Statement by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Micheál Martin TD
News18 May 2023
Check Against Delivery
Thank you, Ceann Comhairle.
I welcome the opportunity to address the House this afternoon on the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy, set to take place next month across four days and three venues in Cork, Galway and Dublin.
As I have said previously, my aim in convening this Forum is to build a deeper public and political understanding of the international security environment facing the State, and the policy options available to us.
This needs to be a national conversation; one which is inclusive and – as the name of the Forum implies – consultative.
We want to reach a broad audience, and ensure meaningful public engagement. The Forum will involve a wide range of stakeholders, analysts and practitioners. As I have said on a number of occasions before, the discussion will not simply be a binary one on the issue of neutrality, but will cover a breadth of areas relating to our foreign, security and defence policy.
One of my key aims in convening this Forum is to ensure that the conversations that we have in this country about our security policy choices are well-informed and are based on fact and on evidence.
Members of this House – and, indeed, the wider public - have different views about how Ireland should address the international security policy challenges that face us.
Those differences are entirely legitimate. It is precisely because there are many valid policy options to consider that I have initiated this national conversation.
I have said on multiple occasions, as has the Taoiseach, that the Government is not prejudging the outcome of any of the discussions at the Forum. There is no hidden agenda at play. Let’s dispense early on with the notion that this is part of the latest secret plan by the Government to join NATO.
What is important, though, is that the conversations are based on fact, not fiction. It is vital that the Forum looks in an honest and in a serious way at the reality of the international security environment and how we, as a nation, should respond this.
In that context, I hope that all parties and deputies in this House will engage constructively in relation to the aims and ambitions of the Forum. Ireland’s foreign, security and defence policy is simply too important to be reduced to politically expedient slogans.
A Ceann Comhairle
I believe that everyone in this House – notwithstanding political differences, and individual or party political perspectives - shares the view that we, as a State and as a nation, have a fundamental duty to take our own security seriously.
I also believe that all of us are aware that our security transcends national borders.
I will return to some of the practical aspects of what we envisage from the Forum itself shortly.
First though, let me reflect more broadly on where we find ourselves today.
Just under 15 months ago, the men, women and children of Ukraine were woken from their sleep by the brutal, full-scale invasion of their country by Russia.
This unprovoked and illegal act not only shattered the lives of millions of Ukrainian citizens.
It also shattered the collective European security architecture, which had existed since before the end of the Cold War.
It brought home to many across Europe and beyond, a hard reality.
First, that there are those in the world who are willing to use military aggression to invade and subjugate a democratic, peaceful, sovereign and militarily non-aligned neighbour.
Second, that there are those in the world who, again through all possible means, including the use of force, are ready to challenge the rules-based international order and the universally accepted principle of respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of states.
This principle is the foundation of all of our security.
As I said earlier this month in my speech to the Royal Irish Academy’s annual international affairs conference, the multilateral system - with the UN Charter at its heart - remains our strongest protection, and our most important global security asset.
Our security in Ireland – indeed, our very existence as a sovereign state – ultimately relies on the compliance by all states, however large and powerful, with this basic principle.
None of us here have been under any illusion that the principles of the UN Charter, and of the multilateral system more broadly, were held sacrosanct until the 23rd of February last year.
Millions of people globally have borne the brunt of brutal violations of international law and of human rights. Much of Ireland’s foreign policy efforts, over many decades, have been concerned with addressing those violations and with trying to strengthen the international norms that protect civilians.
But, even in a fragile and contested global environment, few predicted that the European continent would see a massive land-based territorial invasion of a sovereign country by its neighbour.
Few imagined that apartment blocks, playgrounds and schools in cities a few kilometres from the EU’s borders would be bombarded with hypersonic missiles.
Few anticipated that the largest refugee movements in Europe since the second world war would take place in a matter of weeks in the springtime of 2022.
A Ceann Comhairle,
Ireland’s foreign policy has always been grounded in the principles of international law, human rights, equality, respect, dialogue and engagement.
Article 29 of our Constitution sets out the principles that guide Ireland’s conduct of its international relations - the ideals of peace and friendly cooperation amongst nations, founded on international justice and morality; adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination; and the principles of international law as our rule of conduct in our relations with other states.
Our foreign policy is deeply anchored in these ideals.
We have, correctly, sought to position ourselves as a voice for good in the world.
As a champion of international humanitarian law, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, disarmament and non-proliferation; a strong advocate, and defender, of a rules-based international order.
We have prioritised sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and hunger, the empowerment of women and girls, the promotion of inclusive economic growth.
As a country, we should be proud of our record. These values will remain at the core of Irish foreign policy. The Irish people would expect nothing less from this Government, or from any future Government.
But this record – this commitment – does not inure us from reality.
Our starting point in addressing our security must be the world as it is, not the world as we wish it to be.
Ceann Comhairle, earlier this year, I saw a clip of a TV interview with two members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, about Ireland’s foreign and security policy.
The interviewer started the interview by asking whether Ireland should ‘tap into the potential of our neutrality as a peacemaker or are we a staunch US ally who won’t question their foreign policy?’
With all due respect to the interviewer, this is fundamentally not the question we need to ask ourselves about our foreign and security policy.
The choice is not between being a vocal and convinced supporter of the UN Charter and the global multilateral system, or unquestioningly taking on the mantle of another country’s foreign and security policy.
The choice is not one in which military neutrality is a talisman that allows us to do good in the world, whereas any other security policy choice would mean abandoning our commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes and international humanitarian law and human rights.
Our belief in a rules bases international order goes to the core of who we are as a people.
But it is not a magic charm.
It does not protect us from malign actors; from those who treat the UN Charter with disdain, who actively try to undermine the existing multilateral system, rather than uphold and improve it.
In May 2021, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, a cyber-attack using Conti ransomware was carried out against the Health Service Executive by a Russian-based criminal gang. The attack brought home to many of us the real-world devastation that the malicious use of technology can bring. Hundreds of thousands of patients were impacted. The work of hospitals and medical professionals was disrupted across the country.
This is just one example of some of the security challenges and vulnerabilities facing Ireland.
We have long viewed our relative geographic isolation on the periphery of Europe as a source of security.
For much of the State’s history, that made sense. The perceived threat of conventional attack was low.
The Ireland of 2023 is different. We are a highly globalised country. We can no longer rely either on our geographic isolation for our security, nor believe that we can isolate ourselves from world events.
Despite being a small country, we are a highly significant digital hub internationally. We are home to nine of the top 10 global ICT companies. We have one of the highest concentrations of IP addresses per head of population anywhere in the world.
We are reliant on digital architecture and networks for our economic well-being, our prosperity and, as the ransomware attack on the HSE demonstrated, to deliver vital services to our population.
The Government has worked hard to increase the capacity of the State to defend ourselves from these risks, with significant additional resources and capabilities allocated to the National Cyber Security Centre since 2021.
But no one country acting alone can respond effectively to cyber threats that can emanate from anywhere in the world; threats whose sophistication and complexity grow by the day.
We are also an island nation. This brings its own specific risks and threats.
Since the attacks on the Nordstream energy pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September 2022, we cannot ignore the particular vulnerabilities posed to energy and communications infrastructure, across Europe, and most especially in the waters of the North Atlantic, close to our shores.
Indeed, some estimates suggest that undersea fibre-optic cables now channel 97 percent of the world’s global communications and internet traffic as well as US$ 10 trillion in financial transactions every day.
Many of these cables run close to the coast of Ireland, either through our territorial waters or our wider Exclusive Economic Zone. Ireland’s geography ensures that we have been a fulcrum of such transatlantic infrastructure since the laying of the first telecommunications cable from Valentia Island in 1866.
Simply put, disruption to these cables or the network of undersea energy infrastructure and pipelines could have devastating consequences not only for Ireland but also for our partners.
Our geography also makes it essential that we work in partnership with others.
It is absolutely the case that part of the solution to more effectively managing these threats and risks is increased investment in the military and civilian capabilities to address them.
The Government has already committed to increasing investment in the Defence Forces to €1.5 billion, in 2022 prices, by 2028. No one doubts that this is necessary and urgent.
But, to take the maritime domain alone, Ireland’s exclusive economic zone extends to hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.
So when I hear that the answer to addressing our vulnerabilities is to build our autonomous capabilities – without any mention of our current partnerships and the future potential that they hold – it is hard to take this as a serious proposition.
I have said previously that our policy of military neutrality can and must be an important part of the discussion at the Forum, but equally that these questions must not be reduced to a simplistic binary choice.
Staying as we are today, or immediately seeking to join a military alliance such as NATO, are not the only options.
There is a more nuanced, informed and layered discussion to be had, unpacking and examining our longstanding policy of military neutrality, while at the same time, exploring the full spectrum of policy options that are available to us as a sovereign state and a committed member of the European Union.
In this regard, I anticipate that the Forum will provide a space to examine – critically and unambiguously – the choices that face Ireland as well as our responsibilities towards our European and other like-minded international partners.
We need to examine the reality of our experience in recent years as a global actor, including our term on the United Nations Security Council in 2021 and 2022. The Forum will look at our achievements on the Council but also at the obstacles we faced. These included multiple uses of the veto, by Russia, and significant challenges in ensuring that mandates for UN peacekeeping operations were agreed and were fit for purpose.
While Ireland has a proud and unbroken record of continual service in UN peacekeeping since 1958, no new peacekeeping missions have been approved by the UN Security Council since 2014.
The increasing use of the veto is limiting the Council’s ability to fulfil its mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Forum needs to examine what this means for Ireland’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy, including the implications for the Triple Lock.
With the experience of recent years, can we genuinely and honestly say that the Triple Lock remains fit for purpose?
In an EU context, we have long been an active participant in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (or “CSDP”).
We have undoubtedly benefitted from our engagement in CSDP, as well as contributed to it, with 16 Irish Defence Forces personnel and 21 civilian experts serving, as we speak, in peacebuilding, conflict prevention and post-conflict stabilisation efforts throughout the world.
This contribution will increase significantly next month with the deployment of a naval ship to the EU Operation Irini.
The Forum provides an opportunity to discuss this in more detail and to examine the reality of what this means in practice.
It will examine how Irish military and civilian deployees in EU missions are contributing on the ground to the EU’s efforts to build and sustain peace; what the EU is doing through the European Peace Facility to support Ukraine in defending its territorial integrity and sovereignty against attack; and Ireland’s participation in permanent structured cooperation (or “PESCO”), where Member States come together in different project groups to develop new military and defence capabilities.
I hope it will also allow us to put aside for good the fictional notion that Europe’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is a stepping stone to a “European army” – a concept which no country in Europe wants or is considering.
The Consultative Forum will also provide an excellent opportunity to examine the experiences and policy choices of other European partners in responding to the new security environment. We need to learn lessons from what others are doing and think about how we can develop our existing partnerships.
The Forum will hear from experts and practitioners from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland in particular. We have chosen these countries as useful comparative examples quite deliberately.
Norway, with whom we served on the UN Security Council, is a country that is extremely active in peacebuilding and conflict prevention across the world, but also a longstanding NATO member and a country that has taken its own security very seriously since its experience under German occupation during the Second World War.
Sweden and Finland, two fellow EU Member States, with whom we share many values and interests, have of course now chosen to seek NATO membership following Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine.
And Switzerland, whose neutrality has existed for several centuries, has a unique perspective of what this means, both legally and politically, and how this links to its wider global engagement.
None of this is to say that any of these countries offers the right model for Ireland. Rather, the discussion will allow us to outline the nuances and different possibilities of international engagement, and the ways in which others have responded to the changing international security context.
Another area to explore during the Forum will be our engagement with NATO’s Partnership for Peace, which we have been a member of for almost a quarter of a century.
To date, this partnership has principally focused on upgrading our military capabilities and standards, thereby ensuring the effectiveness and interoperability of our Defence Forces.
More recently, at its Madrid Summit in 2022, NATO outlined a range of existing and new areas for partners such as Austria, Switzerland or Ireland to work with them on.
These include maritime security, cyber and hybrid, climate and security, and resilience and critical infrastructure.
With Ireland currently negotiating an updated partnership framework with NATO, the Forum offers a good opportunity to explore some of these potential areas of mutual interest and relevance to this State.
A further area of discussion at the Forum will be the ongoing work to develop the capabilities of the Defence Forces.
We have committed to multi-annual funding increases, commencing already this year, to reach a defence budget of some €1.5 billion by 2028, index linked to inflation.
This will amount to a 50% increase in defence funding since the establishment of the Independent Commission in 2020.
Moreover, we will incrementally increase personnel numbers by some 2,000 over and above the current establishment of 9,500.
As has previously been said in this House, the Government does not underestimate the challenge in achieving this objective, but we are working hard to address issues around recruitment and retention.
Against the backdrop of the threats that I have already identified, I anticipate the Forum will assess which elements of the capability framework devised by the Commission could be prioritised, and the policy choices to be made.
Finally, but very importantly, we will seek to have an open and honest discussion on Ireland’s security policy options for the future.
We will discuss what our current policy of military neutrality means, whether it is fit for purpose in the current global security environment and whether we need to define more clearly what we do, and do not, mean by military neutrality.
In this context, I hope that the Forum will provide a space to discuss what other security policy choices may exist for our island, as well as our responsibilities towards other partners.
Let me turn now briefly to the format and structure of the Forum.
As I have said, the Consultative Forum will be spread across four days in three different venues.
We are delighted that University College Cork will host us for the first series of sessions on 22 June and that the University of Galway will then host the Forum on 23 June.
I would like to extend and put on record my warm thanks to both universities for facilitating and hosting the Forum and know that as academic centres of excellence, they will provide a very appropriate space for thoughtful and reflective discussion on the issues involved.
Following the sessions in Cork and Galway, the Forum will move to Dublin Castle for two further days of consultation and discussion on 26 and 27 June.
While I know that some in this House have expressed a preference for a Citizens’ Assembly, I was conscious that there are two other important Citizens’ Assemblies already underway this year, the first on drugs policy and the second on the future of education policy.
At the same time, against the backdrop of the increasingly complex and challenging security context across Europe, it was my view that discussions on our international security policy could not be delayed.
As we envisage it, the Consultative Forum will involve a broad range of stakeholders, with participation from civilian and military experts and practitioners.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defence are currently consulting with academic, civil society, research and state agency partners to identify a wide range of speakers and participants, from Ireland and abroad, representing a breadth of experience and views.
In total, we anticipate that up to one thousand people will be able attend the Forum. Moreover, discussions will be live-streamed, allowing members of the public access to the discussions.
A consultation exercise will also be launched online at the end of May, through the gov.ie platform.
As Deputies will be aware, Louise Richardson DBE, the highly respected former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, has kindly agreed to take on the role of independent Chair of the Forum.
I am confident that Professor Richardson, who is a distinguished political scientist with a strong expertise in security policy in her own right, will play a hugely positive role in chairing the discussions. I am grateful to her for taking on this important task.
Professor Richardson will also be responsible for the production of a report of the Consultative Forum, to be delivered to me, following its conclusion. I will consider its findings and decide in due course whether to take recommendations to Government.
Before I finish my remarks, I would like to touch briefly on some inaccurate media coverage over recent weeks regarding certain national security matters.
There is a well-founded and longstanding practice by successive Irish Governments not to disclose specific details of national security arrangements whether related to land, air or sea.
The public disclosure of such details would only serve to undermine efforts to protect our people and to cooperate with like-minded partners.
I want to reassure the House that the policies conducted by this Government are conducted with full respect for Irish sovereign decision-making authority.
To ensure the security of its sovereignty, territorial integrity and its citizens however, every State needs the ability to maintain confidential certain information on how it manages its security and defence arrangements.
Every State needs to ensure that it is a reliable and responsible security partner when it works with others, whether that is in peacekeeping missions, joint training activities or collective efforts to protect critical infrastructure and defend against cyber and hybrid attacks. Suggesting otherwise is simply not serious.
That is not to say that we do not need a more consistent and informed debate in national security issues. We do. That is precisely why I decided to convene this Forum.
I also recognise that there is a debate to be had on improving the way that the Oireachtas engages and oversees our international security policy. I would welcome such a debate. But let’s ensure that is an honest debate and one informed by the experiences of other partners who have put in place appropriate parliamentary oversight procedures.
I hope that the Consultative Forum will provide a useful platform for a considered and realistic discussion of Ireland’s foreign, international security, and defence policy when set against the contemporary challenges and threats we face.
The Forum represents the start of a process of consideration of these issues and not an end point in itself.
Ultimately, and as I have said previously, we need a serious and honest conversation about the international security policy options available to the State, and the implications of each of these.
I believe the Forum will make a positive contribution to this and I encourage all members of this House and the wider Irish public to engage with it in this spirit.