Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 5 February 2024. © Richard Kemp
The deputy leader of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill, is now First Minister of Northern Ireland. There is every prospect that the party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, will become Taoiseach in the Republic after the next election. These developments present a profound danger for the UK, Europe and Nato.
The strategic position of Ireland was of fundamental importance during the Cold War. Britain’s determination to hold on to Northern Ireland was partly motivated by fear of a United Ireland, remaining resolutely outside of the Nato alliance, emerging as a sort of European Cuba.
Only when the threat from Russia dissipated was Peter Brooke, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, able to say that Britain had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in the province.
His words were intended to encourage peace, but his assertion was wrong then and it is certainly wrong now. In a new report from Policy Exchange, the threat to European and transatlantic security arising from the Republic of Ireland is fully spelt out.
The Republic is plugged in to transatlantic digital and economic systems but excludes itself from multilateral security frameworks, making Ireland a soft target for subversive Russian, Chinese and Iranian activities.
Meanwhile, freeloading on Nato members, especially the UK, has left the Republic lacking any significant capability to resist attacks by Russia against the underseas infrastructure on which much of Europe, including the Republic, depends.
Russia has been fast developing capabilities to target this vulnerability. In the absence of any prospect of Ireland enhancing its defensive capabilities, Britain will need to do even more of the heavy lifting as this threat increases. That will require re-establishing air and naval bases in Northern Ireland.
This will presumably be resisted every inch of the way by Sinn Fein in both north and south, and may well be resisted by the Republic even if Sinn Fein does not gain power.
Just as Dublin used domestic animosity against Britain to try to frustrate Brexit, its instinct will again be to make dire noises about renewal of the Troubles if the UK attempts to build new military bases in Northern Ireland. This may be so even if it is in Dublin’s own security interests.
During the Cold War, when an Anglophobic Dublin was encouraged to join Nato, it refused to even contemplate it until there was Irish unity. And even in the face of the greatest war in Europe since 1945, it still rejects the idea of signing up to the alliance – despite long-standing neutrals Finland and Sweden making historic decisions to do so.
The challenges of securing the Western Approaches around the UK and Ireland will become far greater if Sinn Fein secures victory in the South. That will fire the starting gun for a border poll campaign, with the prospect of Irish unity in the coming decade.
Not only should the British government start work on trying to get the new military bases built, it needs to begin campaigning now to prevent Irish unity.
Failure will mean a neutral, unified, largely defenceless Ireland on Nato’s Atlantic flank that will make the whole of Europe even more vulnerable than it is today.
Image: Rishi Sunak greets First Minister Michelle O’Neill. Picture: Simon Walker/No 10 Downing Street