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.