responsibility to government (under a designated Minister) will ensure that decision-makers receive the strategic and estimative intelligence they need.

This does not mean that these agencies should work in silos, or engage in the kind of competition for resources and turf wars over responsibilities often seen in other states. Effective coordination and intelligence sharing mechanisms are key to avoiding the intelligence failures to which multi-agency systems are often prone.

Ireland has a unique opportunity to build its intelligence infrastructure from scratch, taking into account its standing in the world and its interests and values. Borrowing methodology from business, Soft Systems Design ensures that all stakeholders are engaged in framing the problem (the need for strategic intelligence); defining the terms (what do ‘strategic intelligence’ and ‘security’ really mean in an Irish context); developing the conceptual models for the infrastructure; checking the conceptual models work in the real world; and finally, agreeing the shape of the solution. Intelligence in the modern world is no longer a state monopoly and the stakeholders will include corporate bodies. We have seen this when the State’s IT infrastructure and tech industry has been attacked. The ability of the commercial sector to provide warning and prevent attacks has identified the need to include it as one of the stakeholders in the development of a national intelligence infrastructure.

This approach not only builds the processes but also builds the mindset for using them – the need for oversight, and its desirability, and seeing intelligence ethics as an enabler rather than an impediment can be established from the outset. Given Ireland’s neutrality and reputation in the world, building an ethical framework will be a vital part of the process. Oversight can ensure intelligence is focused and operating effectively. When faced with a range of potentially harmful options such as making the decision to breach the privacy of an individual or expose them to potential harm if they provide information, intelligence ethics provides a framework for choosing the least harmful option. A framework based on principles such as ‘right intention’, proportionality, and last resort will help to make these difficult decisions. When such activity does come to light, and in a liberal democracy it is always a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’, the integration of oversight mechanisms and ethical frameworks allow intelligence agencies to answer criticisms and maintain public trust.

The development of an Irish national intelligence agency would provide the strategic level intelligence that the country needs to develop an effective international security policy. The Government should be wary of making quick decisions about the shape of such an agency or resorting to ‘off the shelf solutions’ by simply mirroring other nations. Using the methodology suggested here, involving key stakeholders from government, academia and business to develop the requirement and the solution, will ensure Ireland has an agency that is both fit for purpose and commensurate with the values of a liberal democracy.

David Strachan-Morris is a Lecturer in Intelligence and Security at the University of Leicester. His research and writing covers national intelligence, counterinsurgency, and private military and security companies.

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