Ireland and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have had a formal relationship since 1999, when Ireland joined as a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme and signed up to NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). To date, Ireland has not sought to join as a full NATO member due to its traditional policy of military neutrality.
Recent history of NATO–Ireland relations
Ireland had been willing in 1949 to negotiate a bilateral defence pact with the United States, but opposed joining NATO until the question of Northern Ireland was resolved with the United Kingdom (see The Troubles 1968–1998). Official NATO–Ireland relations began in 1999 when Ireland became a signatory to NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and the alliance's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Since then, NATO and Ireland have actively cooperated on peacekeeping, humanitarian, rescue, and crisis management issues and have developed practical cooperation in other military areas of mutual interest, under Ireland's Individual Partnership Programme (IPP) and Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP), which is jointly agreed every two years. Irish cooperation with NATO is centred around the country's historic policy of neutrality in armed conflicts, which allows the Irish military to deploy on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions where there is a mandate from the United Nations (UN Security Council resolution or UN General Assembly resolution), subject to cabinet and Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) approval. This is known as Ireland's "triple-lock" policy.
Ireland participates in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Planning and Review Process (PARP), which aims to increase the interoperability of the Irish armed forces, the Defence Forces, with other NATO member states and bring them into line with accepted international military standards so as to successfully deploy with other professional forces on peace operations overseas.
Ireland supports the ongoing NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and has done so since 1999, and supplied a limited number of troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (2001–2014), as these were sanctioned by UN Security Council resolutions. The ISAF counter-IED programme in Afghanistan was largely developed by senior officers from the Irish Army Ordnance Corps. Previously in 1997, before Ireland had a formal relationship with the alliance, it deployed personnel in support of the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina where much of its forces formed part of an international military police company primarily operating in Sarajevo.
Potential accession of Ireland to NATO
To date, Ireland has not officially applied to join as a full member of NATO due to its longstanding policy of military neutrality.
Public opinion in Ireland continues to favour a policy of non-alignment in armed conflicts, and currently no main political organisation supports full ascension into NATO as the party line. There has been, and continues to be, a number of individual politicians and groups of politicians who support Ireland joining NATO, mainly but not limited to the centre-right Fine Gael party (in 2013, the party's youth wing Young Fine Gael passed a motion calling on the Irish government to start accession talks with NATO). It is widely understood that a referendum would have to be held before any changes could be made to neutrality or to joining NATO.
Former Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a visit to Dublin in 2013 that the "door is open" for Ireland to join NATO at any time, saying that the country would be "warmly welcomed" and is already viewed as a "very important partner".
US military stopovers in Ireland
Ireland's air facilities are regularly used by the United States military for the transit of military personnel overseas, mainly to the Middle East. The Irish government began supplying military and civilian air facilities in Ireland for use by the armed forces of the United States during the 1991 First Gulf War. Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Irish government offered the use of Irish airspace and airports to the US military in support of the 2001–2014 War in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, on the condition that aircraft be unarmed, with no cargo of arms, ammunition or explosives, not engage in intelligence gathering, and that the flights in question do not form part of military exercises or operations at the time. Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel (military) and Shannon Airport (civil), used as stopover hubs, have seen more than 2.4 million American troops pass through from 2002 to 2014. An average of more than 500 US troops pass through Shannon every day.
US use of Baldonnel and Shannon has been the subject of controversy in Ireland due to revelations in December 2005 by the BBC investigative television programme Newsnight that Shannon Airport was used on at least 33 occasions for secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) flights, operated by front companies, as part of a US government policy known as "extraordinary rendition". The New York Times also reported the number to be 33, though referring to "Ireland" as a whole rather than Shannon specifically, while Amnesty International alleged the number of flights to be over 50. Baldonnel has seen similar claims, but which are impossible to verify as it is a military airbase. Both the US and Irish authorities have denied the allegations. According to leaked American diplomatic cables (WikiLeaks) from the US Embassy in Dublin, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time told the chief of mission that the Irish authorities suspected the CIA had on a number of occasions used aircraft disguised as commercial flights to transfer prisoners detained in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for interrogation and detention – using Shannon to refuel in the process – and warning of the legal implications for both Ireland and the United States as a result.
Defending Irish airspace
The Irish Air Corps, the air force element of the Irish Defence Forces, is widely perceived as incapable of defending Ireland's airspace due to a significant lack of funding, equipment, training and personnel. Its role is mainly limited to fisheries protection in support of the Irish Naval Service, and non-military air services such as policing, air ambulance, VIP transport, search and rescue and logistical support, at which it has developed a proficiency for its size. As Ireland is not a member of NATO it does not benefit from integrated European military radar detection systems nor NATO-level equipment. The Air Corps does not have the ability to intercept fast jet aircraft, and previous air incursions have seen the British Royal Air Force (RAF), a NATO ally, respond to and escort unwelcome aircraft out of Irish-controlled airspace.
The average cruising air speed for commercial passenger jets is 878 to 926 km/h, while the top speed of a Pilatus PC-9 from the Air Corps is just 593 km/h.
In February 2015, two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" nuclear-capable strategic bombers entered Irish-controlled airspace without permission, without forewarning, with their transponders switched off and failed to file flight plans, causing serious concern at the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), which was forced to divert a number of civil passenger aircraft out of the path of the Russian bombers as a precautionary measure. The Russian military aircraft were interrogated by RAF Eurofighter Typhoon jets scrambled from the United Kingdom, demonstrating the lack of an Irish military response and the reliance on the UK for the protection of Irish airspace. The Russian bombers did not enter sovereign Irish airspace, but the Department of Defence lodged a complaint with Russian diplomats in Dublin, and the Minister for Defence publicly vented his anger at the incursions, and the disruption and danger it caused to commercial air traffic. It later emerged that the Norwegian military (a NATO ally) had intercepted Russian military communications indicating that one of the aircraft was carrying a nuclear payload (a nuclear missile that was not "live" at the time, but had the ability to be made "live" mid-air). British reports visually confirmed that one of the bombers was carrying a nuclear warhead. The fact that Russian military bombers carrying nuclear weapons flew within 12 nautical miles of the Irish coast caused significant alarm.
In July 2015, the Irish government revealed plans to purchase a ground-based long-range air surveillance radar system for the Irish Aviation Authority and Defence Forces to keep track of covert aircraft flying in Irish-controlled airspace, including military aircraft that do not file a flight plan and have their transponders switched off. Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said the increased capability would give better coverage of the Atlantic airspace over which the IAA has responsibility. The long-range surveillance radar is reported to cost €10 million, and is seen as a priority purchase to provide the civilian and military authorities with an improved competency in monitoring aerial incursions. The decision was widely attributed directly to the Russian incursions.
Agreements with the UK on air defence
The possibility of a hijacked airliner in Irish airspace would most likely result in a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) response by NATO aircraft, and it is believed that there are secret agreements in place with the British government regarding the defence of Irish airspace.
In 2016 it was reported in the Irish press that several years previous confidential agreements were made between the Irish and British governments concerning the protection of Irish airspace from terrorist threats. The reports revealed that the Irish Department of Defence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish Aviation Authority entered into a bilateral agreement with the British RAF, Civil Aviation Authority, Ministry for Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office permitting the British military to conduct armed operations inside Irish sovereign or Irish-controlled airspace in the event of a real time or envisaged threat of an aerial terrorist-related attack on Ireland or on a neighbouring country.
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