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Air traffic over Ireland and the UK

The leader of the Republic of Ireland, Mr Varadkar, has issued what many consider to be one of the silliest threats regarding a “no-deal Brexit” to have emerged in recent weeks. He has stated that if the UK does not allow Irish fishing boats to continue to access UK waters then he will ban the flying of UK aircraft over Irish airspace. This would, apparently, apply to both civilian and military flights. (Ireland is not a NATO member and  therefore does not benefit from integrated European military radar systems nor NATO equipment.)

In his various statements, timed to coincide with the PM’s visit to Northern Ireland, Varadkar said:

“If they (the UK) want their planes to fly over our skies, they would need to take that into account. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky.”

At the moment, the RAF has the authority to fly in Irish airspace in order to deal with identified or presumed threats, such as that of a hijacked-airliner that might be used in the style of the Twin Tower attacks. Given that the Irish air force is very small, has no jets and almost nothing in the way of armed aircraft, reports of an agreement reached last year between the UK and Ireland, by which the UK would effectively go to the assistance of the Irish, makes a lot of sense. It follows a series of increasingly aggressive Russian incursions into Irish and UK airspace, one of which was reported in the Irish press as follows:

“The Irish ability to respond to Russian aircraft entering Irish airspace has become something of a concern in recent weeks. Russian military aircraft entered Irish controlled airspace twice in recent weeks and months, with the result of the RAF escorting the unwanted guest along the west coast and the Irish authorities later admitting they didn’t even realise what was happening at the time.

The Irish Aviation Authority recently confirmed that two commercial flights, with hundreds of passengers on board, were disrupted due to Russian bombers entering Irish-controlled airspace on February 18.

The Irish Aviation Authority confirmed to Newstalk Lunchtime on February 19 that it monitored the activity of the aircraft, but stated: “The flight posed no safety threat to civil aviation on this occasion.”

The bombers were capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The RAF deployed Typhoon fighter jets to escort a Russian aircraft that had ventured to close to British airspace on the same day.

In January Russian bombers flew past the west coast of Ireland, escorted by British fighter jets, as Ireland is considered within the UK’s ‘area of interest’ for defence.” 

Dublin-based Newstalk/Irish Examiner, March 2015.

That said, it remains to be seen just how Mr Varadkar would explain matters to the Irish people if, on a point of principle, some act of air-terrorism were to go wholly unchallenged (one can only hope this circumstance never arises). Presumably the Irish tax-payers would be delighted to step up to the bar to fund a real air force. Failing that, and given recent reports about the parlous state of the German air force, perhaps he will try to persuade the French to base some units in the republic, an act strangely reminiscent of Napoleonic times when it was feared that Ireland would be the open back-door to a French invasion force heading for England.

Were Britain to reciprocate, transatlantic passenger flights would be adversely affected and the whole basis upon which cheaper and fuel-efficient aircraft have been developed would have to be re-examined given that a number of current aircraft would not be able to reach continental Europe from the US with adequate margins for error in terms of fuel.  Added to this would be the additional time – and of course, costs.

Setting aside the absolute nonsense about the UK  expecting to “to take back other people’s sky,” the basis of flights over Europe as a whole was determined by the International Air Services Transit Agreement,  signed from 1944 onwards by 133 countries. Ireland signed up to the agreement in 1957 and it would have to extract itself from that commitment if it were actually to carry out this recent threat. Until that happens, the treaty specifically states that countries are forbidden from discriminating against the nationality of an aircraft in order to prevent any one nation from imposing arbitrary and unilateral bans of this sort.

Other agreements about air travel have been produced since 1944, the most recent being the 2007 EU–US Open Skies Agreement which allows aircraft to fly between the two continents and then on to subsequent destinations within European or US territory. This contained an associated agreement over the landing rights at Heathrow which can be carved out of the main Open Skies document and which is the subject of current talks to set up a separate US-UK Air Transport Agreement.

The resilience of air-routes is perhaps best demonstrated by the way in which, even during the Russian attack on the Crimea and mainland Ukraine, no restrictions on air-travel were imposed for legal reasons. This reflected the clear intent of the First Freedom of the Air which reads as follows:

“First Freedom of the Air – the right or privilege, in respect of scheduled international air services, granted by one State to another State or States to fly across its territory without landing (also known as a First Freedom Right).”

Perhaps the clearest message to come out of Mr Varadkar’s utterances is that the world has become so complex that you have to be very careful before making such simplistic statements. Just like some military plans, they seldom survive contact with the thinking press and public.

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