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Kevin HargadenFebruary 22, 2022
The LÉ Róisín on patrol in August 2013. Photo courtesy of Irish Defense Forces.

The Russian military build-up on the eastern borders of Ukraine has raised tensions across Europe and further afield. Military analysts have been busy assessing the likelihood of various grim eventualities, but surely few expected that the waters off Ireland’s southwestern coast would become a potential front in a confrontation with the Russian Federation. But that is exactly what happened at the end of January as the Russian Navy announced that it would conduct war games about 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, off the coast of Cork, outside Ireland’s territorial waters but inside the Atlantic area that European partners consider Ireland’s responsibility.

While no one suspects that the Russian Navy’s move is the beginning of an audacious attempt to invade the sleepy villages of Ireland’s western peninsulas, there was some concern that the operation could be cover for an attack on transatlantic fiber-optic oceanic cables that serve as essential infrastructure for communications between North America and Europe. Somewhat deflating those fears, the Irish government clarified that the Russian operations were legal and that Russia’s military had followed appropriate procedures in planning the exercises. But “in light of the current political and security environment in Europe,” the Irish government initiated diplomatic discussions with the Russians.

Few expected that the waters off Ireland’s southwestern coast would become a potential front in a confrontation with the Russian Federation.

Even before those talks were completed, the Russian Navy encountered a counterforce they had not anticipated—the Irish fishing fleet. A group of fishermen from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation declared that the area intended for the sea trials was central to their business and that they intended to peacefully disrupt the naval exercise with the aim of preventing damage to the zone’s ecosystem and biodiversity. The chief executive of the fish producers, Patrick Murphy, soon found himself invited to the Russian Embassy to discuss his concerns that sonar use and ammunition drills could disrupt the seas that provide a livelihood to his organization’s members.

He explained that the fishermen did not intend to endanger themselves or antagonize the Russians: “Our protest is this—we’re fishing in this area. The Russians come in here on their exercises. And we tell them, ‘Hang on a second, lads. We’re fishing. Do not force us off our fishing grounds. We were here first.’”

Within days—and explicitly citing the intervention of the 60 fishermen—the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that “as a gesture of good will” it would move the naval exercises outside Irish waters and away from any fishing territories. Interviewed the following day, Mr. Murphy admitted that he was shocked that his organization’s intervention had prevailed: “I didn't think that little old us…would have an impact on international diplomacy.”

The Russian Navy encountered a counterforce they had not anticipated—the Irish fishing fleet.

The Russian ships have moved on, but important questions for Ireland followed in their wake. While no one knows for sure whether it was coincidental that Russia planned exercises off Europe’s west coast while its troops amassed on its eastern borders, political observers agreed that Ireland represented a weak link in European defense.

Ireland spends a negligible 0.27 percent of its gross domestic product on its military, the lowest in Western Europe. Ireland’s entire navy consists of nine ships. The air corps is equipped with just eight types of craft, none of which could be considered on a par with machinery available among European peer states.

While aspiring to maintain about 9,500 active personnel across its defense forces, the Irish military has found recruitment and retention to be difficult in recent years. Soldiers complain that they are systemically underpaid, and revelations about a culture that tolerated sexual assaults has not have improved the attractiveness of the army, navy or air corps as a career path.

Ireland spends a negligible 0.27 percent of its gross domestic product on its military, the lowest in Western Europe.

Cathal Berry is a member of the Irish parliament—called a T.D. here, for Teachta Dála—with 23 years of experience in the Irish military. While he grants that linkage to the geopolitical tensions explains why the Russian exercises were so widely covered in the media, he thinks they are also significant for domestic reasons. Ireland recently commemorated the centenary of its independence, but the inability to police and protect its seas, borders and skies calls its sovereignty into question.

Had the Russian exercises gone ahead as originally planned, the Irish State would have been powerless to monitor the operations. In such a situation, Mr. Berry argues, Ireland is only “pretending to be neutral” because it is reliant on the support of larger nations to look after its boundaries.

Other neutral European nations, like Sweden, Finland or Austria, maintain a minimum credible deterrence and have the capacity to observe and protect their territory. Other nations, like Slovenia, that are not neutral and yet do not maintain a significant military force are part of a regional alliance that offers meaningful protection.

Ireland, Mr. Berry maintains, is “uniquely vulnerable and uniquely exposed” because of the long-term neglect of its military and its lack of membership in an alliance. He worries that in an age when offshore wind power is becoming increasingly central to Ireland’s strategic interests, this failure to invest in naval and aerial capacity communicates to others that “you can come and take what you want.”

For Mr. Berry, there is no expectation that investment in the military would be directed toward belligerence. Yet a long-awaited report on the reform of the defense forces does propose the development of a squadron of jet combat aircraft.

Ireland is only “pretending to be neutral” because it is reliant on the support of larger nations to look after its boundaries.

In the face of such suggestions, popular skepticism increases. Joe Murray of the peace organization Afri (Action from Ireland) suggests that talk of “defense” can serve as “a misnomer that often means aggression.” Mr. Murray is happy that Ireland has a “proud history and tradition in international peacebuilding,” and he thinks “we need to look after soldiers so they are well-treated and well-paid.” But he worries that situations like the one that has emerged with the Russian exercises will be used as an excuse to push toward much greater militarization.

“People don’t want to join NATO or build up the military, not when we have crying needs like a crumbling health system, a need to strengthen our education system, and to invest in the planet and in people,” he said.

For Mr. Murray, the Russian exercises do not so much press the question of sovereignty as of integrity. While the Irish State is happy to trade on its reputation as an honest broker in European diplomacy, it is also actively encouraging the development of a domestic arms industry.

“If you looked at the world today,” Mr. Murray suggests, “and asked what we needed, nobody would say we need more weapons…. It’s absolutely immoral.”

Viewed from a certain perspective, this naval entanglement is begging for a Hollywood adaptation—the foreboding shadow of war on the horizon being dispatched through the peaceful, honest, courageous action of a few dozen fishermen. But it would be a mistake to read this as a passing diplomatic incident happily resolved.

The questions that remain in the wake of the Russian warships are politically serious. How real is a sovereignty that cannot be protected? How much is Ireland willing to pay to persist in its neutrality? And are there some industries that—regardless of how lucrative they may be—a nation should simply resist hosting?

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