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Ireland neutral on neutrality. We quietly but hypocritically export €3.6bn of products that can be used by foreign military and allow up to 90,000 troops through the country annually.

By Bryan Wall.

Ireland does not export heavy armaments or guns.

Beyond that there seems to be extraordinary flexibility and naivety as to the military significance of exports that are neither heavy armaments nor guns but nevertheless can wreak devastation.

In May last year the Sunday Business Post revealed that Irish employees of Google  in Dublin were working on the company’s drone project for the US military. According to Laura Nolan, who worked on what was called Project Maven, she had been asked “to help develop a system to keep US Department of Defence data classified on Google systems”. The project involved using Google’s “artificial intelligence (AI) technology to analyse drone footage”. 

When I spoke to Nolan she said was unable to reveal much due to a non-disclosure agreement. But she pointed out that “a huge number of people” were working on the project. Nonetheless, she argued that “image is important to Google”. As a result, she believes “media pressure as well as employee pressure was likely what led to the decision not to continue with the second phase of the Maven contract”. 

What the Sunday Business Post didn’t reveal was the Irish government’s apparent lack of knowledge — or concern — about the work being carried out on the project by Irish citizens in Google HQ in Dublin. In a statement the Irish Department of Defence declared that “The issue of policies relating to Irish citizens and employees working on programmes, with non-Irish companies, based here, which will be used for military and/or defence purposes does not fall within the remit of the Department of Defence”. 

Ireland’s supposed neutrality is also apparently unaffected. The spokesperson argued that the Department of Defence doesn’t believe “the issues raised are such that they would have any impact on Ireland’s peacekeeping role” with regard to its “traditional policy of neutrality”.

Internally the Department of Defence also seems to not be too concerned about Irish citizens working on military projects for other countries via their employers in Ireland. A freedom of information request for “memos or minutes of meetings/transcripts regarding Project Maven” returned nothing. As did a request for any correspondence between it and Google regarding Project Maven. 

For its part the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) said the use of autonomous weapons can “carry frightening implications for our rights”. It went on to insist that “Neither state military operations nor big tech companies are guided by clear regulation, oversight, or transparency”. And given this, “we can’t simply trust that they will self-regulate in a rights compliant manner”. 

But this seemingly blasé attitude of the government is not entirely surprising. The arms industry in Ireland is thriving. Statistics from 2018 show that the export of military goods is worth billions to the Irish economy. Export of ammunition and weapons was valued at just over €37m. But this figure surges when dual-use products — items that can be used for defence and military purposes but not originally designed for that end — are included. When this is done the figure for 2018 came to over €3.6bn. Of course the identities of the firms are not officially disclosed, for reasons of security of workers, confidentiality and commercial sensitivity.

Ireland’s official and industry ambivalence was highlighted by the appearance of Lauren Knausenberger at a conference in Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) in January. Knausenberger, who is the Director of Cyberspace Innovation for the US Air Force, had previously been at the intersection of private enterprise and the military. According to her biography, she was President of Accellint, Inc., a self-described “consulting firm” that dealt with “problems of national security importance and investing in commercial technologies that could be applied to a government mission”. 

Knausenberger is on record as having praised the US Air Force’s targeting capabilities. While speaking at the Springone Platform in 2019 she approvingly highlighted the fact that her new employer’s pilots and drone operators “can hit the back end of a fly from midway around the planet”. And while speaking at an Air Force conference in 2019 she described one of her roles as “helping to get our airmen the tools that they need to do their job” [2.26].

Successive Irish governments have always done their best to play up Ireland’s supposed military neutrality. This is despite the fact that the US military has been using Shannon for decades, thereby negating any real neutrality. 280,000 foreign troops passed through Ireland between 2014 and 2019; over 90,000 in 2019 alone.

Ireland’s role in the arms industry and facilitation of foreign troop movements only makes the claims about Irish neutrality all the more absurd.