Sean O'Riordan: Ireland has never really been neutral and remains the weakest link The Mick Clifford Podcast

Sean O'Riordan: Ireland has never really been neutral and remains the weakest link The Mick Clifford Podcast

Years of under-investment in our naval service and air corps means we are seriously vulnerable militarily. The RAF protects our skies as we have no fighter jets, while British and American nuclear submarines and warships regularly patrol off our coast tracking the Russians in Cold War-style 'cat and mouse' wargaming.

Just 20 years after breaking free of our British imperial masters, we were helping their airmen, who crash-landed here across the border to safety.

The same applied to the Americans and Canadians. On the other hand, we interned the Germans in The Curragh.

German plans to invade us

Churchill had been bulling to invade the Republic from the North, fearful the Germans might do it first and leave Britain surrounded. The Germans had drawn up plans to invade us as well, which started to become apparent in December 1942 when a man called Oskar Metzke took a cyanide pill in a Garda station in the small North Cork village of Castletownroche.

Metzke pretended to be an Eastern European refugee and worked as a farm labourer along the River Blackwater, where he was warmly welcomed. He had been checking the depth of the river along the way to find a shallow crossing for tanks, trucks and infantry if the Germans were to invade along the south coast.

They knew the Irish army would probably blow up the bridges along the river and would need somewhere to cross it. Ironically, one of the shallowest points along its entire length is at Killavullen, the next village to Castletownroche.

It is unclear if Metzke discovered that, because if he did his mission would have been all but completed.

When Metzke was rumbled he was arrested. As a highly-trained commando armed with a Luger revolver, he could easily have shot his way out of trouble. He chose to come quietly when apprehended by the unarmed local gardaí. This was neutral Ireland and it is likely he knew himself — or was given specific orders from superiors — that he'd have to take his own life if captured.

By contrast, the crew of an American Flying Fortress bomber were treated like royalty when they were forced to ditch their plane on a marsh at Inchydoney, near Clonakilty, the following April, after encountering mechanical failure.

They were bought drinks everywhere they went in the town and were put up by the authorities in O'Donovan's Hotel.

The Irish army guarded the plane while the Americans partied. They had a pet Brazilian spider monkey onboard with them, ironically named Tojo, after the Japanese minister for war, who was later sentenced to death by the Allies for war crimes.

The monkey died a few days later after the forced landing. Some say from the cold, others maintain it was more likely from alcoholic poisoning as he'd be sipping as much free drink as the crew.

The monkey was buried with 'military honours' under part of the hotel's floor, while the crew were dispatched safely to the North.

In the meantime, the authorities here set about repairing the plane and creating a runway to get it out of the marsh it landed in.

A new American crew was dispatched to the scene and flew it out of there on May 2.

In the final days of the war in 1945, the crew of a German Junkers 88 bomber landed in 'neutral' Ireland. The authorities here immediately handed it over to the RAF, because it was equipped with the latest airborne radar and the British wanted to have a look at it.

Sean O'Riordan: Ireland has never really been neutral and remains the weakest link The Mick Clifford Podcast

During World War Two, several IRA activists were helping German intelligence. Many wanted to see the British getting firmly beaten once and for all. Others, though, started to have second thoughts after the countless atrocities committed by the SS began to be revealed.

On the other hand, there were many Irish people who supported the Allies.

There were tens of thousands of their family members and friends who were fighting with the British, Canadians and Americans against the Nazis.

Dan Harvey, a noted military historian, said that up to 150,000 Irish-born people fought with British forces during that global conflict.

“More were from the 'Neutral South' rather than the 'Loyal North' and censorship at the time kept that out of the public domain,” he said.

The former lieutenant colonel in the Defence Forces said the number of Irish fighting in the US forces has yet to be fully-determined.

“But it would be fair to say tens of thousands of first- and second-generation Irish fought with them,” he said.

He has written 16 books already on Irish involvement in major wars throughout the world, and Irish Defence Forces overseas involvement in peacekeeping operations.

He's currently writing another, entitled 'Irish Neutrality for New World Reality?'

We were never strictly neutral under the terms of the Hague Convention of 1907. To call yourself neutral, you are obliged to be able to defend that neutrality, which Ireland was never capable of doing.

"Secondly, you must never support any of the combatants, which was patently not the case in World War Two, the full extent of which will be revealed in my book when it's published,” Harvey said.

There were also huge numbers of Irish who enlisted with the Canadians, as historian Damian Shiels found out.

One harrowing discovery he made during his research three years ago into Canadian archives was that three brothers from a family who emigrated from Fermoy, Co Cork, lost their lives on separate bombing raids with the Royal Canadian Airforce.

Until then, the Canadians didn't know that Harry, Frank and Edward Sheehan were brothers.

Harry, 24, was in a bomber shot down over Germany in 1943. Frank, 26, died the same year in similar circumstances, as did Edward, 29, in 1944. They had three other brothers who fought with the Canadians, but survived the war.

In the deep Cold War days which followed, very little was written or known about foreign powers' involvement with Ireland.

Shannon stop-over

However, there was one notable exception. The Russians had planned to bomb Shannon Airport to prevent the US resupplying troops to their European bases in the event of war.

The Americans used Shannon in more recent times as a transit stop-over for troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and on operations against Islamic State.

They have the technology to refuel military transports in flight and could easily have overshot Shannon for their big airforce bases in Germany, or to other sympathetic countries nearer to the theatres of conflict.

The Shannon stop-over was seen in many quarters as being a political statement, tying Ireland into their union of allies. Being a big brother to Ireland, we didn't oppose Uncle Sam's wishes.

Fast forward then to what has happened more recently as the Cold War started to warm up again.

Putin was faced with the collapse of 'Mother Russia's' empire, which he had dedicated his life to preserving as a former senior KGB agent. Faced with a growing influence of China on one side, the EU and its courting of some former Soviet states, and the Nato power block, he decided to strengthen what he had left and retake territory.

Russia's 'tactical manoeuvres'

In 2014/15, Russian Bear Bombers started to carry out 'tactical manoeuvres' around the Baltic states, Iceland and off the west coast of Ireland.

The ageing Toplov (Tu) aircraft built in the Soviet era were still capable of causing panic amongst Nato forces as they can carry nuclear bombs.

It wasn't unusual for them to take off and do a sweep from Iceland down past Ireland, shadowed by RAF jets.

It is par for the course that most military aircraft on such manoeuvres turn off their transponders. This means they are 'cloaked' to other aircraft. Air traffic controllers here picked them up through a tiny 'squawk' on their radars and on one occasion because the Russians and their pursuers were veering in and out of heavily-trafficked transatlantic flight routes, they were forced to ground several commercial flights and divert others to avoid mid-air collisions.

When theIrish Examiner published this story it went viral around the world.

On that occasion the Irish Aviation Authority, which controls such information, was more than helpful in providing it.

Later, when theIrish Examiner asked how many other similar incidents had occurred in recent years involving military aircraft from other countries, we were met with stony silence.

The Russians did nothing wrong under international law — they never came into our sovereign airspace. Neither are they technically doing anything unlawful with the planned naval exercise off the South-West coast early next month.

Weakest link

In reality, this and the flypasts of the Bear bombers were and are tests which confirm we are our neighbour's and possibly Europe's weakest security link.

On the previous occasions RAF jets chased the Russian bombers down as far as the coastline of Galway or Limerick, knowing that the 'Bears' would always turn around soon afterwards and plot a course back close to Iceland and onto their Russian bases near the Arctic circle.

But then something changed. In January 2015, the same old game was played out off the Irish coast between the two adversaries. British fighters scrambled to intercept a couple of Bear Bombers noticed on a flightpath between Iceland and the Scottish Hebrides.

All went according to plan in the usual way, with the RAF chasing the Russians south along the Irish west coast. The fighters then returned to base, believing that the bombers were going home via the way they'd always done before.

Caught on the hop

The bombers continued south but instead took a sharp left turn somewhere off Castletownbere, went along the Celtic Sea and then flew past Bournemouth — the most Conservative place in Britain — and onwards over the English Channel. It shocked the British public and while they didn't publicly admit it, the RAF knew they were caught on the hop.

Have Britain and her Nato allies been caught on the hop again? This time with a Russian navy exercise off the Cork coast, in what is no doubt a strategic statement by the Russians in response to the Ukrainian situation.

The Irish Air Corps had never been able to monitor the Russians because we don't have any jet fighters. The planes we have cannot match the speed or ceiling of the Bear bombers.

It has emerged that the reason we hadn't purchased any jet fighters was that a secret deal had been struck a few years earlier between the British and Irish governments.

Britain would protect our airspace against any serious threats. This was primarily linked to terrorist hijacking threats following 9/11. The thinking was that any terrorists hijacking a plane over the Atlantic that was heading our way wouldn't crash into Croke Park or Leinster House, but head to Buckingham Palace or Downing Street and the RAF would shoot it down before that happened.

The deal was struck without any input from the Irish Defence Forces, which were excluded from the talks by our Department of Defence, even though the RAF wanted them at the table.

Relations between the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence have not been good since.

Putin knows we are the weakest link

Putin knows we are the weakest link and may well not have forgotten that we have been involved recently in two EU battlegroups — one which included Norway, a Nato member.

We don't have the resources to defend ourselves against military superpowers, or even put up some kind of show against them because spending on the Defence Forces has been so depleted it is now the lowest percentage of GDP in Europe.

The Defence Forces are clamouring for investment in emerging technology to monitor foreign powers, whoever they might be, and, without this, our country becomes even more dependent on the big two of the West — forcing us even further to rely on them and making it ever clearer that we are not neutral.

It is unlikely there will be any type of showdown off the coast when the Russian ships arrive. It is a sideshow to the Ukrainian situation.

However, it is a pointed one. The Russians are showing the West they have the power to mount operations on their weakest flank. Also, it is no coincidence that their ships will be positioned right over a number of fibre-optic cables laid on the seabed which carry millions of financial transactions between Europe and North America every day.

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