Retired Colonel Dorcha Lee: Is joining NATO the price for Irish reunification?

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As debates continued this week around how a united Ireland would look, Lee outlines the defence challenges it would pose.

LAST SUNDAY WAS Census Day in Northern Ireland. It is expected to show the current feeling of national identity in the NI population and could well confirm the reported demographic shift away from a unionist majority.

In the last Census (2011), 40% declared themselves to be British, 25% Irish and 21% Northern Irish. In the meantime, we have had Brexit and the rise of the pro-independence movement in Scotland. This 2021 Census could well be the last Census ever in NI as part of the UK.

If the UK union is really weakening, it is now more than probable that Border referendums on the reunification of the island of Ireland will take place within the next five to ten years.

Sinn Féin has called for referendums to be held much sooner. In the past, referendums have been lost in Ireland because the electorate was not informed nor fully convinced of the proposals being put to them.

The lesson learned is that a full and honest debate should take place before a referendum, not, as in the case of the UK’s Brexit Referendum, afterwards.

We should remember the Nice Referendum in 2001 and the Lisbon Referendum in 2008, which were both lost on the neutrality issue.

Defence Policy for a United Ireland needed

In any future referendums on Irish reunification the issue of what defence policy a united Ireland should adopt, needs to be considered. In fact, it should be addressed, in advance, so that voters, North and South, know the full picture before making such a momentous decision on reunification.

Two key questions need to be answered. First, would the people in the South support joining NATO as part of the price of reunification? Conversely, would the people of Northern Ireland accept leaving NATO and supporting military neutrality as part of reunification?

At present, the Northern Ireland taxpayer is paying seven times more on defence (2% of GDP) than his/her Southern counterpart (0.27% of GDP). The EU average is 1.2% while the NATO average is 1.3% of GDP.

There is a third option, to be raised and set aside, which is that both current jurisdictions retain their present defence policies after reunification. However, if unification means that the all-Ireland State will be sovereign and independent, it is hard to see how two different and contradictory defence policies could be in place on one island.

Foreign and defence policies go hand in hand. It might, in theory, work, if Ireland were to become a two-state confederation of separate and independent states, pursuing two separate foreign and defence policies.

Of course, a confederal solution should be an option to be examined, along with a unitary state and a federal state. Nevertheless, even in a confederal situation, it would be doubtful that two separate defence forces, would be what the Irish people might have in mind by reunification.

Back in Dec 1993, the UK agreed, in the Downing Street Declaration, that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in remaining in NI.

This does not mean that the UK will accept a weakening in its national defence arising from Irish reunification. Such a weakening of its national defence, on its North Atlantic flank, could occur if NI became part of an undefended neutral Ireland and if Scotland were also to become independent.

Ireland, the weak link

Up to recently, the North Atlantic had faded in strategic importance since the end of the Cold War. However, Swedish defence analysts have concluded that Russian military exercises in the Baltic area, along the Arctic Circle and down the North-Eastern Atlantic coastline, including in Irish territorial waters, is about cutting the link between the US and Europe.

The outgoing Officer Commanding Naval Operations Command, Captain (NS) Brian Fitzgerald, has pointed out that a large number of transatlantic cables, linking the two continents, are at their most vulnerable in the shallow waters off the Irish Continental Shelf. Maybe some might think we can manage very well without the Internet. Others would disagree.

The problem for the UK and NATO is not Irish Neutrality, but the long-standing underfunding of our Defence Forces for its primary role of national defence.

Until recently, as a defence analyst, I had hoped that Irish-British mutual defence issues could be addressed ultimately within the context of EU Common Defence. With Brexit, this is no longer possible.

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Alternatively, I had thought that an Irish Government would start to move towards bringing defence spending in line with other nations, which would mean that we would no longer be the weak link in Europe’s North Atlantic Defence. It seems I am wrong on both counts.

Until we sort out the defence issue, it is probably best to forget about Irish reunification.

Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd) is a former Defence Forces Provost Marshal and Director of Military Police. He is a former Irish Military Advisor in Brussels and a former military representative to the WEU and the EU.

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