The Irish public 100% understands that defence costs

This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday March 28th and sees me return to one of my most frequent themes… the devastation inflicted on Ireland’s national defence by the decade of political indifference shown by the two Fine Gael-led governments since 2011.  

97th Cadet Class Commissioning April 2022 via Defence Forces Flickr

“Coveney: Russian war highlights need to boost Defence Forces’ spend”.

This was the headline to a story in the Irish Examiner explaining how our part-time Minister for Defence is perhaps… possibly… on the cusp of the verge of being ready… in a few months… to signal that he just about ready to announce plans to consider the partial implementation of some of the recommendations in the final report of the Commission on Defence… if he secures the agreement of certain key people in Cabinet.

Regrettably, the words actually uttered by Minister Coveney on the day were not that much more definitive than my facetious parody, telling reporters that:

“I’ll be bringing an action plan on the back of the recommendations in the commission to Government in June and it will be a strong statement of intent from me, and I hope from government, if we can get approval, in terms of the need to quite significantly increase our investment in the Defence Forces”

It did not take Putin’s merciless invasion of his smaller, militarily neutral neighbour to alert us to consequences of the last decade of neglect of defence. To pretend that it has is deeply disingenuous. A weak Blueshirt ruse to mask the fact that their governments have treated national security and defence as a political afterthought.

Four senior Fine Gael figures have held Cabinet level responsibility for Defence since early 2011, they are, Alan Shatter, Enda Kenny (as Taoiseach), Simon Coveney (two stints including 2014 – 2016/ current) and Leo Varadkar (as Taoiseach). Across most of that time they had a hapless super junior minister to hide behind but, as I pointed out here three years ago, while that junior minister was the frontman for the dysfunction in defence, he was not the cause. Blaming today’s mess on the junior minister would be like blaming the non-performance of the harem on the eunuchs.

Despite his attempt to put the blame elsewhere, Minister Coveney is not the ill-fated political inheritor of a crisis that has only come to light thanks to the war in Ukraine. He and his Fine Gael colleagues were warned at the time, by people far more knowledgeable and expert than I, about the perils of under investing in both Defence Force personnel and resources.

Fianna Fáil’s opposition spokespeople at the time, Lisa Chambers and Jack Chambers were vocal not only in their criticisms, but in identifying the alternative strategies needed to avert the crisis.

But whatever credit Fianna Fáil earned for coming up with alternative proposals pre-2020 is quickly has been quickly erased by the dogged determination of its party leader to stand idly by and allow Minister Coveney to not only continue his neglect of defence, but to also ignore the Fianna Fáil Junior Minister at his Department.

Minister Coveney was at pains to inform Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, in a parliamentary question reply in early 2021 that, the junior minister at defence was solely appointed to fulfil a technical requirement of section 11 of the 1954 Defence Act and that he had no other role or function within the department. Taoiseach Michéal Martin’s political acquiescence in allowing a reply that was so dismissive of a party colleague is shocking, but not really all that surprising.

Almost as unsurprising as the speed and ease with which those Fine Gael TDs and Senators who had been wholly unperturbed by their government’s neglect of defence now suddenly rush to the nearest microphone to tell us how they have always believed that Ireland should be in NATO.

But – while the hard-left chunders on about Putin not being entirely in the wrong, and the goldilocks brigade in Fine Gael explains how we have simultaneously had a decade of spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on defence, we can take some comfort in the fact that the public are way ahead of the politicians on this one.

One of the most interesting, and positive, findings from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post/Red C poll on defence issues is that the public understands that delivering a realistic and effective level of national defence on land, sea, sky and cyber, costs money. They also grasp that being militarily neutral means having the real capacity to defend ourselves.  

Asked if they agreed/disagreed with the statement that: “I would support proposals to significantly increase Ireland’s annual defence budget of €1.1 billion per year, which is currently the lowest in the EU at 0.2% of GDP”, 59% said they agreed and only 28% said they disagreed. That’s a 2:1 margin in favour of increased defence spending.

Now… I am around long enough to know that people can agree with the idea of increasing spending for X or Y and then baulk when it comes to forking out the extra taxes required to pay for it. But such a clear and conclusive response on an issue that has been at the bottom of the political priorities pile for so long, is still significant.

It is also interesting to see that that this realisation that we must spend more on defence – though not defining how much more – is accompanied by a solid level of support for the existing policy of military neutrality. Asked if they agreed with the proposition that “Ireland should drop its policy of neutrality”, 57% of respondents said they disagreed and 30% said they agreed. Another significant majority, though it is down a bit from previous polls.

Much has been made over the past 24 hours of the apparent public contradiction between 57% of people saying they backed neutrality and 48% saying that they would back Ireland joining NATO. I see this as more of a paradox than a contradiction, a paradox being something you must accept and live with (as I previously explained).

The dichotomy might be explained (in part) by the framing of the question. From what I can see, those polled were asked if “Ireland should join NATO to boost its security (my emphasis). Might some of those who said yes assumed that the proposition being put to them was if the only effective way of boosting Irish national security was by joining NATO, might they agree in that circumstance?

This is mere conjecture. I cannot properly explain why up to 18% of people could potentially say yes to NATO membership on one question, and then say yes to continued neutrality on another, but I suspect the evident lack of clarity around terms like: neutrality, military neutrality, even NATO membership, might help explain the paradox.

I attempted a few times over the past decade of writing about Defence, both here and elsewhere, to put some meat on the bones of what we mean by military neutrality, including this 2018 effort which responded to yet another attempt by Fine Gael to make the public as confused over the issue as it.

What the Red C poll tells me is that the public is not buying the mangled garbage being put about by the alphabetti-socialisttis or the likes of Wallace, Daly, and Ming. The public understands that we need to spend more on defence – indeed this poll suggests that they understand this in even greater numbers than I would have anticipated. Not alone that, they also understand that whether we follow the path of continued military neutrality, or go the route of NATO membership, is going to cost money.

That is a healthy and important starting place for an awfully long overdue public debate on defence. I truly hope Minister Coveney and his senior officials in the Department of Defence will take note and realise that there is now nothing to be gained by waiting until June to come forward with their plan to speedily implement level of ambition (LOA 2) of the Defence Commission report, namely to “…build on current capability to address specific priority gaps in our ability to deal an assault on Irish sovereignty”.

To wait until June would just be time wasting.  

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