I first came across Tom Clonan (or Cadet Clonan, as he was known) in The Irish Times Debating competition when I was student at University College Cork. Maybe it was the seriousness that came from military training, but he had so much more gravitas that the rest of us. He did not win the competition. The jokey, very non-serious format would always make that hard.
The kind of people that win debating competitions are more like the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson or the comedian Dara Ó Briain. People able to make smart alec points shamelessly and with comic timing. By contrast, if you are in the Defence Forces, debate is a much more serious thing. Even if you are serving mostly on peace keeping missions, you have a loaded gun in your hands and people who are prepared to kill you.
As an MBA professor, we get a lot of ex-military taking our programs. That’s not unusual. Mormons, military and McKinsey are the three Ms said to characterise the student body at Harvard Business School. The Israelis are fascinating and mostly say serving in the Israeli Defence Force is not half as character-building as you read about in books such as Startup Nation.
The US Ex-Special Forces guys can be hard to get anything out of. They mostly put that period of their lives into a box and speak about it as little as possible. You know what they are thinking, though, when they see people complaining about some first world convenience. Finding paper for the photocopier is a trivial problem compared to being dropped behind enemy lines on a seek and destroy mission. I have great respect for the military and even more now their political masters cynically play with their lives. U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair ignored warnings from French President Jacques Chirac on the eve of invading Iraq, prompting Blair to comment “Oh dear, dear old Jacques, he doesn’t get it”. It was in fact Tony who didn’t get it. Chirac had been a young soldier in Algeria and knew exactly what to expect.
Clonan retired from the Defence Forces in 2000 and is now a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology. He and I are in occasional contact and I always read his columns in The Journal. However, I really got to know his story via The Stand podcast with Eamon Dunphy. First in Episode 35, where he discusses Ireland´s neutrality and again when Eamon brought him back in Episode 53 to discuss the terror threat. He speaks knowledgeably and credibly about a world as far away from the escapism that is celebrity gossip as is possible. If you are interested in security matters, the podcasts are available for free to stream or download and I cannot recommend them highly enough. But even if you are not, I like to reference a quote attributed to Leon Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ Because, as Tom tells Eamon, he expects a conventional land war in Europe in the coming years. As, he says, does every reputable intelligence analyst.
In geopolitical terms, the world has never been more unstable. The threat to Ireland comes from two places. The first is that because of Brexit a hard border will once again be introduced between the six counties and the rest of the country. Dissident elements, who have never gone away, will attack these outposts. Smuggling will revive criminality, particularly as both An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces will have to retrain the skills of a generation who have never had to deal with this threat.
The second threat will come as Ireland is seen as a soft touch by both state and non-state actors. Ireland is one of few countries which does not separate the security from the policing of the state. This means that intelligence is politicised, something that doesn’t happen to the same extent with the DGSE in France, MI6 in the UK or the CIA in the USA. The latest census also showed that 17.3% of the population were born outside the State.
Growing up in Limerick, I knew most of my neighbours and very few, if any, were not an integrated part of the community. The statistics would suggest that the situation has changed and while I think this is overwhelmingly a good thing, it just takes one or two rotten apples to cause mischief. If a target is identified, will a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone (or even from a newer and better generation of technology) be used to take them out?
I hope none of this comes to pass but there does seem to be a generation now in charge that is happy to use nationalism where it suits them for short term political gain. Instead of the hard job which is switching from consumption-lead growth to investment-lead growth, passions are stoked, and alliances broken up by a mediocre bunch who think politics is more
The West Wing and less The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Clonan lays the blame for a lot of this at the feet of Tony Blair and George W. Bush for their decision to unilaterally invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Once the international rulebook was torn up, actors such as Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader in Iran saw their chance and acted to destabilize. Some sort of European Army and a nuclear armed Middle East now looks inevitable. History tells us that once rearming takes place, it inevitably leads to war. Will this time be any different?