Doing national #cybersecurity on the cheap costs more… time to put @defenceforces in charge

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday May 17th. I look at the massive ransomware attack on the HSE and the Dept of Health and remind us that experts have been warning for years that government is not taking cyber defence seriously enough.

We risk being the EU’s weakest link on cyber security despite our dependence on the digital economy. 

 

Though I have related this Jeffrey Bernard anecdote here before, it still bears repeating. When Jeffrey Bernard was too “tired and emotional” to submit his weekly column to The Spectator, the editor would place an apologetic line explaining that there was no column that week as: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”.

There was also another one. It was longer, but less apologetic and appeared when the editor was feeling less charitable. It read: “Mr Bernard’s column does not appear this week as it remarkably resembles the one he wrote last week”.

Broadsheet’s editor could be forgiven for posting a similar renunciation here, as the discourse on the HSE cyber-attack I propose to put to you is effectively a re-statement of arguments and commentaries I’ve made many times over the past few years. 

I have been warning about our failure to take national cyber-security seriously since late 2019. I highlighted it as a sub-plot in this column from Sept 2019 and then expanded on the problem in a column entitled: Pleading No Defence On Cyber Security.

Continue reading “Doing national #cybersecurity on the cheap costs more… time to put @defenceforces in charge”

No defence of defence relationships

This article first appeared on Broadsheet dot i e on February 22nd and considers the political dimension to the reported breakdown in relationships between senior management in the Department of Defence and the Irish Defence Forces. I establish that the problem has nothing to do with personalities, but rather the structural relations between the two leaderships and the perception that the Department of Defence is not championing the cause of the Defence Forces within government, most particularly with the Department of Finance. But that is impossible to do without a committed minister at cabinet with political clout. A minister who puts Defence first, not second.

A few months after I started working as the special adviser in the Department of Defence, Gerry Hickey, the late and much missed programme manager to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, phoned me to check on some departmental facts and figures for the annual Programme for Government review.

“…and roughly how many civil servants work in the Department of Defence”, he enquired.

“From what I can tell… about half of them”, I acerbically responded.

There was an exasperated silence at the other end of the line.  Not for the first time my knack for being smart-assed at the wrong moment was backfiring.  

“What was that?” he asked.

Luckily, I had the number to hand as there had been a parliamentary question on that topic a week or two before. From memory there were about 380 individual civil servants, but as some were on job sharing schemes this was roughly equal to 360 whole-time equivalents.  

My wise-guy answer was unnecessarily facetious. Almost all the department officials I encountered during in my time in defence were hard-working and professional. This is across the department, not just those on the policy side, who I encountered most frequently, but also the junior and mid-ranking officials who made the defence establishment work efficiently, such as those in the pay and pensions branches.

Continue reading “No defence of defence relationships”

We Have 2 Fronts In The War on #Covid-19… Both are Equally Vital

This column looks at how a speedy roll-out of the various Covid-19 vaccines across Ireland is just as critical to combating the virus as suppressing it, both fronts in the war on Covid-19, both are equally important.

I also examine how a decade of under-investment in our emergency services, particularly the Defence Forces and Gardaí has left the state with very little spare capacity to tackle emergency situations, such as this pandemic. This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 4th 2021   

Though the daily Covid-19 numbers are spiralling ever higher and the prospect of even tighter restrictions looming large, we must hold on tightly to the belief that we are almost through the worst of this pandemic.

For most of the last year we have fought this pandemic on just one front, that of containment. It is a fight that we have waged with reasonable success, due to the efforts of the government and – most especially – the thousands of essential workers from medical staff to delivery workers to retail personnel.

Now, a critical second front against the vaccine has been opened with the approval and distribution of vaccines. We now have two fronts and the speed of progress on both fronts will decide whether we are weeks or months away from progressing steadily back to some form of normality.

Continue reading “We Have 2 Fronts In The War on #Covid-19… Both are Equally Vital”

Govt pleads ‘no defence’ on #Irish #cybersecurity

This week’s Broadsheet.ie column revisits the issue of #CyberSecurity. In it I look at three specific aspects:

  1. The gaps in Ireland’s cyber security strategy and
  2. The critical role the Irish Defence Forces should play in delivering that strategy 
  3. The opportunity this presents for Ireland to be a centre of excellence within the EU on cybersecurity 
cybersecurity_month-623x432

Several times over the past few years I have written about the need for a mature and grown-up public debate on Irish security and defence policy.

It is why the recent initiative by the folks at Slándáil, headed by former Irish Army office, Dr Gerry Waldron is so welcome. Launched at the end of September, Slándáil has set itself the not unambitious task of generating and encourage such informed debate with a two-day policy forum/summit at DCU next February.

While the forum itself will look at a range of global and national factors from the implications of climate change to the future of the Defence Forces and of policing, much of the discussion will focus on contemporary cyber challenges, as Waldron explained in a recent interview with the Irish Times.

The pity is that this awareness of the cyber threat has not yet filtered through those with political responsibility for the defence agenda in government.

Continue reading “Govt pleads ‘no defence’ on #Irish #cybersecurity”

Varadkar’s Big Bad Data

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on September 24th and looks at the current government’s ongoing issues with grasping the critical importance of data and data privacy to our continuing economic growth and development. While the governments response to the Data Protection Commissioner’s findings that it broke its own laws in expanding the scope of Personal Service Cards shows a cavalier attitude to data protection, the total inadequacy of the states response to real cyber-security threats is frightening. The State must immediately given the Defence Forces a lead role in building cyber security capacity and give it the resources right now, including the ability to recruit and train the next generation of cyber security experts.

cybersecurity_month-623x432

Twenty years ago (last Sunday) the first ever episode of The West Wing premiered on US TV.

Though anyone who has ever served in government can confirm that The Thick of It or Yes, Minister are more realistic portrayals of life along the corridors of power, The West Wing still represents the ideal, the way we would like to think it is.

This is due, in part, to the excellent characterisations, but it is mainly down to the quality of writing. The dialogue not only fizzed, it was informed by actual policy debates.

There were prescient. Much of it is still cogent despite all that has happened in the intervening two decades.

Continue reading “Varadkar’s Big Bad Data”

A Coach and Horses to shift the hapless Minister Kehoe

This article appeared first on Broadsheet.ie on July 9th 2019. It again looks at the problems faced, caused and posed by the hapless Junior Minister for Defence 

Peter O'Toole
The late Peter O’Toole at the bar in the Coach and Horses, London

A few weeks back I discovered online that one of my favourite London pubs, the Coach and Horses on Greek Street in Soho is about to change hands. The pub is both iconic and historic – and not just because I’ve been swigging pints there on visits to London since the early 1980s.

It has been the watering hole of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Louis MacNeice, Graham Greene and countless other journos, actors, artists and Bohemian hangers-on. The pub is just across the street from the offices of the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, and has hosted many of the Eye’s infamous off-the-record lunches in an upstairs private dining room.

The design and layout of the main bar was immortalised as the set for the play based loosely on the life of one of its most infamous denizens, the notoriously unsober Spectator and Sporting Life humourist, diarist and columnist, Jeffrey Bernard.

Continue reading “A Coach and Horses to shift the hapless Minister Kehoe”

Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now

I have written several times about the developing crisis in Irish Defence policy-making and the impact this is having on morale and retention in the Irish Defence Forces.  In this Broadsheet post from June 11th, 2019, I suggest how swapping ministers of state might help in the short-term to start the process of addressing this crisis.

Kehoe parade
MoS Defence Paul Kehoe (from Defence Forces Flick A/c)

It takes a rare political talent to make the Irish defence brief controversial, yet the hapless Paul Kehoe appears to have somehow managed it.

Stories of declining morale, chronic low pay, skills shortages and personnel retention problems fill the airwaves, and still the crisis worsens. Defence force strength which should today stand at 9,500 has been hovering perilously below 8,500 for months.

The 9,500 figure is itself misleading. The 2000 Defence White Paper set the number at 10,500. The reduction in 2009 to 9,500 was only intended as a temporary measure, yet it has entered the political psyche as some fixed upper limit.

While very little of the blame for these crises attach personally to Kehoe, realpolitik dictates that the time has come for him to move on. Kehoe must go.

Continue reading “Though it’s a f/t #Defence Minister we really need, a new MoS would be useful now”

Only threat to military #neutrality comes from SF, Ming #FakeNews, not #EU #EP2019

Broadsheet 129 – They won’t have a winner some day

EU army SF

“Beyond the Fringe” was a 1960s British comedy revue that was seminal to the rise of British satire… well, according to Wikipedia, it was.

Even if you never heard of the show, you will know its cast. They were: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennet

The revue had lengthy sell-out runs in London’s West End and Broadway and introduced several classical comedy sketches. One in particular has been coming to mind over the past few weeks.

It opens with a group of obsessive devotees gathering at the top of a mountain. They are counting down to midnight and, they believe, the end of the world. Their shaman tells them of what is to befall the world and assures them that they will be safe. Meanwhile the individual followers sheepishly wonder about mundane things like who brought the tinned food… and the tin opener.

The countdown nears its climax. 3… 2… 1. [Spoiler Alert] There is silence. Nothing happens. Unperturbed, the shaman concedes “this wasn’t quite the conflagration I’d been banking on… same time tomorrow lads, we must have a winner one day”.

And so it is with Sinn Féin, Ming, Daly et al. With the same fixated zeal as the lads on the mountain they are once again predicting the end of neutrality. Mercifully, it is not nighty, though their incantations do seem to come around with a regularity curiously attuned to the electoral cycle.

Continue reading “Only threat to military #neutrality comes from SF, Ming #FakeNews, not #EU #EP2019”

Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.

This Broadsheet.ie column is from December 5th 2017, it was written following the protest outside the Dáil by Army wives and families

GF7V0523.a76ef047d8d24c03823acdf41c4ee7c8

I want to look back at last week’s 24 hour protest outside Leinster House by the wives and partners of members of our Defence Forces and offer two additional perspectives, which may help illustrate why the Defence Forces are a special case and worthy of a far higher priority than this government is according them.

Before I get to those, it is worth noting why the protest was by the wives and partners. Under Defence Force regulations serving members of the Defence Forces may not make representations regarding any aspect of their employment, including pay and conditions, to third parties, including elected representatives.

Though this may seem a bit draconian, it does reflect the particular nature of their job. Soldiers cannot simply down tools, especially when those tools are often loaded, and go on strike – particularly when they are one of the key services we depend upon in emergency situations. But there is, or at least there should be a quid-pro-quo in this relationship.

Continue reading “Why @DefenceForces are a special case and deserve a far higher priority than govt is offering.”

A simple primer on Irish #Defence Policy

Here is another of my weekly Broadsheet columns. I am slowly catching up on reposting these columns here, I hope to have my site up to date over the coming week.

This one is from August 29th and offers a quick primer on understanding Irish Defence policy: www.broadsheet.ie/mission-creep-2/ 

————————————

army

Though you may not have noticed it – there was, over the last few weeks, an attempt to start a public debate on Irish Defence policy. While the Irish Examiner, in particular, did its level best to get it going, the discussion soon fizzled out.

The reason why the debate never really got going may be due to the fact that we tend to only discuss defence policy in public in response to some significant event or, more frequently, to some outlandish and unfounded claim.

On the rare occasions that we have any debate on defence in Ireland, they tend to be either end of the extreme ranging from claims that we are abandoning neutrality, a claim made continuously since the 1970s, to questions as to why we even have a Defence Force.

Though there is a real and clear public pride in our Defence Forces, both at home and abroad, there is also a surprising paucity of knowledge about Defence policy.

With this in mind, I want to use this week’s Broadsheet.ie offering to put some basic facts about Irish Defence policy out there, in the vain hope that the next public debate on Defence may be based on fact and reality, not myth and assertion.

Let’s start with a few basics.

The Irish Defence Forces comprise the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service and should total 9,500 men and women. The current manpower figure as set out in a parliamentary reply to Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers, is just under 9100.

There are approximately 460 Irish troops currently serving overseas on a range of UN led and mandated peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. These include: 60 naval service personnel on the humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; about 210 troops on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon and approx 140 troops serving in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights in Syria.

Though these numbers are way down from the average of 800 plus personnel serving overseas less than a decade ago, it still represents a sizeable Irish contribution to international peace and security, which in turn contributes to our own national security.

We spend about €900 million per year on Defence, though the vast bulk (over 70%) is accounted for by wages and pensions. When it comes to value for money the Defence Forces lead the way. The reform and modernisation programme undertaken between 2001 and 2010 make it a model of how public sector reform can be done right. Productivity was increased, numbers were reduced and the savings were invested in vastly improved equipment and training.

Now let’s turn to the policy side. First and foremost, Ireland is militarily neutral. While this is usually defined as not being a member of a military alliance, it also means that we decide for ourselves how much we spend on defence and – most importantly – how, where and when we deploy our troops overseas on humanitarian and peace-keeping/peace enforcement operations.

This is done via the “Triple-Lock” mechanism of UN mandate, Cabinet and Dáil approval. Triggering this triple lock is required before 12 or more Defence Force personnel are deployed overseas under arms. This enshrines not only our military neutrality but our commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

We use the phrase UN mandated, which means that a UN resolution is required. Nowadays many UN mandated missions are not UN led, i.e. “blue helmet”, but rather led by regional organisations – such as the EU, The African Union, NATO etc – on behalf of the UN. This was the case in the 2008 EUFor Chad  mission, which was commanded by an Irishman, Gen. Pat Nash.

I was in the Dept. of Defence during the Chad/Central African Republic mission, which was established to deal with the crisis created in the region on foot of the Darfur famine. I saw how the Triple Lock was implemented smoothly and speedily. UN resolution 1778 was passed at the end of Sept 2007, Cabinet Approval was given in October, unanimous Dáil approval by the end of November and by December an initial deployment of Army Rangers and support elements were on the ground in Eastern Chad establishing the Irish Camp.

Any difficulties in deployment were not due to the Irish or the Triple Lock but rather to the frustrating slowness of other EU countries, particularly the non-neutral ones, to respond especially when it came to offering air and medical support to the mission.

Nothing I saw at those defence meetings in Brussels led me to think that an EU Army was a realistic possibility, leaving aside the fact that we have a veto (EU requires unanimity on common defence) on it and that the Irish Constitution (Art 29.4.9) precludes Irish membership of a common defence.

Speaking of air support brings me back to the Irish Examiner article mentioned at the outset. From my perspective this appears to be based on the inaccurate, if not sensationalised misreading, of an already inaccurate report.

I say inaccurate as the original material suggests that is not Ireland which has asked the RAF to protect our airspace from terrorist threats, but rather that it is the British who have asked for Irish permission to fly into our air space in the event of terrorist air attacks heading for Britain.

When viewed this way the story is not quite as sensational, nor is it the slam dunk argument for Ireland rushing out and purchasing a fleet of F-16s.

I am not absolutely opposed to our buying a few F-16s – though if we are going to go into the fighter aircraft market why not opt for some newer F-35s?

I am sure the Air Corps would be overjoyed to have them, though I suspect the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure might baulk at the tripling or quadrupling of annual defence expenditure necessary to keep these fighters in the air 24/7, especially when we consider the real and actual threat assessments.

So, let us have a full debate on defence (and foreign) policy by all means, but let us ground it in fact and reality.

ENDS