Some realities for the defence of an island behind an island

Strategic Insight 002/2023

Vice Adm (Rtd) Mark Mellett DSM

14 February 2023

Some realities for the defence of an island behind an island

This commentary is based on remarks delivered by Vice Adm (Rtd) Mark Mellett DSM at an event held on 19 January 2023.

Every nation has an Army, if not its own then someone else’s. Sovereignty and sovereign rights that are not upheld are more imaginary. Sovereignty is inalienable. It is a paradox for the sovereignty of a state to be upheld by another’s army. In democratic states, defence forces are the bedrock of sovereignty, part of the framework that provides for the institutions of civil society, where people are free, the institutions of state function, and the vulnerable are protected.

Historical context

In order to understand Ireland and defence, it is necessary to briefly examine some factors such as what shaped Ireland’s institutional culture, Irish neutrality, today’s security environment, implications for regional security and strategic autonomy.

Looking first at the institutional defence culture in Ireland. Just over 100 years ago, Ireland had emerged from the war of independence, with the Treaty of Independence in November 2022. In the lead up to independence, many government officials were British, and in the transition, academics have suggested, many of the more capable officials joined key departments like finance. There is even a suggestion that there was an institutional belief that the defence and security requirements of the fledging Irish State might still best be serviced by the UK.

There were also certain other matters that served to define how the Irish attitude to defence evolved. For example, Article 6 of the Treaty, which said until the Irish State had the wherewithal to provide for its own defence it would be provided by his Imperial Majesty’s forces. It is argued that this led to a sea blindness that prevails to this day.

The War of Independence morphed into a Civil War and as a consequence the Irish Army expanded rapidly. There was of course fallout which required this initial Army growth to be followed by a rapid demobilisation that created tensions between the Military, officials and the political class.

The simple reality was that Ireland as a fledgling State with a fledgling economy had more pressing demands beyond defence, and in the decades that followed the Military and Department of Defence were pitched against the Department of Finance, seeking resources.


A second consideration is how the historical narrative on Ireland’s neutrality evolved, which, many say has consistently been misrepresented and misunderstood. Irish neutrality has in reality been one of necessity – the State was not able to pay for defence and this morphed into a neutrality of convenience, in which some argue the State was not willing to pay for defence.

Of course, the reality is Ireland was not neutral in the Second World War. Ireland was not opposed to joining NATO, and fully understood that greater collaboration on defence was an inevitable evolution of joining the European Community and EU Institutions[i].

Regional security environment

It is generally accepted that in the aftermath of World War II, Europe commenced a period of significant stability. Notwithstanding the Balkan Wars, up to the Ukraine war, Europe had a period of extraordinary peace. The foundations for this peace were built on the vision of the likes of Robert Schuman, initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and the $15 BN investment from the United States. But it was also built on the transatlantic relationship between the U.S. and Europe. This is changing and there are a number of considerations to bear in mind.

Firstly, until the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, it was widely accepted through writers like Robert Kagan that for the Russian Federation to become stronger all that had to happen was for Europe to become weaker. The Russian Federation knew this and it is widely believed to have engaged in hybrid operations to weaken European institutions.

Secondly, there was a growing tension between the United States, Europe and the EU in particular regarding the commitment on defence and EU overreliance on the U.S., especially as the U.S. was now pivoting towards China. Thirdly, there was a tension between NATO and the EU institutions regarding duplication – inevitably it meant that some states were less enthusiastic about a strengthened EU defence architecture.

Threat environment 

When examining the threat environment, there is plenty of open source data which points towards the nature of defence and security challenges and from an Irish perspective these are best structured across the five military domains of land, maritime, air, space and cyber.

As a general point, Ireland has de facto multilateral responsibilities and obligations relating to the western approaches of Europe.  Churchill described the ‘ports’ at Bere Island, Lough Swilly and Spike Island as “[t]he sentinel towers of the defences of western Europe”. In recent years, the activities of fundamentalist terrorists together with growing espionage are regularly reported as serious threat vectors in Ireland.  Russian Federation plans for an expansion of its embassy have also been widely reported. It is important to recall, in the lead up to the invasion of Ukraine, the hybrid operation and arrogance of the Russian Federation in declaring its intent to appropriate 5,000 square KM of Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone for five days in order to carry out artillery and rocket exercises.

Ireland’s maritime jurisdiction 

Against the backdrop of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea  (UNCLOS), Ireland has made significant claims to the UN and now potentially has one of the largest maritime jurisdictions in Europe encompassing almost 1,000,000 square KM. New technologies, new energy vectors, new communications cables and more have all added to the need for more sophisticated defence and security requirements of maritime jurisdictions everywhere. In particular, over recent decades, there has been a significant growth in the installation of subsea communications cables some of which land into Ireland while others transit through waters where the Irish State has jurisdiction. More recently, foreign interference of these cables has been reported. The need to expand energy and electrical inter-connectors is recognised too and marine-based critical national and European infrastructure is expected to see exponential growth with Irish targets for offshore renewable energy (ORE) driving the development of thousands of  offshore turbines.

Air, space and cyber domains

The airspace where Ireland has competence is significant and a gateway for over 90% of air traffic between Europe and North America. Commercial air travel through the area has been subject to regular disruption by Russian Federation military aircraft. Space is also critical to defence and security with each state responsible for all space-related activities within its jurisdiction even where this is market driven. In terms of cyber, Ireland ranks as one of the top EU Member States in terms of uptake of digital technologies. Economic growth, is inextricably linked to the development of the global data ecosystem, helped by Ireland’s geographical location, the Irish open economy and EU membership. Stable foreign direct investment is fundamentally a core function of a State’s security and prosperity.

Ireland’s multilateral responsibilities 

It is important to note that international obligations and commitments are intimately linked to Ireland’s values for a fairer, just, secure and sustainable world. These values are reflected in the service and sacrifice of the nation’s Defence Forces with over 70,000 individual tours of duty with the UN in some of the most challenging theatres of the world, systematically integrating protection of civilians and gender based violence initiatives into policy and practice. The recent loss of Pte Sean Rooney who was killed in service in Lebanon brings into sharp focus the threat environment in which UN peacekeepers operate and the sacrifice they may have to make.

Before concluding, it is essential to highlight that the fallout of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine has had multiple implications for international institutions. There is increasing evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even perhaps the most grievous of all, the crime of genocide. Moreover, this war is bringing the matter of EU Strategic Autonomy more clearly on to the agenda.

While many of the challenges outlined within this commentary were examined by the recent Commission on the Defence Forces and will be actioned through the Government’s High Level Action plan, it is worth reinforcing that from an Irish Defence Forces’ perspective, institutionalising ‘Jointness’ in the Defence Forces is vital. From a national perspective, overcoming the ingrained national sea blindness is critical as is changing the national approach to defence from one where it sits siloed in defence to a whole of Government approach that includes industry and civil society.

Finally, in a globalised world it should be accepted that, with maybe one exception, it is simply impossible for an individual state to provide for its own defence unilaterally. Therefore, credible engagement in multilateral institutions such as the EU and bilaterally with neighbours where necessary is essential.


[i] These points are succinctly captured by former Taoiseach  Gareth FitzGerald in a piece published in The Irish Times in 1999 titled ‘The myths of Irish Neutrality not borne out by historical facts!’.

Vice Admiral (Rtd) Mark Mellett DSM is the former Chief of Staff at the Irish Defence Forces having also served as head of the Irish Naval Service. Holder of a PhD in ecosystem and ocean governance, he has recently been appointed as board chairman of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA). He is an adjunct professor at UCC, council chair and board member of the Irish Management Institute, a board member of Sage Advocacy and chair of the Advisory Council of the Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy.

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