Ireland has ‘acute’ national security problem, conference hears

Irish universities unable to take part in joint bids for EU funding because Ireland has no system for national security clearance

Ireland has an “acute” national security problem in respect of authoritarian states such as Russia and China but refuses to confront it, a conference on Ireland’s relationship with China heard on Thursday.

Because Ireland had no system for national security clearance, Irish universities had not been able to take part in joint bids for EU funding in respect of projects in the security and defence realm, and Irish academics had been kept out of EU security groups because they were not able to get security clearance, Ben Tonra of UCD told the conference.

“Ireland has no national security culture. It has no national security infrastructure. It has no national security conversation,” the professor of international relations said. “We have no national security agency, we have no counter espionage capacity, we have no system for national security clearance.”

Ireland had a national security problem that was not specific to China, he said. “It is acute in respect to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia and it is something that the Irish State is, unfortunately, simply failing to deal with.”


Ireland sought to attract investment from both China and the US, presented itself as a champion of human rights while making “pro forma condemnations” of Chinese violations of human rights, and presented itself as a champion of small nations while not having a representative office in Taiwan, he said.

“Ireland wants the maximum wiggle room and to get as much as it can out of the system,” he said.

Alexander Davey, an analyst with the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said Chinese students who get scholarships from their government to study abroad had to agree that they would obey Chinese law when living abroad. He wondered if Irish universities that entered into agreements with China “knew what they were getting into”.

Prof Tonra said Irish universities, “desperate for income, desperate to pay salaries and keep the lights on”, were becoming a small export industry looking to China, a big export market, but some academics lecturing on China, especially those at the outset of their careers, had to censor themselves least they are the subject of complaints.

After a recent event at his university about Chinese oppression in Xinjiang, “I had three emails, remarkably similarly worded, from patriotic young Chinese students, threatening me with reporting me to the university authorities for things I had said or tweets I had made in respect of this.”

He said his replies to the emails were “very short” but that younger colleagues would not want to have their contracts threatened by the university receiving complaints from “patriotic Chinese students” about something that had been said in class.

A number of speakers during the conference, which was organised by UCD and the University of Notre Dame, discussed the likelihood of war between the US and China arising from tensions over Taiwan and elsewhere.

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Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent