Priority Questions.

Emergency Planning.

Dinny McGinley

Question:

1 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence the membership of the Government Task Force on Emergency Planning; the number of meetings held since its inception; the meetings that have been held since the Madrid bombings; and if new initiatives are being adopted to secure the safety of citizens and our territorial integrity. [9342/04]

Joe Sherlock

Question:

2 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence if he will outline the work of the office of emergency planning; if the office intends to take new initiatives in view of the Madrid bombing atrocity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9397/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Before answering, I would like to extend my condolences to all those who died and were injured in the terrible events which occurred in Madrid on 11 March. I am sure the House will join with me in condemning unreservedly this horrific attack on innocent people going about their ordinary business.

The Government Task Force on Emergency Planning, which I chair, was established in October 2001. The membership of the task force includes senior officials of Departments, senior officers of the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána, and key public authorities which have a lead or support role in Government emergency planning. The work of the task force continues and there have been 30 meetings to date. The most recent meeting was held on 18 February 2004 and I will chair the next meeting later this afternoon.

The office of emergency planning maintains direct contact with all Departments responsible for emergency planning through an established first point of contact mechanism, set up and maintained by the office since 2001. Following the Madrid bombings, the office of emergency planning availed of these established contacts to seek relevant information on the State's preparedness in response to such incidents and I await reports at the task force meeting later today. Departments have been regularly asked to look at the issues concerning their plans and to report to the task force.

Planning for major accidents and emergencies has been ongoing for many years at local level and co-ordinated on a regional basis, in accordance with the Government major emergency planning framework. As chairperson of the task force, I requested all authorities to review their emergency plans and revise them as appropriate. This has led to a thorough examination and evaluation of emergency plans to ensure that arrangements are current and effective.

The focus of this work continues to be on taking the necessary precautions to, at best, prevent or, at least, minimise the risks from terrorist activities, ensuring that the protection available to the people is maximised, putting mechanisms in place to support the response agencies and providing co-ordination for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

A critical issue in an emergency is issuing adequate and timely warnings and providing the necessary information to the public on threatened or developing emergencies. Television and radio broadcasting will be the key means of contact with the public in such circumstances but all other means of communication will also be used. The office of emergency planning was established following a Government decision in October 2001. The office continues to work with Departments and other public authorities to ensure the best possible use of resources and compatibility between different planning requirements. A key area of activity is oversight of emergency planning, to refine and develop the arrangements that exist, continuously to improve them through review and revision, and generally to provide the basis for increased confidence in the emergency planning process.

The objective of the Government is to ensure that all State bodies can react quickly and efficiently to any large-scale emergency. I continue to take the approach that such responses should be characterised by effective management of all aspects of emergency planning and by a high level of public confidence in all the response arrangements. I am pleased to report that there continues to be excellent co-operation between my Department and all other Departments and agencies through these mechanisms.

I continue to report regularly in confidence to Government on emergency planning, most recently last October. That report noted that the year had been one of consolidation of emergency planning development. Steps are being taken to build on the work done since 2001, to formalise the arrangements in place and lay the groundwork for the future. Those involved, principally the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, continue to monitor potential threats to the State arising from international terrorism.

The Garda authorities assess the terrorist threat to Europe from Islamic extremists as high but that is reduced in the Irish context. Awareness that the situation could change rapidly, and with little warning, has ensured that vigilance is maintained. International linkages have also been important as a means of sharing expertise and resources. The European Union continues to develop a programme to improve co-operation within the Union and candidate countries, to prevent and limit any consequences of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear terrorist threats. The EU civil protection mechanism and other international mechanisms provide Ireland with some warning and alert systems and mechanisms for helping in emergencies. The Taoiseach, in his role as President of the European Council, recently issued a statement on proposals to counter terrorism in the aftermath of the 11 March terrorist attacks in Madrid. These proposals will inform the discussions taking place at the European Council meeting being held today.

I would like to be associated with the Minister's remarks of condolence to all those who suffered and to the families of those who lost their lives in the Madrid atrocity. Who knows where such an incident will happen next? Does the Minister agree that our approach to security and defence is fragmented and is there any way co-ordination could be improved? For example, two committees deal with this, the National Security Committee that deals with assessment or review of threats and the task force the Minister mentioned. In the wake of the Madrid bombing does the Minister consider it a good idea to put the office of emergency planning on a statutory footing, as the Taoiseach suggested in a recent Dáil statement?

In a report delivered to Government last October, the emergency planning service criticised the piecemeal approach to planning for emergency here. It recommended that a single body with responsibility for security be established and report to the highest office in Government. This has happened in several countries since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. Has the Minister considered this report? Does he accept its findings that weaknesses in Ireland's emergency planning were highlighted by the way in which the SARS threat was handled? The report also states that the Government reaction to a possible nuclear alert highlighted the inadequacy of our preparations. Following the mass circulation of iodine tablets in 2002 will the Minister describe what other preparations are in place to counter the threat posed by a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, for example in the United Kingdom. Does he feel that we are prepared to deal with such an eventuality on our own?

The National Security Committee reports to the Taoiseach and Government on high level security issues but is not involved in the operational security activities whereas the task force is directly involved in the co-ordination of the type of operation and emergency plans which must be undertaken. There was a recommendation that this could be co-ordinated by a single statutory organisation. This would be very difficult in practice. For instance, the Department of Health and Children dealt with the anthrax scare, with regard to protocols and the testing in the United Kingdom and the protective suits purchased for the Army and the gardaí investigating these matters. Almost all those events were hoaxes.

With regard to aircraft one must consider security of the cabin of the airport which is the responsibility of the relevant agencies. The Department of Agriculture and Food handled the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government deals with flooding and similar problems and, together with the Radiological Institute, it also responds to nuclear incidents. When one pieces together the various types of threat, one sees the need to involve specialists appropriate to each. For example, to deal with the threat of smallpox, the Department of Health and Children must purchase medicines, set up protocols, decide on isolation hospitals, train staff, and decide on the course to take. I will not rule any suggestions in or out but will listen to everything and do the best I can. The best approach is to allow the agencies and the Departments with distinct responsibilities, provided they are well managed and resourced and have the right information, personnel and so on, to deal with the matters.

I will be brief and will accept a short reply. We are all deeply shocked by the recent Madrid bombings which took 200 lives and we extend our deepest sympathy to the Spanish people on their terrible loss.

The Minister said that the task force has met. Without wishing to create alarm, the Madrid bombings show that no area of Europe is not at risk. In light of those bombings, has the task force undertaken any risk assessment of the situation here? Is there co-operation between the Garda and the Army and is there any plan to deal with the risk of terrorist attacks?

Bearing in mind that the Garda is primarily responsible for security issues, it is supported by the Defence Forces whenever the need arises or a call is made on them and there is considerable co-operation between them. The co-operation is fundamental and works excellently without difficulty.

The first item on the agenda of each meeting of the task force is risk assessment. Usually, the Deputy Commissioner who has carried out the assessment reports to the task force. Each time we have asked for a report we have been informed that the risk is low. However, we have no scope for complacency and must be constantly vigilant. The Islamic threat to parts of Europe is estimated to be high, but relatively low to Ireland. However, as a result of experience and of what we have seen, we take nothing for granted.

I would be delighted to be able to inform Deputies Sherlock, McGinley and Ó Snodaigh, and the House, that we can counter every circumstance. In the past attacks of this kind were, by and large, predicated on the basis that the people pressing the button would escape with their lives, whereas now we are dealing with suicide bombers. This pushes the limits of security endeavour to extremes with which it never before had to cope.

There is no point in saying we have absolute security or certainty. However, we are trying to ensure intelligence is shared, terrorist cells are broken up and the people involved are caught before heading to their destination to carry out these crimes. This is a big task for the international community and we support it in whatever way we can. As far as risk assessment here is concerned, the advice from the Garda is that the risk is low but that we should not be complacent.

From the point of view of intelligence and defence, our approach to security appears too prompt. We know there is a lot happening on the intelligence front as there have been meetings in Brussels and elsewhere between Ministers but often defence does not get as much emphasis as it should. I know the Ministers had a meeting during the week with Mr. Javier Solana. Was defence co-operation between us and our friends in Europe discussed at that meeting?

Deputy McGinley is invariably well informed. However, the events in Kosovo required the presence of Mr. Solana and therefore the meeting did not take place. The meeting has been rescheduled but I have not got the final arrangement.

Will mutual defence be discussed?

We will meet as soon as possible. All these issues will be on the agenda for the ministerial Council meeting which will take place on 5 and 6 April.

Defence Policy.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

3 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence the impact to date on defence spending of EU defence measures, including Irish commitments under the Helsinki Headline Goal; and the anticipated impact on defence spending over the next ten years by EU defence-related measures and commitments. [9444/04]

The House will no doubt agree that defence and defence policy is a fundamental expression of national sovereignty. In that context, defence spending is a matter for the Government and has to be undertaken in a prudent and balanced fashion having due regard to the prevailing national socio-economic environment.

The Government's White Paper on Defence, published in February 2000, set out a medium-term strategy for defence covering the period up to 2010. A major objective of the strategy is to ensure that Ireland has a world class military organisation capable of carrying out the roles assigned to it by the Government, both at home and abroad. This objective requires an ongoing modernisation process, including an investment programme to ensure that the Defence Forces are properly equipped for these roles.

On 15 July 1998, the Government approved a programme of evacuation and sale of six barracks, which were considered surplus to military requirements. The money generated from these sales has been reinvested in the Defence Forces in terms of equipment and infrastructure, consistent with the policy laid out in the White Paper.

Equipment such as armoured personnel carriers, protective clothing, new generation radio equipment, night vision equipment and trainer aircraft which have been acquired under the investment programme, are essential for improving the efficiency, professionalism and safety of the Defence Forces. It would be wrong to suggest that investment in such equipment, which is required regardless of Ireland's participation in the European Security and Defence Policy, is being spent because of our commitments to the Helsinki headline goal.

I take this opportunity to remind the Deputy that national sovereignty and voluntarism are the fundamental underlying principles of participation in the European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP. Participation in any specific operation by member states is decided on a case by case basis and in accordance with respective national decision-making procedures.

The Minister is aware that the draft common defence provisions of Article 40 and the related mutual defence provisions of Article 42 are controversial. When I tried to discover the state of play with regard to Article 40, I was unable to get a direct answer. The press reported that when the constitutional talks broke down the Article 40 provisions had been agreed and signed off. However, the Taoiseach later denied that. A number of measures, which involve defence spending commitments by this country, have since been agreed by the Council behind closed doors. If commitments are made, defence spending goes out of our hands. Before the process on the constitutional treaty is reopened, the people have a right to know the truth of this. Will the Minister confirm whether Article 40, the common defence provisions, have been agreed? More importantly, has the Government agreed to them and, if so, on what terms?

The question of defence budgets is a matter for a sovereign decision in each of the member states. While some countries have indicated that they may increase defence expenditure, the majority of EU member states are maintaining expenditure at existing levels or decreasing expenditure.

I have tried to ensure a creative approach to investment in the Defence Forces through the sale of surplus properties and the reinvestment of income from these sales to improve the capacity of our forces to undertake whatever missions may be required. For example, we would not have been able to undertake the Liberian mission without the type of equipment recently purchased for our Defence Forces which puts them in as secure a position as possible to take on relatively dangerous missions of that kind.

In so far as the new constitution is concerned, these matters are currently being debated. Although there are some optimistic signs, it is not clear yet that the constitution will be agreed. Agreement would be a fantastic achievement for the Irish Presidency and the people of Europe. When the decision is taken it will have to be ratified by the people. The decisions taken will be explained and the people will have to decide on the matter by way of plebiscite.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh can be assured this will remain a matter for the sovereign Government and the people in terms of our military neutrality and our capacity to make decisions on a case-by-case basis as to the mission in which we will be involved.

A number of EU measures have cost implications for military spending: the 2010 military harmonisation to which the Minister alluded; the EU armaments agency and the EU security directive which was agreed in December. Another factor in this regard is the non-compensation for the rapid reaction force commitments. In the past there was some return of money for UNSAS commitments. Have cost projections been done on a comparative cost analysis of the lack of compensation for our commitments in that regard?

We have serious international responsibilities. Developments in Kosovo in the past ten days demonstrated the need for the international community to be able to intervene quickly. Many lives have been saved by what the international community has been able to do in such circumstances. There are cost implications which we have been managing in a sensible way.

Most of what I have been able to do in terms of improving the infrastructure and equipment of the Defence Forces has been done without recourse to the taxpayer. It has been done by the disposal of surplus property. Deputy Ó Snodaigh can be assured that we will undertake our international responsibilities in a serious and responsible way. We will undertake missions on a case-by-case basis by decisions of the House and the Government. We will take full account of our military neutrality and will spend as discreetly as we possibly can. However, we will not stand idly by when innocent people are being slaughtered in different parts of the world if we can help it.

Military Investigations.

Dinny McGinley

Question:

4 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on a recent incident in Gormanstown in which a member of the FCA sustained gunshot injuries; the nature of the injuries; the condition of the injured party; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9400/04]

The member of the FCA in question suffered a gunshot wound to his forearm due to an accidental discharge during routine range practice on 7 March. His injury was not life threatening. He was taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, where he was subsequently operated upon that same evening.

The next of kin were immediately informed of the accident. The individual was transferred to St. James's Hospital, Dublin, some days later for further treatment. He was discharged from there on 18 March. His medical condition is described as comfortable and he is continuing with his recovery from his injury.

This incident is the subject of a military police investigation. In the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We are all glad to hear that the young man in question should make a complete recovery. I also hope such an incident will not deter other young people from joining the Defence Forces, whether on a permanent or reserve basis.

Will the Minister inform the House if there is a counselling service available to Defence Forces members who experience stress and trauma in the wake of such an incident as occurred in Gormanstown? Will he further confirm if counselling was made available to the injured party or his comrades who witnessed the accident? I have been informed that such counselling may not have been made available to them.

The Minister stated the young man was transferred from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital to St. James's Hospital for cosmetic surgery. Was the transfer initiated by the Defence Forces or by hospital authorities? Will physiotherapy we available to ensure a full recovery from the injuries sustained?

Since becoming Minister for Defence, I have been mindful to ensure the best possible care is provided in the case of accidents occurring to members of the Defence Forces. Some accidents which have occurred have been of a more serious nature. No expense has been spared in the medical care offered or in the subsequent recovery process in terms of counselling and other requirements. I will inform Deputy McGinley as to what happened in this case.

Soldiers are trained to be able to cope with serious traumatic circumstances as they must be able to withstand them when undertaking missions. When an incident such as this occurs, it is necessary to ensure that services are sufficient to meet the needs. I rarely receive complaints from Defence Forces members about the inadequacy of these services. Although I am sure everything necessary has been done in this case, I will check to ensure that this has happened.

It would be both unacceptable and unbelievable if, almost three weeks after the occurrence of this serious incident, the services had not yet been provided. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is important that they are available as soon as possible to avert any increase in stress.

Does the Minister have any concerns about the number of injuries sustained by Defence Forces personnel? According to a report from last November, between 1999 and 2003, €25 million was paid out in compensation for injuries sustained involving weapons, explosives and ammunition. That is a considerable sum and is in addition to the deafness claims. It is important that appropriate guidelines are followed rigidly for the discharge of weapons. Does the Minister believe there is room for improvement in terms of safety procedures? I do not refer to the incident which occurred in Gormanstown. I accept that the individual concerned was a young man who is a voluntary member of the Defence Forces. I also accept that his colleagues reacted admirably to what happened. That incident apart, I am concerned that the sum of €25 million was paid out in four years for injuries sustained in the line of duty.

Tragically, there have been serious accidents which consumed a significant portion of that money. Two incidents which I recall resulted in limb amputations. Deputy McGinley is correct; €25 million is a considerable amount of money. In recent years, the Defence Forces have considerably stepped up their health and safety provisions, but one can never do all that is required. The training is rigorous and the job involves a great deal of travel, including in difficult terrain abroad. Accidents occur to the general population and are more likely to take place in the difficult training and other circumstances which the Defence Forces encounter on overseas missions. When a genuine accident occurs, I want to be able to ensure that we can make adequate compensation. As Deputy McGinley suggested, I want to ensure that the occurrence of accidents are limited, in so far as it is possible, by the training modules and health and safety provisions. We can draw on past experience if some areas are creating difficulties to see if they can be eliminated because we could spend that money doing more positive things.

Overseas Missions.

Joe Sherlock

Question:

5 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence the role being played by Irish troops serving with KFOR; the information available regarding the recent incident in which a number of Irish troops are reported to have been injured; if he has satisfied himself that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of the troops; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9398/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

57 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if further Irish troops are likely to be deployed to the Balkans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9503/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 57 together.

Ireland has participated in the international security presence in Kosovo, KFOR, since August 1999. The mission is authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and was approved by Dáil Éireann on 1 July 1999 following a Government decision of 29 June 1999. At present, the Irish contingent comprises an infantry group of 260 personnel together with a number of personnel in staff posts at various headquarters. The infantry group deployed last September replaced a transport group which had been deployed with KFOR since August 1999. Three members of Defence Forces personnel are also serving with the United Nations interim administration mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. The Irish infantry group operates as part of a multinational grouping within the Finnish battalion. It comprises a Mowag APC mounted company together with support and logistic elements.

The role of KFOR is to support the maintenance of civil law and order within Kosovo so as to develop a climate of safety and security which will enable the transfer of increased responsibility to the civil authorities. As the House will be aware, ethnic violence erupted in Kosovo last week, setting back ethnic relations between the Albanians and Serbs in the Kosovo region. I am advised by the military authorities that the wounding of a Serb male in the mainly Kosovar-Serb village of Caglavica, followed by an incident involving a number of Kosovar-Albanian children, fuelled the interethnic conflict leading to extended civil disorder. In response to these disturbances, an Irish-Finnish platoon was deployed as part of a Swedish battalion-led company in the Caglavica-Gracinica area and took up blocking positions between Pristina and Caglavica. In attempting to prevent a crowd of approximately 3,000 Kosovar-Albanian protesters from moving from Pristina into Caglavica, there were some clashes resulting in minor injuries to a small number of soldiers and some damage to KFOR vehicles. Approximately ten Irish personnel were treated for minor cuts and bruises but did not require to be hospitalised. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the actions of the Irish troops serving in Kosovo on the professional manner in which they discharged their duties and dealt with this very tense and dangerous situation.

The current situation in the region remains tense as a result of these incidents. The Irish C company of the Finnish-Irish battle group continues to provide elements of the operational company deployed to the Swedish battalion area of operations. The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me. Defence Forces personnel serving on all overseas missions are equipped with the most modern and effective equipment available. This equipment enables troops to carry out the mission assigned, as well as providing the required protection specific to the mission. I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of all Defence Forces personnel serving with KFOR.

On the question of deploying further Irish troops to the Balkans, Ireland has not been requested to date to deploy further personnel to the region. Requests for Defence Forces personnel to serve on overseas missions are considered on a case-by-case basis in the prevailing circumstances.

I am sure the Minister will agree the recent events emphasise the dangers for Irish troops involved in peacekeeping missions in different parts of the world. How many Irish troops are currently in Kosovo? Will he explain the terms of the mandate under which the Irish troops operate in Kosovo? Has this changed since the Irish troops first went into the area? Is he satisfied that sufficient procedures are in place to secure the safety of Irish troops? Is he satisfied that they have adequate equipment to ensure their safety? When does the mandate for Irish troops in Kosovo expire and is it intended to renew it?

The KFOR mission was established in 1999 in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1244. It was initially intended for a 12-month period but it has continued to be extended. Over the last couple of years the Albanian-Serb situation appeared to be more secure, therefore, last week was a definite setback. There has been no change in the requirement to continue the mission, which appears to be necessary. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and I agree that Irish troops will remain in the Balkans. I do not want to put a time limit on it. The Deputy knows I am not anxious to have missions continue for too long. However, we want to ensure the prospect of forming a true democracy, involving peace and an end to violence, is brought about in that part of the world.

I assure the Deputy that all the safety measures and equipment necessary for the maintenance and safety of the troops are in place. There are 260 troops in Kosovo.

Does the Minister accept that the recent events in Kosovo and the renewed outbreak of communal violence, emphasises the importance of measures to bring permanent political stability to the area? Is it true that troops travelling home on holidays or leave are charged €500?

As regards Liberia, the typical cost of returning someone on leave to Ireland would be approximately €2,200, and we ask for a payment of €500. It is clear there is a fairly significant subsidy involved. I do not wish to exaggerate the figures. We try to be as generous as possible within the limits of our resources.

On Deputy Sherlock's first question, there is no doubt that last week has been a definite setback. The international community, including the Irish troops under the Finnish battalion, are carrying out their work in a way we hope will contribute to lasting peace, including the provision of a secure democracy and the installation of the various services and so on which the people of Kosovo deserve. We will play our part to make that happen as early as possible. The ethnic violence that broke out is a setback and will make matters more difficult at least for the time being.