Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Partnership for Peace.

asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the Government's view on joining Partnership for Peace. [22193/98]

Partnership for Peace has been in existence since January 1994. The previous Government published a White Paper on Foreign Policy in 1996, which devoted a chapter to the new developments in European security and indicated that the benefits for Ireland of participation in PfP would be explored, and foresaw Irish participation in PfP. However, notwithstanding the approach set out in the White Paper, it seems that the previous Government deferred a decision on the issue of Irish participation in PfP. I also openly acknowledge that my party took a clear position on this matter prior to the last general election. When I became Minister, I reviewed the question of Ireland's participation in PfP. It was clear to me that there were sincerely held divided opinions on the matter in this House and among sections of the wider community. I therefore concluded that my two-fold priority should be, first, to enhance understanding and informed discussion of the realities of PfP and, second, in consequence, to move discussion away from the polarised views and slogans which seemed to me to characterise a good deal of such discussion as there was about PfP, on either side of the argument.

Accordingly, I welcomed in this House the initiative earlier this year of Deputy O'Malley, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, to devote attention to new developments in European security, including Ireland's possible participation in PfP. Deputy O'Malley, with other Deputies, including Deputies Gay Mitchell and Spring, has presided over several particularly informative and constructive sessions of the committee and that these have enhanced understanding of the issues within this House. All other European neutral countries, including Switzerland, are now members of Partnership for Peace, which is simply a flexible form of bilateral co-operation with the organisation that other European countries have recognised as having the principal role to play in keeping peace on the continent both now and in the future — that is, NATO.

I regard such debate and information gathering as both healthy and a necessary element in considering the issue of Ireland's participation in PfP.

Papers on PfP and on developments on European security more generally are being and have been prepared in the Department of Foreign Affairs, at my request. I have briefed the Government on the issue, with particular reference to the fact that Partnership for Peace has developed since 1994, but more particularly over the last year, into a major framework for co-operation, training and preparation for UN-mandated peacekeeping, humanitarian tasks and crisis management. I am keeping the issue of Irish participation in PfP under close and active review and welcome the ongoing public debate on the matter.

I welcome the warming of the Minister to this issue. He is a great deal more enthusiastic than he has been in the past. I detect a great change in his attitude to this matter. Perhaps this is because when another Deputy was the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on foreign affairs, the parliamentary party was not consulted and it was handed the document when it was printed. This is the petard on which our foreign policy has been hoisted.

Is the Minister aware that the White Paper on Foreign Policy stated that the overall objectives of Partnership for Peace are consistent with Ireland's approach to international peace and European security and participation could have several important advantages, which it then lists? Is he aware that the Secretary General of his Department, speaking at the foreign affairs committee last week said that it is obviously an advantage to be in Partnership for Peace and that it was peculiar for us to be outside it and the Defence Forces wished to have this advantage. The Secretary General clearly stated there were many reasons we should be in Partnership for Peace and few reasons we should not be. It may be that hell hath no fury like a Secretary General scorned, but Mr. McKernan has been much more forthcoming than the Minister. How can he say this matter is under examination when the Taoiseach told the Dáil on 20 October that the Government was examining the initiatives neutral countries might take collectively but was not thinking of Partnership for Peace? That conflicts with what the Minister has just told the House.

It does not, because at that time the Taoiseach would have been correct but since then the position has moved on, in the sense that I am seeking a debate, both inside and outside the House, on Partnership for Peace. That does not intrude on our neutrality, nor does it imply we will become members of the NATO military alliance. In his appearance before the committee the Secretary General of my Department endeavoured to respond as fully as possible to questions put to him by Members and in doing so he made clear he was not prejudging decisions which must be made at political level. He also underlined that the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs is to advise the Government and the Minister regarding the options for and conduct of foreign policy, not to make political judgments as such.

The facts speak for themselves. Partnership for Peace has existed since January 1994, almost five years, while this Government has been in office for less than a year and a half. The previous Government published a White Paper on foreign policy in 1996, which foresaw Irish participation in Partnership for Peace, as I said. It is curious that, notwithstanding the approach set out in the White Paper, the previous Government deferred the issue of Irish participation in Partnership for Peace. I have been Minister for Foreign Affairs for little over a year, I am now seeking a balanced and informed debate on the area, and I hope the Deputy will join me in this endeavour rather than dwelling on what did or did not happen in the past. It is my intention to consult broadly with organisations with an interest in this issue, such as NGOs, and within my party.

We have exceeded the time for Priority Questions and must proceed.

Can we ask supplementary questions in ordinary time?

I will allow one supplementary but I will not allow Deputy Spring because the question is not in his name.

If we are taking the question in ordinary time I will insist on asking a supplementary.

We cannot have supplementary questions relative to Priority Questions in ordinary time.

I have sought a debate on this for a year and the Minister has promised one, but we have not been given time. I welcome his change of heart because it is outrageous that our foreign policy interests are being damaged by this nonsense.

I gave the Deputy permission to ask a supplementary question, not to make a statement.

Does he agree our foreign policy interests are being damaged by aligning ourselves with the likes of Tajikistan instead of taking seriously our role in the European security architecture, and being one of the architects?

If the Deputy gives me space and time I will go into consultative mode and seek a wide range of opinion. Then I will make my decision.

We have been seeking the debate for a year.

I will have to go to Government, which will also have to make up its mind on the matter. In the meantime we are outside the Partnership for Peace — that is Government policy — but I am aware of the sincerely held views for and against.