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Defending Ireland

by Frank Schnittger Thu Sep 19th, 2019 at 12:36:35 PM EST

I am not a complete pacifist, but I generally struggle to find problems where brute military force is the solution. At most I am prepared to concede that every country has a right to defend itself, and must make appropriate provision to create forces with the capability to see off likely threats. But more often than not the resort to war has only come about because of a failure of politics and diplomacy at many levels. The best defence is always to ensure that international relationships never deteriorate to that level in the first place.

In the case of a small country like Ireland, developing a capability to deal with likely threats does not include the capability to ward off an invasion by a major power. Not only is in unclear why any major power might want to invade us, but it is certain we would lose such a battle if it where fought on their terms. Our best bet is the maintain good relations with neighbouring powers and rely on economic integration and mutual self-interest to do the rest.

So, in general, I am quite happy with the fact that Ireland has a very small defence force, run on a shoestring budget, which does little more than fisheries protection; air and sea rescue; peacekeeping, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations in support of the United Nations; and providing armed support to a largely unarmed police force when dealing with major violent crime or terrorist threats. Quite apart from anything else, it means there is no macho political culture of violent responses to people or countries with which we might disagree.

It also means there is no large Irish military-industrial complex influencing societal norms or government policy making. There are no military cadet units in Irish schools or militaristic summer camps where kids are marched around the place. It means there is no authoritarian culture being propagated by the Irish state and the overwhelming societal response to any conflict is to propose a means of arbitration, mediation or negotiation to find common ground and resolve disputes amicably.

So the Washington/Hollywood culture of accentuating conflicts and using overwhelming force to "resolve" them is utterly alien to us. There is no underlying assumption that they "the enemy" are utterly evil and must be eliminated: rather that they probably have some legitimate grievances which we must seek to understand and address in collaboration with them. This doesn't extend to some wussy liberal fatalism when it comes to violent crime or terrorism: these must be resisted by any means necessary and effective. But that doesn't mean giving guns to the general populace or even the police force.

I do worry sometimes that Hollywood movies and many violent computer games promote a simplistic them and us, good and evil, weak and powerful narrative that can best be addressed by violence, but for the most part people seem to have no difficulty with differentiating between fantasy and reality. The infantile threats and serious provocations which seem to be the stock-in-trade of the Trumps, Bolton's, Pompeo's and Netanyahu's of this world are treated with the contempt they deserve.

Some people feel that we are free-loading on the security provided by others: that our policy of neutrality in the Second World War; non-membership of NATO; opposition to the Vietnam, Falklands, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars; and ambivalence to the idea of a European Army means we are simply in dereliction of our duties to the international community in general and the western alliance in particular. I would dispute that.

Firstly, our participation in those wars would have made no material difference to their outcome in any case, and it is hard to think of a recent war which can be said to have had a good outcome by any humanitarian yardstick. Secondly, our contributions to UN peace-keeping missions, in proportion to our size, are second to none. And thirdly, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the "western Alliance", led by Trump et al, is more of a threat to peace than it's maintenance. We are doing well to be far removed from involvement with these monsters.

But there is a certain respect in which I do feel we have been remiss. When I said our defence forces are run on a shoestring, I wasn't exaggerating. Equipment levels are often poor. Accommodation is often appalling, and morale and staff retention has suffered because of a combination of poor pay and poor prospects. Many have put their lives at risk in support of UN peace keeping missions in some of the most dangerous places on the planet. They deserve better. Hence my letter to the Editor, published today, in response to criticism of the President for speaking out in support of the defence forces.

Letter to the Editor: The President and the Defence Forces

A chara, - David Kenny criticises the decision of President Michael D Higgins to speak out on the issue of pay in the Defence Forces.

Given that members of the armed services cannot join a union, there is a special responsibility on the State to ensure they are fairly rewarded, and particularly on the President, as their nominal Supreme Commander.

The recent decline in numbers in the Defence Forces, and the difficulty in recruiting adequate replacements, indicate we have a problem there; although that may in turn be caused at least partly by full employment and pay increases available in other parts of the economy.

But the pay rates quoted in the article do not seem especially bad if the armed services are also provided with adequate accommodation, meals, clothing, commuting and other expenses other employees have to bear out of their take-home pay.

The last time I had the opportunity to check, however, accommodation standards were awful, especially for the more junior ranks.

So the problem and the solution might not simply be increased pay rates, but better accommodation, facilities, services, benefits, equipment, training and personal development and promotional opportunities which will not necessarily result in further knock-on claims in the rest of the public service.

President Higgins is right to call attention to the fact that there is a problem, but it is for the Government to decide what the most effective solution might be.

David Kenny is being overly precious in seeking to deny the President the right to speak out on the issue.

The Defence Forces deserve the President's support, and what the Constitution does not expressly forbid is allowed, subject to the discretion and judgment we have elected Mr Higgins for in the first place. - Yours, etc,


There is a long tradition of Presidents of Ireland being largely ceremonial figures, above politics, who only speak in generalised platitudes, never criticise the government, and who and don't engage in live public controversies. They only have two reserved powers set out in the Constitution:

  1. They may refuse a request by the Taoiseach to dissolve the Dail and call a general election - note to Queen Elizabeth - and
  2. They may refer a bill, passed by Parliament, to the Supreme Court for adjudication, if they have doubts about its constitutionality. If it is deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, it is immune to further legal challenge.

It seems to me both these powers would be a useful addition to the UK "Constitution". Beyond that, everything the President does, such as state visits to other countries, and addresses to joint sessions of the Dail and Senate are only with the permission of the Government. However the Constitution is silent on what they can and can't say, and so the convention that they don't engage with contentious political issues is just that, a convention.

Mary Robinson pushed the boat out, when she became President, speaking out on Women's and civil libertarian issues sometimes to the embarrassment of more conservative governments at the time. Mary McAleese continued in that vein, although her most vehement condemnations of the Catholic Church's treatment of women, gays and children have come after her term in office had expired.

Michael D. Higgins has continued that tradition and pushed the boat out ever further, to the discomfiture of the Government on issues such as Defence forces pay. There is no indication that he is held in any less esteem by the public for doing so. Indeed most have welcomed his more activist presence.

As another letter writer has noted:

The idea that the president is some kind of political eunuch serving only a ceremonial purpose is based more on a monarchical than on a republican model of head of state and is not something that those who voted for the current President had in mind when they voted - overwhelmingly - for him.

The constitutional lines that President Higgins is routinely accused of crossing are not bright lines, nor should they be. - Yours, etc,


School of Law, NUI Galway.

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