Throughout our history, Ireland has held many armed struggles to try to achieve her independence. From this, Ireland had a military tradition that has spanned the centuries, supplying exiled soldiers to foreign armies on the continent and across the Atlantic in America. It is therefore an anomaly that such a traditionally warlike people as the Irish have a small Defence Forces. Our newly adopted peaceful nature has been demonstrated and still is being shown around the world in our many missions, where we send peace keepers with the United Nations and European Union to contain some of the worst conflicts in the world.
But what can be said of the Defence Forces today? Many have argued that there is no need for an Army, Naval Service, or Air Corps. The Icelandic model of no standing army has been chosen by all making the argument for sustaining a country without an army. It is fair to say that, for Ireland, that it is not an achievable option. Given our history, where the gun has always found a place in our politics, a standing army is needed for the scourge of dissidents. Without threat of a better equipped military force in the country such groups could train at will, and unless the Gardaí were armed they would be unopposed.
Terrorism is not the only issue for retention of the Defence Forces; aid to the civil power is a task that is required on a frequent and infrequent basis. Every day, the Army conducts cash in transit escorts due to their high risk of being targeted by criminal gangs. In times of national disaster such as flooding and severe weather, the Army provides manpower to keep the country running. In the last big freeze we had the Army use their all-terrain vehicles to allow nurses and doctors carry out rounds of their patients living in rural areas. The Air Corps carry out ministerial transport where they bring our politicians to other countries to represent us. Although there has been controversy over the extent of expenses and fair usage of this service by the Government, the service is also used to ferry sick individuals to the United States and Great Britain for medical treatment.
In response to the general reduction of paramilitary threat in Ireland as a result of the peace process, the Army has also been reduced in size. It has been cut from three brigades to two where the 2nd Eastern Brigade and 4th Western Brigade were merged into the Northern Brigade. A vast amount of army barracks have also been shut, most of the border camps have been shut down and the main barracks have had units disbanded. The closest to home was the 3rd Infantry Battalion, based in Collins Barracks Cork, which was disbanded after a long and distinguished history.
The Defence Forces appear to have made a shift of focus to the sea where the Naval Service has been undergoing an increase in recruitment – where they had three recruit classes engaged in training at once, a number unheard of from the early 1980s – and two new ships have been ordered and are undergoing construction in Appledore Shipyards in Devon. Why should we invest in our Navy while downsizing our Army? The answer is simple: Ireland’s seas are rich in minerals and resources, as recent oil finds off the Cork coast have shown. Ireland is also laying claim to the Atlantic Shelf which lies outside our 200 mile economic zone. To claim this we need to be able to patrol it and expanding our Navy allows this. Also, the Naval Service has aided the Irish Coastguard in search and rescue operations. To expand this, the new vessels being purchased will be fitted with un-manned submersibles and a capability for Direct Positioning (the ability to keep a ship stationary in an exact position, this is near impossible for a normal ship).
It begs the question: will Ireland, an island nation, give priority to its Naval Development or will this be curtailed in line with Defence Forces and other governmental department reductions? A suggestion has been given that Ireland’s Defence Forces should be downgraded to a Gendarmerie quasi-military police force. With the day-to-day jobs the Defence Forces carry out, there is much similarity to this role, but arguments against it are rife. The ‘Blue Flu’ unofficial Garda strike during the early 2000s showed that an impartial force is required for the government as a result of domestic unrest. The prison officers’ strike and the Dublin Corporation Workers and Bus Éireann strikes in the last century are perfect examples of how the Defence Forces were called upon to fill in civil roles to keep the country functioning by the Government.
In a military sense, Ireland compared to a global stage is nothing but practical. We would not even be considered to be a military nation. Our Navy is classed as a constabulary navy one step above the ‘token’ navies of dictators who purchase antiquated warships, and a couple of leagues below the global fleet projection status of the United States or task deployment status of the United Kingdom. Our army is at best a modern 1980s era army with poor logistical combat projection for campaigns, but with good modern equipment for the job it is required to do. The only combat aircraft our Air Corps possess is the Pilatus PC-9, a turbo prop trainer which can be fitted with machine guns and rockets – at best a late World War II fighter/ground attack aircraft. Yet the military has evolved to fill its role appropriately and allow the smooth running of the state. To even compare our armed forces to the armed forces of any other global power is beyond sanity and should only lie in the imaginations of small boys. We have a Defence Force that carries out an important role, and the recent developments to focus on securing our resources at sea has been a step in the right direction for the naysayers who question value for money.