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International Security Forum a waste of the DFA’s time

This week’s Consultative Forum report is nothing more than of academic interest because the DFA set its policy strategy weeks in advance of the public debate.

By J Vivian Cooke

On Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) published the report of the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy. It is a balanced, thoughtful and worthy document consistent with the proceedings of the Forum that were, themselves, balanced, thoughtful and worthy. The Forum and its Chair, Louise Richardson, have succeeded admirably within its terms of reference.

Over the course of four days, the Forum hosted 12 panel discussions featuring around 50 experts and heard numerous contributions from members of the audience attending. In addition, the Forum received 835 written submissions.

Richardson has done well to herd these conceptual cats into a report that brings far more clarity and order to the diverse opinions expressed, characteristics that are not so evident in my own recollection or notes. The report provides a paragraph summary of each panel discussed before sketching out the contending opinions on what emerged as the key themes of the debate. In all, it is a fair representation of a public consultation that was run well.

Unfortunately, it is the Forum’s terms of reference that doom this report to anything more than academic interest

It transpires that there is a very broad-based consensus about the parameters within which Irish foreign policy operates. There is a near-unanimous agreement that Neutrality should be preserved; that foreign policy should be pursued on a multilateral basis; and that there is an urgent requirement for significant increases in Ireland’s defence spending.

In fact, any sharp points of discord are only discernable at the margins of this national consensus; with the opposing extremes respectively embracing with enthusiasm or being repelled in horror by the very suggestion that Ireland would deepen its security cooperation with the US and/or European countries, through the institutional framework of either NATO or the EU. 

Such divisions that do exist within the settled field of Irish foreign policy tend to reflect how far individuals are willing to trust any government of the day with discretionary powers to respond flexibly to rapid, evolving crises in opposition to the exercise of parliamentary and public oversight and restraint. In practical terms, this expresses itself in the debate about the Triple Lock and the proposal, received in written submissions but not much discussed in the Forum, to enshrine the policy of neutrality in the constitution. The note of disapproval in the normally impeccably impartial Richardson is unmistakable in her comment: “It will be important to ensure that future Irish governments have maximum flexibility to respond with deliberation and speed when called upon to ensure the safety and security of our citizens” is positively damning.

Unfortunately, it is the Forum’s terms of reference that doom this report to anything more than academic interest. These terms state bluntly that only “the Tanaiste will consider the report produced by the Chairperson and will decide whether to bring recommendations to Government.” It was, as the Chairperson noted “a national conversation” but, crucially, “it is not the purpose of the report to make policy recommendations to the Government.”

Although Micheál Martin promised a whole-of-government approach to the exercise, he failed to deliver even a whole-of-department approach.

The cabinet approved the Forum on 5 April 2023, yet, on 1 June, a mere three weeks before the Forum held its first session, the Department of Foreign Affairs published its Statement of Strategy 2023-2025. The DFA’s impatience to fix its strategy for the next two years denied it the valuable insights that they themselves were trying so hard to cultivate. And their desultory, uninspiring and unimaginative Statement of Strategy is manifestly poorer for that lacuna.

During this period, nine other departments (Justice, Children, Housing, Tourism, Further and Higher Education, Transport, Agriculture, Enterprise and Social Protection) engaged in far less elaborate public consultations in preparing their statements of strategies. Despite the imminent start of a public forum to debate its strategy, the DFA pushed on with its statement without any public input of any kind. The contradiction inherent in the DFA’s rush to publish its Statement of Strategy ineluctably casts the relevance of the whole Forum process into doubt.

Although Micheál Martin promised a whole-of-government approach to the exercise, he failed to deliver even a whole-of-department approach

The Terms of Reference for the Forum stated that “the Consultative Forum is designed to build public understanding and generate discussions on the link between the State’s foreign, security and defence policies.” Village Magazine can attest that the sessions were nuanced and well-informed by practitioners and academics who embraced the complexities of navigating international relations as a small European wealthy island. The report is a valuable document for anyone interested in Irish foreign and defence policies.

The tragedy is that the DFA would have benefitted in delaying publishing their statement had they bothered to listen to the national debate they had spent so much time and effort informing.