Imagine we only had a minister of state running the Department of Health. Imagine the outrage. Yet minister for defence? We don’t give it a second thought. We are, on the subject of national safety, incredibly complacent, with “neutrality” the boiled 7UP solution to all ails. We don’t debate defence issues.
Oh, we claim we do: ask any TD and they’ll talk at length at the need to improve the terms and condition of Defence Forces personnel, and rightly so. They might also get very agitated at any suggestion of closing barracks in their constituencies, with all those paypackets appreciated locally. But ask them what the Defence Forces are actually for, what’s its specific mission, or how they should carry it out, and it becomes much more vague. Ask TDs about airspace or patrolling our waters and there’ll almost be a flippant answer, that stuff like that is for “the big boys” and not little countries like Ireland. Ask them about giving our personnel the proper equipment and they start getting cheap in a way they never would with any other public expenditure. As for actual weapons, like fighters or warships or missiles, suddenly, particularly on the left, they’re an indulgence, toys for the boys.
As with everything else in a country prone to groupthink, there’s a collective belief that defence is simply not an issue in the country, and an open hostility to anyone who suggests otherwise. Despite the fact that there is significant reason to believe that the Russians are active in our waters near transatlantic cables, and that we have suffered a very significant cyberattack by criminal elements on our national health service.
Within our political system, complacency about national safety is what abortion used to be: the untouchable third rail of Irish politics. But even that is changing now. There’s certainly not anything close to majority support for joining NATO, but I believe there is significant support in the country to open the debate if not about NATO but identifying our defence needs and finally deciding to spend the money to meet them.
If a party, presumably Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael were to join Independent Kildare TD Cathal Berry in saying that yes, this is a serious issue and yes, we are going to have to spend money on it, the usual suspects will kick off. But that’s what they always do.
I’m convinced there’s a less noisy but equally significant section of the country that wants this issue openly and honestly debated. It doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically make any decision, or even change what we are currently doing, but turning the subject into a normal political issue worthy of debate is a worthy exercise in itself.