United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:04 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Godson Lord Godson Ceidwadwyr 1:04, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning for securing the debate. He is part of both the physics and chemistry of our union and, when the history of these times comes to be told, his own distinguished part in the Scottish referendum will, I hope, have a bright place in the history books. I also join other noble Lords in welcoming my noble friend the Minister, whose distinguished forebear, who has already been alluded to, was known as “the gentle Lochiel”. His courtesy in the previous Parliament in which he served was legendary in this House, but I hope that he will not be too gentle on foes of the union, whom we may be discussing today.

My purpose is to discuss the security dimensions of the union, particularly the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The recent Command Paper made welcome reference to the defence and security aspects of the union in appendix B, relating both to the defence and strategic significance of Northern Ireland and to integrating Northern Ireland’s significant defence industries into the rest of the defence structure of the United Kingdom. It is worth taking a second to consider the historical dimensions of the Command Paper, because it is a very pro-union statement of principles. Much has been discussed about repudiating the doctrine of the Ireland economy, forged for ideological purposes—but it also goes into some depth, perhaps more than any other comparable paper, into the security dimensions.

Last December, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Downing Street declaration, in which the then Prime Minister John Major and the then Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, forged the foundational pillar of what became the Northern Ireland peace process. Crucial to the consensus-building objectives of the agreement was the British Government’s declaration that they had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, thus signalling their commitment to a lasting and equitable peace on the island of Ireland. The ensuing peaceful decades have been to the lasting benefit of both sides of the Irish border and indeed across the Irish Sea—I think there is no disagreement in this House or the other House on that point.

At this moment it bears repeating—as others have pointed out before—that “no selfish strategic interest” never meant “no strategic interest at all” for the United Kingdom Government. Indeed, Northern Ireland has always retained vital strategic importance to the United Kingdom. As we find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and sharpening international climate, we must question whether the present security arrangements on the island of Ireland, on both sides of the border, now pose a wider threat to British security.

I think that almost all of us in this House are rightly focused on supporting Ukraine’s gallant self-defence on the European continent as Russia seeks alternative means of weakening our collective security in NATO and wider Europe. In the pursuit of asymmetric advantages against Ukraine’s backers—ourselves included —the Kremlin is probing the critical undersea infra- structure that, by carrying our digital communications and energy flows, undergirds our security and prosperity. Russia makes no secret of its ambitions in that regard. It has a military doctrine, known as SODCIT, for degrading the West psychologically and materially by targeting our critical infrastructure and that of other friendly countries. Suspicious incidents in recent years, such as successive cable cuttings in the Baltics last year, suggest that those fears may not be unwarranted.

Defence of this infrastructure is necessarily a collective effort, and the UK and its partners have rapidly bolstered their joint capabilities. That was most recently witnessed in the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force’s maiden seabed warfare mission, conducted by nine NATO member states across the north Atlantic this past January.

However, it needs to be said that the Republic of Ireland is still not playing its part but rather chooses to continue to freeload on the security guarantees of others. Although some 75% of the undersea fibre optic cables linking Europe to the United States pass through Irish waters, the Irish Naval Service remains entirely ill equipped to police and protect them. It lacks the radar and the acoustic monitoring systems for satisfactory maritime situational awareness, it remains without a fleet of underwater surveillance vessels and it suffers from a chronic staffing shortage which renders just one-quarter of its fleet serviceable at any given moment.

Although the Republic is now slowly engaging with more EU multilateral defence initiatives, it still does not participate in the one tasked with critical seabed infrastructure protection, and it is hard for many of us to understand why. Perhaps it is because it has little else to offer. As damage to this critical transnational infrastructure harms our national security, we must ask what we need to do to mitigate the risk. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee —I hope I am the victor ludorum for the correct pronunciation of her townland—for saying that we have to consider what remains to be done. I am grateful for her tribute to Policy Exchange’s work on our paper Closing the Back Door: Rediscovering Northern Ireland’s Role in British National Security.

One of the solutions is to restore the United Kingdom’s naval and air presence in Northern Ireland by rebuilding our capabilities for maritime patrol in the Atlantic, perhaps in Londonderry, which played such a definitive role in allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic and in our operations in the Cold War—as has been attested to by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who was briefly here earlier and who I think served there early on in his naval career. The UK must use any such revived facilities to deter future Russian snooping around undersea cables and pipelines.

I note with pleasure that, whatever the various opinions within unionism over the recent Windsor Framework, this is one area which unites all shades of unionist opinion. The recent exchanges between the right honourable Sammy Wilson MP and the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the House of Commons and between the right honourable Jeffrey Donaldson MP and the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions indicate the tremendous potential for such a revived role for UK national security and defence structures in Northern Ireland.

There is a further dimension to our national security concerns on the island of Ireland: the growing Russian, Chinese and Iranian presence in the Republic. The soft border—a consequence of the common travel area, a core element of the British-Irish relationship—raises the prospect of a “back-door” threat to the rest of the United Kingdom. Russia has long viewed the Republic as a strategically positioned hub for its clandestine intelligence activity in Europe. In 2022, the Russian embassy in Dublin reportedly had 30 members of staff, second only in size to its embassy in Washington DC. While the Irish Government subsequently expelled four Russian agents masquerading as diplomats, there are concerns that Moscow has implanted illegal espionage networks which are far harder to trace.

Furthermore, in 2015 Russia successfully applied for planning permission to vastly expand its Dublin embassy, with a new underground operational “nerve centre”. It was only after the proposal came under media scrutiny that in 2020 the Government of the Republic intervened to revoke that permission on national security grounds at the behest of allies. Links between Irish organised crime and Iranian-backed terrorist organisations are also well established. Some of them are currently under investigation by the United States Administration for assisting in the illegal financing of Hezbollah and Iran.

Meanwhile, we know through the comprehensive report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament last year that China is engaged in an expansive array of interference activities inside the United Kingdom. The markers are there that it is employing the same tactics in the Republic. Chinese investment is soaring, which has forced the Irish Government to introduce additional screening measures. At last count, there were 13 Confucius Institutes in Irish educational institutions, known to be controlled by the Hanban organisation which is affiliated to the Chinese Communist Party. A so-called Chinese police station in Dublin was shut down two years ago. The target of these is not any individual country, but the systems which service the transatlantic community, ourselves and the order which all that infrastructure upholds. Amid all this, fears are mounting that the Irish security agencies are overstretched, a concern raised by the independent Commission on the Irish Defence Forces set up by the Irish state in 2022.