There are several likely explanations for why whole-of-government approaches (WGAs) to external security crises are underdeveloped in Ireland compared to other EU countries. The majority of these are practical and related to the nation’s small geographical size and relatively small population. Both of these factors allow for the centralisation of government departments and agencies, and therefore make it possible to have all stakeholders in a particular external security crisis in the same room at the same time. Indeed, because of the ‘everyone knows everyone else’ factor that is unique to countries with smaller populations, the need for formal WGA structures has not been a priority. That is not to say that the WGA structures and protocols are nonexistent or that those that do exist are wholly deficient, but rather that they exist in a more ad hoc and informal manner without any strictly defined overarching policy or government documentation setting out how these structures may be operationalised.
The historical context is important for understanding why this informal WGA has been taken and is reflective of Ireland’s long-established and active engagement in international security – most notably, an unbroken record of 60 years’ service with UN peacekeeping missions. As a result of this historical context, Ireland has developed many informal and rapid-response mechanisms to gather key actors together in one room and to develop an effective plan for responding to external crises. Over time, this has evolved into what can be called a WGA to dealing with external security crises without being bogged down by unnecessary red tape and administrative logjamming. Particularly in the field of responses to external security crises, our WGA may be ad hoc and informal on paper. But, in practice, the relevant agencies and departments are able to organise, mobilise and deploy in a rapid and orderly manner.
There are mechanisms and processes that go into effect without the need for formal recognition of their existence and function, which in turn enables the relevant actors and agencies to cooperate and coordinate without the restrictions that formalisation brings. Of course, such a setup creates significant trade-offs. In the first place, there is little to no parliamentary interactions or cross-party consultation on responses to external crises. Information requests for briefings and updates can be made and are dealt with through the relevant constitutional channels, but this is considered to be the exception rather than the norm. The second considerable trade-off is that without any formal documentation of how WGAs are dealt with and the ways and means to carry out a WGA to external security crises, there is a risk of knowledge loss over time.