Other Questions. - Military Neutrality.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

6 Mr. O'Dowd asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the reason a declaration, rather than a protocol, concerning Ireland's policy of neutrality has been sought. [15031/02]

John Gormley

Question:

59 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the outcome of the EU Summit in Seville, particularly in relation to the Declaration on Neutrality to be attached to the Nice treaty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14809/02]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 6 and 59 together.

As the Taoiseach said in the Dáil on Tuesday, the Government secured agreement at the Seville European Council on a National Declaration and a European Council Declaration which confirm that Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality is in full conformity with our obligations under existing EU treaties, including the Treaty of Nice. The National Declaration confirms that Ireland is not party to any mutual defence commitment, that we are not party to any plans for a so-called European army and that we will continue to take our sovereign decision, on a case-by-case basis, on whether the Defence Forces will participate in humanitarian or crisis management tasks undertaken by the EU, based on the triple lock guarantee of UN endorsement, Government decision and Dáil approval. The Government has said there will be no change to that situation unless the people first give their assent in a referendum.

The Seville European Council Declaration confirms that there are no obligations on Ireland arising from the EU treaties which would oblige us to depart from our policy of military neutrality. That understanding is shared by our EU partners, including our fellow neutrals Austria, Finland and Sweden. If the people consent to Ireland ratifying the Treaty of Nice in a referendum to take place in the autumn, the Seville Declarations will be annexed to Ireland's instrument of ratification and forwarded to the United Nations.

Deputy O'Dowd asked why the Government did not seek a protocol. The answer is quite clear. We do not need a protocol because our neutrality is fully protected under the EU treaties. The Seville Declarations make that clear. However, if we did need a protocol, it would have to be ratified by all member states in the same way as the Nice treaty. The other member states have made it clear that they are unwilling to reopen the treaty package, although the question of a protocol does not arise.

All the safeguards for our traditional policy of military neutrality are already present in the existing EU treaties. It was not necessary to seek an opt-out from obligations which do not exist. Successive Governments have negotiated successfully to make sure that is the case. I assure the House that the Government will continue to work to secure the best interests of the people in Europe. It is my belief that can best be achieved through ratification of the Treaty of Nice.

Will the Minister confirm that section 9 of Part II of the Schedule to the Twenty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2002, which was circulated this afternoon, elevates to constitutional status the de facto position and puts paid to the claims that ratification of the Nice treaty is ratification of a common defence position? I ask the Minister to confirm that this does not tie the hands of the Government or the Dáil in so far as the Dáil may wish to act in future. For example, will the Minister confirm that if an event comparable to what happened in the United States on 11 September last were to happen in any part of Europe or, God forbid, on this island, the Government would still be in a position to act to defend the best interests of Ireland, acting in concert with other EU member states where it might choose to do so, and secure the European Union on an intergovernmental basis and outside of any provisions of the treaty?

The essence of the proposed constitutional amendment is that it provides an absolute safeguard that Ireland will not adopt a decision of the European Council to establish a common defence without a further referendum. This means that Ireland will never be part of a binding mutual defence commitment within the European Union unless the people decide otherwise through another amendment to the Constitution. That is a clear statement of fact which has been given constitutional expression in the proposal being brought forward in the referendum Bill. Having listened to the concerns expressed and considered the forum report the Government has provided a clear outline of Ireland's position with regard to existing treaty provisions. This includes our obligations and safeguards in the event that ratification of the Treaty of Nice proceeds. It confirms that this is an area of policy in which we have retained the discretion of the Government and the Dáil to decide, on a case by case basis, whether we participate in any crisis management or humanitarian task set out in the treaties as per the Petersberg tasks, the legal basis on which the Union acts in this matter.

In order that there will be no further effort to distort the situation we are giving constitutional expression to the factual position. This has been stated in the statutory declaration and will now form part of our Constitution for that purpose. That is an important reassurance, confirming the bona fides of the Government to deal with this matter in a clear, up-front and proper way in order that we can get down to the debate concerning our national interests, as affected by the Treaty of Nice, in respect of our economic and social development. That is the purpose, the prospect, the reasoning and the result of very long and careful consideration of these matters by the Government since the establishment of the forum.

Ireland's position, outside of any common defence that might be agreed by the European Council, is fully safeguarded through this proposed amendment to the Constitution. It puts to rest, definitively, the false argument propagated by the "No" proponents that the State could adopt a common defence policy without a referendum. I hope the bona fides of the Government will now be accepted by all in relation to this matter.

We do not accept the Government's bona fides in this matter. Will the Minister, please, confirm to the House and the people that the declaration from Seville will not affect in the slightest the fact that US planes are refuelling at Shannon Airport, that there are US military personnel there, that there are manoeuvres taking place off the coast of County Kerry and that all this will continue? None of this will be brought before the House for approval and the declaration will have no effect on it.

I confirm that the normal, routine arrangements made by other states regarding the landing of aircraft in this country are unchanged by this or any other declaration. That is provided for by law in our existing legislative provisions and I have no problem in explaining any of them. Once again, the Deputy is introducing a complete red herring.

Will the Minister explain the reason such matters were brought before this House during the Gulf war, but since we signed the Amsterdam Treaty, which was a huge erosion of Irish neutrality, they have not been brought before the House?

I have acted legally in all circumstances. The Deputy is displaying another example of the type of flailing we can expect from the "No" campaign in relation to this issue.

(Interruptions.)

I call Deputy Gay Mitchell. I will allow Deputy Gormley a further opportunity.

The Minister did not refer to part of my initial question. Outside of the amendment as proposed in Schedule 2, which will be put to the people in the referendum, will the Minister confirm that the hands of the Government or the Dáil are not being tied where, intergovernmentally or by the wishes of the Dáil, we wish to act in concert with others to defend our own interests or assist others in times of conflict? The operative word was "binding"– the Minister said it was not binding – but I presume the option is still open to us. I ask the Minister to assure the House on this.

There is no other change in relation to the pursuance of our foreign policy in this matter, other than as I have outlined it. We fully participate in European security and defence policies, consistent with our foreign policy traditions. In every case we take decisions as a sovereign Government. Our participation is dependent on UN endorsement, Government decision and Dáil approval in respect of any of these matters.

The Minister has not answered my point in relation to US military involvement at Shannon Airport.

It seems I am now being asked to make constitutional provision for refuelling of aircraft.

(Interruptions.)

I welcome the Government's willingness to respond to one of the key Labour Party demands, before the next referendum, to have a constitutional lock on the important issue of neutrality. Does the Minister agree that this goes beyond the earlier form of the declaration sought at the European Council in Seville? At this stage, given that he is in a mood to respond to some of the key demands being made, will the Minister now confirm that the question to be put at the time of the referendum differs substantially from the original question? Is he in a position to suggest when the legislation to deliver trans parency and change the legislative institutional arrangements will come before the House? Will time be provided by the Government to enact one version of the Labour Party's Bill in relation to European Union institutional reform before the referendum?

The Deputy is correct in saying the insertion of this provision in the Constitution, which involves significant change from the provisions suggested in the last Nice treaty referendum, guarantees that Ireland could not participate in a common defence without further amendment of the Constitution. That amendment will only be made if the people vote in favour of it in a future referendum. It gives constitutional effect to the solemn commitment in the national declaration by Ireland at Seville that a referendum would be held in Ireland on the adoption of the decision taken by the European Union to move to a common defence. This commitment has been the position of successive Governments. There is treaty provision for it. The statutory declaration confirms the factual position in political terms. We are now giving constitutional effect to that position. Accordingly, there can be no doubt on the part of any reasonable person who has had concerns in relation to this matter as to what the position is. We have brought clarity to the position which in the past was subject to obfuscation and wilful distortion of the facts. I do not wish to say more than that on the matter. I recall what people said then and compare it with what they are saying now. They now complain that we are stating the obvious, but it was not very obvious to them on the last occasion. They said the very opposite to the people.

I make it very clear to Deputy Higgins that I welcome open, transparent and accountable systems in the House to enhance the role of our own Parliament in relation to European matters. This includes the need to monitor and the need for our parliamentarians to be involved in monitoring, suggesting and formulating policy and working with the Executive in a way that will defend and extend our interests in the European Union.

I refer to what has been said in the statement accompanying this Bill. The Select Committee on European Affairs has now been formulated. It will consider how legislative effect can be given to agreed arrangements and ideas on how we can improve the accountability mechanisms in the House regarding European legislation and European decision making.

We will now proceed to Question No. 7.

May I ask a brief supplementary question?

We are over the time limit and must proceed to Question No. 7.

The Minister is afraid to take my question.

I am fed up listening to the Deputy.