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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | Jan. 22, 2024

Guard Chief Hokanson Talks Security Cooperation in Ireland

By Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau

DUBLIN – The National Guard’s top general met with Irish Defence Forces and government leaders last week to discuss the potential for security cooperation engagements between the Republic of Ireland and the Guard.

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, told officials the 100-nation-strong Defense Department National Guard State Partnership Program is one of America’s most cost-effective security cooperation tools, benefitting both the U.S. and partner nations.

“When we work with like-minded partners, together we make the world a safer place for the advancement of our shared values,” Hokanson said.

Last July, Jacqui McCrum, secretary general of Ireland’s Department of Defence, met with Hokanson during the Guard’s SPP 30th anniversary event in Maryland to learn more about the program.

“One of the best things the Guard brings to partner nations is continuity and familiarity,” Hokanson told McCrum at the Irish Defence Department headquarters. “We have Guardsmen who live and serve in the same state and unit for their entire careers, so they often work with their international counterparts for long periods of time and develop lasting relationships.”

U.S. relations with Ireland have long been based on common ancestral ties and shared values. Some 30 million Americans claim Irish heritage. The two nations share strong economic, educational and cultural ties.

Ireland’s policy of military neutrality has long driven its independent foreign policy and is characterized by non-membership of military alliances or common or mutual defense arrangements. Ireland is one of five non-NATO European Union nations, though it does participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.

Amid Moscow’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Europe’s security prospects have dimmed. This new reality has affected how historically neutral countries view security cooperation with the United States and other allies.

"We have seen blatant and brutal disregard by Russia of international law and Europe's collective security architecture … and our traditional policy of military neutrality does not inure us from the need to respond to this new reality," Micheál Martin, Ireland’s Tánaiste and minister of foreign affairs and defense, said when he announced the establishment of an Irish Consultative Forum on International Security Policy last April.

The Tánaiste is Ireland’s deputy head of government, appointed by the president with the advice of the Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister.

"We need to have a serious and an honest conversation about the international security policy options available,” Martin said.

Hokanson sees the State Partnership Program as one such possibility. Established in 1993 to help former Soviet states emerge from behind the Iron Curtain, the program now boasts partner nations on every continent but Antarctica, paired with the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia.

Through the SPP, Guardsmen collectively conduct about 1,000 engagements per year, both stateside and abroad.

In July 2022, non-NATO and neutral Austria formally joined the State Partnership Program and was paired with the Vermont Guard, establishing an affiliation that U.S. Ambassador to Austria Victoria Kennedy called a “huge success” based on “common security interests.”

When meeting with Peter Burke, Ireland’s minister of state for European affairs and defense, Hokanson explained that the State Partnership Program is not one-size-fits-all, but scalable and tailorable to meet partner-nation needs.

“It can be as much, or as little as you want it to be,” the CNGB told Burke.

Emergency and disaster response are areas of potential Guard engagement with Ireland. Cyber defense is another. In 2021, Ireland’s publicly funded health care system suffered a major ransomware cyberattack that prompted the government to reexamine the way it handles these threats.

Hokanson pointed to the Guard’s cyber capabilities.

“Some of the best cyber units in our Defense Department exist in the National Guard,” he said. “There are cyber units in 42 states that can help civil authorities. One reason they are so good is because many of them bring civilian-acquired skills to their military jobs.”

Lt. Gen. Sean Clancy, Irish Defence Forces chief of staff, told Hokanson the force is working to refine its culture and overhaul its structure. He also expressed a need for Ireland’s forces to be more postured for defense and collective security and said there are challenges with reserve integration — all areas where the CNGB sees the Guard as a suitable partner.

“As the second-largest U.S. military organization after the Army, we continually look at force structure to ensure we are seamlessly compatible with the Army and the Air Force,” Hokanson said. “The Guard now has eight Army divisions and 90 Air Force wings — both the products of continual force design.”

While the SPP starts at the military-to-military level, whole-of-society relationships often bloom. Economic and policy exchanges, trade apprenticeship opportunities and university collaboration have developed through other partnerships.