The Irish government is facing demands to clarify details of a secret agreement with the UK for Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft to help defend Irish airspace in an emergency. Sinn Fein is insisting that the government elaborate on the deal to ensure it’s not breaking Ireland’s cherished neutrality, while an independent senator is taking a High Court case to force the government to put the details before the Irish parliament. The Anglo-Irish deal is believed to allow for British Typhoon jets, most likely taking off from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, to intercept threats in the Irish Flight Information Region (FIR), the offshore airspace in which Ireland is responsible for civil aviation safety and air traffic control, as well as transiting through Irish sovereign airspace. The existence of the RAF deal has been an open secret among Irish pilots.
Why the Deal Exists
Ireland lacks a primary radar system capable of detecting, for example, Russian military aircraft once they turn off their transponders. Additionally, Ireland does not have any aircraft that can fly high or fast enough to interdict such a threat and identify it visually. Ireland’s only combat aircraft is the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-9, a turboprop airplane equipped with two machine-guns, which has an effective operating ceiling of just 10,000 feet, well below the altitude where Russian bombers or airliners cruise. The existence of the RAF deal was an “open secret” among Irish pilots, who were never officially briefed about it. Although the agreement dates back to 1952, it was never officially confirmed, and the Irish Times reported it only recently.
The Irish government is not willing to comment on the existence of the deal. The tanaiste and defense minister, Micheal Martin, declined to comment directly on the agreement, but he did not deny its existence. The British government is equally reluctant to comment on any arrangement. Last November, the Armed Forces minister James Heappey told the Commons that “RAF jets have deployed into Irish airspace on occasion. It is for the Irish Government to set out their policy on why, when and how.”
Legal Challenges and Political Pressure
The veil of secrecy thrown over the arrangement by the Irish government may be a contributory factor to the embarrassment of relying on British help, a century after independence. Professor of policing and national security at the University of Central Lancashire, Michael Mulqueen, has interviewed various high-ranking Irish defense officials as part of his academic research and spoken to them about the secret deal with the UK. He says he is in no doubt that such an arrangement is in place, but there are legal difficulties about how it might actually work, including a serious question over the legality of a British pilot taking lethal action while in Irish-controlled airspace.
Sinn Fein, Ireland’s main opposition party, is demanding answers and seeks more information from the government to clarify the “legal and constitutional matters” arising from the arrangement. Independent senator Gerard Craughwell has taken a case to the Irish High Court on the grounds that the arrangement is unconstitutional. Craughwell believes that the deal is “an impermissible dilution of sovereignty.” The Irish government maintains that the senator does not have the legal standing to take the case.
In conclusion, until Ireland invests in its military and buys fighter jets to defend its airspace, it will continue to rely on its former colonial master, the UK, to defend itself should a crisis emerge.