Return of the Irish Guerrilla — Part 1

by Robert Gilbey

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Reforming the Reserve Defence Forces to include an Irregular Reserve Force as part of an Irish Resistance Operating Concept

It might be argued that consciously modern guerrilla methods first emerged successfully in Ireland[1]. The Irish Defence Forces itself takes its lineage from the Irish Volunteers. Indeed, Irish irregular and guerrilla campaigns from the Easter Rising, to the War of Independence through to the Irish Civil War still frame the sense of Irish identity today.

A popular argument is regularly made that the Irish, in the unlikely event of invasion, rather than compete conventionally, would simply revert to guerrilla warfare to repel an occupying force as they have done so in the past[2]. It is one thing to say what will be done, it is quite another to explain how. This argument also glosses neatly over hundreds of years of oppressive occupation, not to mention the advantageous alignment of circumstances — such as a first of kind, industrial scale world war — that by chance fermented the opportunity for the success of the Easter Rising. Nonetheless, there is merit to the idea that Ireland should include an irregular warfare capability within the broader scheme of its domestic defence planning as part of a Resistance Operating Concept.

State-on-state conflict has always been relatively rare, and it is getting rarer. At the same time, irregular warfare has historically been and will probably continue to be the main form of organised violence across the planet[3]. Such is the prevalence of Irregular Warfare that the latest US National Defence Strategy, recognising it as a feature of Great Power Competition, included a dedicated Irregular Warfare Annex[4], which has been credited by some commentators in the National Security space.

Ireland’s capacity to compete in state-on-state conflict is limited at best. There is no public appetite in Ireland for it to develop competitive standalone conventional military capabilities, nor is Ireland’s policy of military non-alignment conducive to collective defence and security in the event of state-on-state conflict. Ireland is the largest per capita contributor in the Western European and Others Grouping at the United Nations[5]. However, at 0.3% GDP, Ireland’s defence spending is the lowest in Europe[6].

Against this backdrop, the Permanent Defence Forces (PDF) are struggling to contain a retention crisis, with a turnover rate that stands at 9% overall, and 14% in the Naval Service[7]. In the case of the Reserve Defence Force, the latest figures show the Army Reserve has fallen to 1,541 effective personnel, which is 39% of its proper strength which should be 3,869. Meanwhile, the Naval Service Reserve is at 122, which is at 61% of its strength. It should be at least 200.[8]

Recently, the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs — Mr Simon Coveney TD, has announced Government approval for the establishment of an independent Commission on the Defence Forces[9]. Mr Coveney is on record saying that he encourages the Commission to be “ambitious and, if necessary, quite radical to reflect the future security and defence challenges we face”[10].

With Mr Coveney’s set level of ambition in mind, this series of articles has some suggestions on the radical reformation of the Reserve Defence Forces and how it can offer tangible solutions to Ireland’s defence and security challenges.

Working from blank canvass, this article proposes the establishment of three classes of Reserve Force.

1. Active Reserve — Part time professional component of the Defence Forces that are trained to support the full spectrum of operations at home and overseas in a combat support and combat service support capacity.

2. Inactive Reserve — A pool of former members of the Defence Forces (Permanent and Reserve) who do not participate in training but could be called upon in an emergency.

3. Irregular Reserve — County led volunteer units with limited paramilitary training designed for homeland defence as part of an Irish Resistance Operating Concept.

The next article will focus on proposals for an Active Reserve and Inactive Reserve. The following article will discuss the opportunities that exist by forming an Irregular Reserve.

[1] Townshend, Charles. “The Irish Republican Army and the Development of Guerrilla Warfare, 1916–1921.”

[2] “The reality is the only way we could defend ourselves would be in guerrilla warfare or through local resistance”Clare Daly on debating White Paper on Defence 30 June 2015.

[3] Kilcullen, David. “Out of the Mountains — the coming age of the urban guerrilla”



[6] Eurostat — How much do governments spend on defence?

[7] RACO Presentation to Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence: 30 May 2019

[8] O’Riordan, Sean — Irish Examiner — Army reserves at just a third of full strength — 12 Jul, 2020


[10] Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee Stage

IDFOC enables current and former officers of the Irish Defence Forces to connect in order to pursue opportunities of mutual benefit, support and friendship.

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