The Irish government has been pressed by the United Kingdom to provide details about a secret agreement that dates back decades, whereby RAF aircraft would help to defend Irish airspace during an emergency.
Sinn Fein wants the government to elaborate on the agreement to make sure it doesn’t violate Ireland’s neutrality. A senator has filed a High Court lawsuit to force the Government to present the details to the Irish Parliament.
The Anglo-Irish agreement, although not officially confirmed, is believed to allow British Typhoons to intercept threats within the Irish Flight Information Region. This is the offshore airspace where Ireland has responsibility for civil aviation safety, air traffic control and transiting through Irish sovereignty airspace.
Why? Ireland has chronically underinvested in its military for decades. It lacks primary radar systems capable of detecting Russian military aircraft after they have turned off their transponders. And it does not possess any aircraft which can fly fast or high enough to intercept and identify such a threat.
Kevin Phipps is a former Irish Air Corps Captain and now a commercial airline Pilot. He flew Ireland’s only combat aircraft – the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-9.
The maximum altitude at which a turboprop aircraft equipped with two machine guns can operate is 10,000 feet. This is well below that of Russian bombers and airliners.
Sky News reported that the RAF agreement was “an open secret” among Irish Pilots.
He says, “Absolutely”. “We know what the PC-9 can do, but it is not able to intercept aircraft that are moving fast, like a Russian Bear bomber or an rogue airliner.
It was a well-known secret or fact that we could not intercept such a thing.
“It’s [Britain] in their national interest that if anything rogue were to come from west, such as a Russian Tu-95 Bomber, it would be in the British interest to respond, knowing that the Irish cannot.”
Even though The Irish Times reported this week that the agreement dates back as far as 1952, Irish pilots never received an official briefing.
Captain Phipps stated that “while it is an open secret, or appears to be,” we were never shown documents and never understood formal agreements. We only knew what was reported in the Irish Parliament, as well as in the Irish media.
The official policy is to not comment
Former taoisigh (prime ministers) have alluded to the deal in the Dail over the years. However, the official policy has been one of non-comment.
Micheal Martin is Ireland’s deputy prime minister and defence minister. We asked him if he denies the existence of an agreement with the British government.
He refused to do so but said “I don’t believe that story… is accurate… in regards to interdiction”.
In response to a question about who could intercept a Russian bomber if the Irish Air Corps couldn’t, Martin said: “I have said what I have said. I won’t go into national security further than that.” You don’t publicly address these issues… It doesn’t make any sense. “It just doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
He also acknowledged that “there may have been occasions” in the past when RAF aircraft were in Irish airspace for “different reasons”. He didn’t elaborate.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said in the Dail this week that “we will never have an air force like the United Kingdom, France or the US.”
We have made arrangements to ensure our safety and security.
The British government is also reluctant to comment on any arrangements.
In November last year, however, James Heappey of the Armed Forces Minister told the Commons “RAF jets had deployed into Irish airspace at times”. The Irish Government must set their policy as to why, when and what.
The RAF said in a statement to Sky News that “aircraft operate only when authorised” within foreign national airspace. We don’t comment on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) operational details.
We were told that there is also a bilateral agreement against terrorism, whereby Irish air traffic control could “coordinate” and identify any threats as they transition from Irish to UK-based airspace.
This is the closest we can come to a hint of what could happen in the deal. Military aviation often intercepts and flies alongside non-responsive intruders for visual identification.
A veil of secrecy because of embarrassment at relying on British assistance
The Irish may have been embarrassed to rely on British assistance a century after their independence. This embarrassment is thought to be one of the factors that contributed to the veil being thrown over this arrangement.
Michael Mulqueen is a professor of policing, national security and terrorism at the University of Central Lancashire. He said: “The defence of Irish sovereignty by the United Kingdom will unquestionably be sensitive in the minds of Irish voters, there’s absolutely no doubt about that.”
Professor Mulqueen, as part of his research, has spoken with high-ranking Irish defense officials about the secret agreement with the UK.
He’s “left in no doubt” that a similar arrangement exists.
He says that there are “legal problems” with how this could actually work. This includes a serious legal question about the legality for a British pilot to take lethal action in Irish airspace.
Sinn Fein, Ireland’s main opposition Party, demands answers.
The party claims that the Anglo Irish deal is “a further exposure of the abject failure of successive Fine Gael/Fianna Fail government to invest in our defense forces and ensure that we, as an independent neutral state, can monitor and protect our airspace and seas”.
The party requested more information from government in order to clarify “legal and constitution matters” that arise from this arrangement.
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A legal action is also being taken in order to force the Irish Government to make the details of this deal public.
Gerard Craughwell, an independent senator who served for many years in the British army as well as the Irish Defence Forces, has brought a case before the Irish High Court claiming that the arrangement was unconstitutional.
The time has come for a resolution, said Craughwell. He described the deal in question as an “inadmissible dilution” of sovereignty.
The Irish government claims that the senator lacks the legal standing to bring the case.
So, the secrecy persists. The government-appointed Commission on the Defence Forces in 2022 concluded, bluntly, that Ireland has “no air defence capability whatsoever”. The report recommended purchasing 12-24 fighter jets for Irish airspace defense, but this is still years away.
Ireland will continue, until then, to depend on its former colonial power to defend itself in the event of a crisis. You won’t hear anyone from Dublin admit this.