The Irish Taoiseach’s threats to restrict access to Irish airspace for UK planes is both wrong-headed and illegal.
This article was contributed by Tom Jones, Tom currently works in public relations, and is the former Deputy Editor of Raddington Report. He also provides freelance foreign policy & defence analysis for outlets such as NATO and Foreign Brief, and can be found tweeting at @.
Recently, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar threatened to restrict access to Irish airspace for UK airlines in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Varadkar stated that;
“If there was a no-deal hard Brexit next March, the planes would not fly and Britain would be an island in many ways. If they want their planes to fly over our skies, they would need to take that into account.”
Currently, the UK benefits from the EU’s “open skies” policy, which allows airlines from EU member states to fly between and over any European airspace. “You can’t have your cake and eat it” he continued; “You can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky”.
As an attempt to draw attention, it worked in that it grabbed headlines in the UK (unfortunately for Mr Varadkar, they were mostly mocking tabloid headlines, playing on his ‘plane silliness’). As an actual negotiating position, however, it is riddled with mistakes, and only highlights the EU’s bloody-mindedness when in comes to pursuing ‘vengeance’ against the UK for it’s vote to leave the EU.
The first mistake in Mr. Varadkar’s position is that restricting access to Irish airspace is simply foolhardy, as restricting access impacts far more than links between Ireland and the UK; London airports serve as the major European transatlantic hub (which requires access to Irish airspace), offering easy access to the US. It also gives the UK the whip hand; flights from Ireland to continental Europe almost all use UK airspace and, were it to respond in kind, the UK would be able to make travel between Ireland and the rest of Europe far more arduous than it is currently by forcing Irish aircraft to either head west, then south, or take long routes north before turning east – both would massively increase fuel costs and seriously threaten the profitability of routes.
The second (and rather more important mistake, to readers of UK Defence Journal at least) is that the Royal Air Force and Irish Air Corps currently have an agreement in place – which you can find more details of here – which sees the RAF tasked with interception duties over Irish airspace. This covers potential incidents such as hijacked airliners – or Russian aircraft flying near Irish airspace, as occurred in February of 2017.
This is mostly because of a lack of capability in the Irish Air Corps. Defence is not a significant concern for Ireland and, as such, the nation has never become a member of NATO, whilst defence spending is just 0.3% – the lowest level in Europe, below even tiny nations such as Malta or Lichtenstein.
As a result, the Irish Air Corps is a barebones force, lacking any jet aircraft and running just 8 helicopters, 6 surveillance aircraft, 2 maritime patrol aircraft, 1 Learjet 45 and 8 Pilatus PC-9M. The latter, a Swiss-produced turboprop trainer aircraft, can be fitted with a heavy machine gun or rocket pods, represents Ireland’s only combat capable aircraft.
Given the chronic lack of capability in the Irish Air Corps, the agreement between the RAF and the Irish Government serves to allay significant geographic concerns for British security; Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and, therefore, must be protected. There is also the geographic closeness of Ireland, not only Northern Ireland, but the UK too – Ireland has, of course, historically been seen as the ‘back door’ into Britain.
However, the British Government must ask itself; should this agreement be terminated if Mr Varadkar carries out his threat? If Ireland is not willing to protect itself against the very real threat of terrorism, then the UK should (under normal circumstances) shoulder the burden.
We as a nation have the capability to do so already, and the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland can be seen as a security concern. The agreement also no doubt provides a great deal of political goodwill between the UK and Irish governments.
Protecting a neighbour is one thing, but Mr. Varadkar attempting to restrict access to an airspace we are supposedly duty-bound to protect is quite another. The British government should make it clear that, if Dublin is willing to put access to airspace on the table, then the role of the RAF in protecting Irish airspace is equally threatened.
If the Taoiseach wishes to make the UK unwelcome in his airspace, then the UK should make it clear that this applies to all aircraft. With the UK’s defence budget under greater strain than ever before, should we be flying combat aircraft – and running the very real risk of losing them – to protect an airspace it is made clear has no place for our aircraft?