The use of a rare military grade nerve agent in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in England was a deliberately provocative move by Moscow.
The Russian government knew that blame for the attack would quickly be laid at the Kremlin’s door. The West would be outraged, diplomats expelled, and further sanctions imposed. President Putin’s regime wants us to think that they do not care.
The point of the attack was to send a message to the West: if we are capable of using chemical weapons in the UK, then tread lightly in future when it comes to Ukraine, Syria and the recruitment of intelligence agents, assistance to dissidents in Russia.
What if anything does this have to do with Ireland? The answer is that Ireland, too, is already under attack from Russia. Irish cyber security analysts have noted a significant escalation in Russian cyber attacks on the Irish public and private sector alike. This is part of a wider general pattern of increased Russian intelligence activity in Ireland.
Moscow abides by few if any rules when it comes to espionage. Critical national infrastructure – health, water, electricity services – is increasingly at risk, as the Russian state-linked cyber attack on ESB demonstrated last year.
Ciaran Martin, the Northern Irish head of the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), has warned that a Category One (C1) attack – crippling an area of critical national infrastructure for a period – is highly probable in the next few years. Responding to and containing a C1 attack on the UK will be a significant challenge for both states. The risk of contagion is obvious.
Ireland is an important cyber battlefield between Russia and the West. Some of the most sophisticated software companies in the world are based here, producing technology that is invested in and utilised by governments and businesses from around the world. Russia wants to hack these companies to steal secrets that gives it an advantage in the escalating cyber war.
Ireland is not only a technology hub but it is also the fibre-optic bridge for superfast internet cables between North America and Europe; the protection of these cables in Irish waters is a matter of increasing concern to our Nato allies.
What is the Government doing to counter this threat?
There is some good news. The drawing up of a national cyber security strategy, the establishment and resourcing of an Irish National Cyber Security Centre and the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau are positive steps to deal with the increased threat from Russia and others who wish to steal information from the Irish Government and private sector.
But there are limitations to what the NCSC and gardai can do. The NCSC monitors, warns and responds to cyber security threats, particularly with respect to the private sector – a useful function in itself. However, it is not a signals intelligence service with a mission to gather, secure and exchange online intelligence to further Irish national security interests.
Ireland must also have the capacity to keep intelligence received from foreign partners secure – doubts persist in the US and in Europe about whether Ireland has the security infrastructure to do so, limiting the extent of intelligence that foreign governments will share. But the State also has sensitive policy differences relating to on-going discussions with even its closest allies such as the UK. These must remain secret.
The Garda Crime and Security Branch has won a reputation at home and abroad for resourcefulness and tenacity. But ultimately specialised units such as Security and Intelligence and the National Cyber Crime Bureau are relatively starved of resources compared with many similarly sized European countries.
Crime detection, evidence collection for the purposes of prosecution and conviction are rightly often the criteria by which Government ministers and the public judge the performance of their police service. Security intelligence is more focused on collecting information, often secret, that informs policymakers about possible or emerging threats in the cyber domain, other foreign intelligence activities or in counter-terrorism – threats that may not yet warrant a major police investigation, operation or arrests.
Asking a single Assistant Commissioner to assume responsibility for both these distinctive, if complementary roles – investigating serious crimes and analysing possible future threats – is excessive. A separation, at least, is required within An Garda Siochana. Both major crime investigation and security intelligence should not have to compete for attention and resources from the same branch.
As well as establishing a signals intelligence service the Government should appoint a National Security Adviser to work as the principal secretary to the Government Security Committee, chair quadrennial reviews of national security, devise and monitor implementation of inter-departmental plans to enhance security and produce all-source intelligence assessments.
He or she would lead a National Security Secretariat situated in and reporting to the Taoiseach.
The Government should also move to introduce a National Security Bill, articulating its case for increased security vigilance and more effective oversight (including by the judiciary) over the national intelligence function. All these measures will require a modest investment of political and fiscal capital. But the dividends are critically important: nothing less than the measure of Irish sovereignty in the 21st Century is at stake.
Dr Edward Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His book, An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland, is published in paperback this month by Liverpool University Press