Other Questions.

Postal Voting.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

6 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Defence if it is his intention to make arrangements with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to enable spouses of Army personnel serving abroad to have a postal vote in the same manner as the spouses of diplomats; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9344/04]

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has responsibility for electoral matters. I have received no formal proposal from interested parties regarding the provision of a postal vote for spouses of Permanent Defence Force personnel serving overseas. However, if such a formal proposal is made, I would be very happy to discuss the matter with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he indicate how many spouses could potentially qualify? Are statistics available to indicate the numbers who accompany their partners or spouses on such missions? Given the introduction of electronic voting, will he agree that it may be entirely possible to extend the franchise to members of the Defence Forces who serve abroad as it is to members of the diplomatic corps?

While I do not have responsibility for electoral matters — I did have for three or four years which may have been long enough — I see no reason we should object to it. The estimated numbers of people involved would be between ten and 15, which is a small number. Even a small multiple of that would be a small number. I will discuss with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government extending the franchise to the spouses or partners of Defence Force personnel working abroad.

I am sure the Minister will agree that one vote is often sufficient to make the difference between being a Member of the House and otherwise. We found that out during the last general election. Following a question to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government two or three weeks ago, he said he would consider carefully any request for such a concession from the Minister for Defence. I am pleased the Minister gave a positive response to the matter.

Overseas Missions.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

7 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Defence the reason Ireland has not yet signed up to all elements of the United Nations standby high-readiness brigade; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9308/04]

Shirbrig is an initiative, originally sponsored by Denmark in 1995, to establish a United Nations high readiness brigade, non-standing, of 4,000 to 5,000 troops to strengthen UN standby arrangements UNSAS. The aim of Shirbrig is to be able to deploy troops, at short notice, to peacekeeping missions in trouble spots around the world. Shirbrig has been developed around Chapter VI of the UN Charter, namely, ceasefire supervision, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

Shirbrig has four levels of participation to which Ireland has signed up to the first two stages. As a result, Ireland now has representative status on the Shirbrig steering committee and participates in developing policies and guidance for the brigade and votes on proposals. The next level of membership would involve the commitment of troops to the brigade. The question of signing up to the next two stages of Shirbrig membership will be considered later this year. As Shirbrig is currently evolving and developing, it is prudent that we should take a staged and considered approach to our membership.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that Austria, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Norway, Romania, Spain and Sweden have signed all four documents. Why have we, as a neutral State committed to the UN, not gone that far? Why are we only at stage two? Does the Minister agree that this is a good initiative in which we should play an active part because of our commitment to the UN?

On our commitment of 850 military personnel to UNSAS, are these the same 850 personnel we have committed to the European Rapid Reaction Force and NATO's Partnership for Peace? Is there a conflict between those commitments and our rightful commitment to the UN?

Deputy Gormley is right, 16 countries have signed up fully for Shirbrig and there are five or six other observer countries. We are more than half way through the process and we expect to make final decisions at the end of the year. There are no objections in principle but I must take into account our capacity to meet demands. Last week the UN requested that the Defence Forces serve in another mission and we were unable to respond positively because of the sheer pressure on us to maintain the numbers we have.

The commitment of 850 personnel to UNSAS is identical to the headline goal. It represents 10% of the total Army personnel and it is a much more significant commitment than any of our partners in percentage terms. As well as the existing commitment, the next group is in training and there is a further group behind that. Filling the mission completely with all the specialties required is a task that the Defence Forces undertake effectively and efficiently. The Shirbrig matter will be finalised by the end of the year.

Is that a commitment to go the further two stages and sign up fully?

It is normal in all these affairs to conduct negotiations without forecasting what will be done in advance. The next stage is the commitment of troops, the most serious part, because when we make that commitment I must be in a position to honour it because making commitments for the sake of it is meaningless, I must be able to fulfil them.

Army Barracks.

Mary Upton

Question:

8 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Defence when he expects that the sale of Clancy Barracks will be closed; the total amount involved; if the money has yet been paid over; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9282/04]

As I stated in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 13 on 5 February 2004, a contract of sale in respect of Clancy Barracks was exchanged on 22 December 2003 and the relevant legal formalities are progressing with a view to sale closure in March or April 2004. I expect completion to take place in the coming days. The sale price is €25.4 million and following completion, in accordance with normal procedure, the purchase moneys will be remitted to my Department.

Why has there been such an extraordinary delay given that the Minister announced in January 2001 that the barracks was to be sold and the sale was announced in June 2002? Has any money changed hands and, if so, how much? When will the barracks be evacuated by the Army?

Deputy Sherlock knows about complex difficulties with title and these proved to be exacting. Legal matters of that nature must be completed before money is paid over. If the Deputy would like to meet me in the next few days, I could have a cheque in my hand for €25.4 million and we could have at least one night out on that.

That money should help the widows and widowers. How much was spent on the use of private security firms in the barracks?

We have spent €600,000 since the first sale. Part of that will be recouped from Dublin City Council and other bodies that also used part of the premises in that period. It is not unusual to hire security firms to protect a property that is for sale in case damage is done to it that lessens its value. We have saved a considerable amount in security duty allowances for the normal security that would be provided by the Defence Forces and in telephone, electricity and other charges. If we compare one with the other, we have made a significant saving by adopting this practice.

This barracks is in my constituency and it is interesting that the Minister sold land to offshore companies when house prices are so high. How will the Minister pay for future EU military adventures now that he has sold off all his surplus land? The cheque he will get is already committed to the Defence Forces. The Taxing Master will be interested in the offer to buy drinks for Deputies, although I will take the Minister up on it when he gets the cheque.

In 15 minutes, the Deputy has taken two different sides on Defence Forces expenditure. If I had taken his advice, I would have sold the property for €10 million less but I did not. I gave every chance to the local authority to purchase the site and it opted not to do so.

It made an offer and the Minister refused it.

It did and the Deputy would be in worse trouble than he was 20 minutes ago about expenditure on the Defence Forces if I had accepted it.

Give the horse and greyhound racing fund over to the defence budget.

We are doing well and the Deputy cannot deny that.

Offshore companies are doing well out of this.

There are significant sums involved — the Minister said the State will receive €25.4 million for Clancy Barracks. Does this money go straight to the Department of Defence or to the Exchequer? Is it additional to the Department's budget or does it replace money lost through cutbacks last year and the year before that?

When paying for the armoured personnel carriers, the Pilatus PC-9M training aircraft and other equipment, and infrastructural development, I knew there would be a delay in concluding the sales and getting the money. The Department of Finance agreed that I could spend this money and once I received it from the sales, I would pay it back to the Department. The money was spent in advance of receiving it.

Defence Forces Equipment.

Kathleen Lynch

Question:

9 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Defence when it is intended to proceed with the plans to acquire a fleet of light armoured vehicles for the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9280/04]

The Defence Forces commenced a programme to acquire Mowag APC-light armoured vehicles in 1999 and 40 of these vehicles have been delivered under the initial contract. The majority of the 40 APCs are now deployed overseas, with 22 vehicles in Liberia and six in Kosovo. The vehicles are performing well in an overseas environment.

A further 25 vehicles have been ordered for delivery this year. The first two of the 25 vehicles have recently been delivered to the Curragh Camp and arrangements are being made for the shipment of a further three vehicles to Ireland. The remaining 20 vehicles will be delivered by next October. The cost of the 65 APCs is in the region of €84 million.

In addition to this programme, the Defence Forces have a requirement for a smaller light armoured vehicle, designated as a light tactical vehicle, which can be used to protect troops engaged in peace support operations in areas where the use of the larger Mowag APC would be inappropriate. For instance, the movement of one to three personnel in high-risk confined areas and general surveillance work are among the key roles of the vehicle.

Funding for this programme must be considered in the context of the APC programme and the changed financial position. It has been agreed with the military authorities that the programme for the acquisition of the vehicles will not proceed at present. In the meantime, the Defence Forces will continue to conduct further studies on the type and specification of vehicles required.

I welcome the Minister's statement that some progress has been made. Does he recall promising in 2001 that new, smaller light armoured vehicles would be acquired for the Defence Forces? Why has this promise not been honoured? On the previous occasion on which this subject was raised, the Minister informed the House that the Defence Forces were conducting further studies on the type and specification of vehicles required. What progress has been made in that regard?

As I indicated previously, the studies are continuing. I was faced with a dilemma when the medium lift helicopter contract had to be abandoned and also faced other constraints. In discussions with the military authorities, we decided on the immediate priorities, one of which was to try to increase the number of armoured personnel vehicles because they are working so well on international missions. APCs are powerful vehicles costing more than €1 million each. We bought an additional 25 such vehicles, all of which will be delivered this year.

As the Deputy will discover when he is on these benches, one must make choices. It would be a simple world if everybody could immediately have what they wanted but it is not that kind of world. I must make choices. The overall pattern of acquisition for the Air Corps, Naval Service and Defence Forces is without parallel and I am proud of it.

The promises were made in 2001.

I have already indicated I had to make some changes.

How many Mowags have accompanied our 450 troops in Liberia? Is the Minister satisfied that the earlier problems with the APCs have been solved? I understand two of the four APCs that accompanied our 100 strong contingent force to Eritrea in 2002 developed problems and parts had to be shipped out via Switzerland, while a further four developed cracks in their armour. Have all these problems been solved to the Minister's satisfaction?

As regards the 65 APCs ordered, of which 25 have not yet been delivered, do these form part of the commitment we gave at the European Union's capability commitment conference? What weaponry have we pledged to provide to the EU under the European capability action plan for the rapid reaction force?

The APCs have nothing to do with the headline goal or the European reaction force. All the relevant decisions were taken in the context of the White Paper. As Deputy McGinley has emphasised on a number of occasions, the Defence Forces were badly under-equipped. Missions have changed dramatically and those we are undertaking are of a higher risk. The security of troops is of paramount importance. Everything purchased until now would have been required in one way or another to undertake the missions in which we are involved.

There are 22 vehicles in Liberia. The difficulties that arose with a number of the APCs were hairpin cracks. Some people may argue that they could have been ignored as they would not have deteriorated, but we refused to do so and ensured the problems were addressed. We have not experienced any trouble with the subsequent APCs and the military advice I have received indicates that we have received the fullest co-operation from the manufacturers in having the problem solved. I have not heard of any recurrence of these matters in recent years.

Does the Minister agree that it is time to review some of the targets for equipment set out in the White Paper on Defence, especially in the wake of recent events, notably the Madrid bombings? Do we not need different equipment priorities for defensive purposes, especially air defences?

This is a difficult problem for the world as a whole. We have a limited ground-to-air ability but it has been somewhat enhanced by acquiring Pilatus trainer aircraft, which will come on stream this month and next month with a final delivery scheduled for June. These aircraft remain a limited source and I will keep the matter under review. While I would like to enhance our air defences, it would be extremely expensive to do so and would be difficult to justify the expenditure involved on the basis of the risk to Ireland. I have enhanced our air defences somewhat with the acquisition of the Pilatus aircraft, but I will keep the matter under review.

I am informed that some defence forces have far more advanced equipment that we do. I am aware that equipment costs a great deal. Has the feasibility of purchasing second-hand equipment from more advanced defence forces been considered as a means of addressing the current shortcomings in our air defences?

While I am prepared to examine all options within the resources available to me, we must be honest with the public. Aviation terrorism is a major problem for the world and engages many minds. If one received a call about a hijacked aircraft with 400 passengers on board, one would have to consider many issues, including the time available, whether it was travelling over land or water and the prospect that the call could be a hoax. These are major security issues but, as I stated, I will keep the matter under review.

Overseas Missions.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

10 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Defence if he will make a statement on the work to date of the contingent of the Defence Forces serving in Liberia. [9272/04]

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

40 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Defence the situation regarding Irish armed forces in Liberia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9309/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 40 together.

The Defence Forces contingent which was deployed for service with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, in December 2003 comprises a motorised infantry battalion of some 430 personnel. A small number of additional personnel have also been deployed at force headquarters and as military observers.

Initial deployment will be for one year with a possible extension thereafter subject to renewal of the UN mandate and a satisfactory review of the mission. In the case of UNMIL, my intention is that Defence Forces involvement will not exceed two to three years in duration. Elections, which are due in 2005 under the comprehensive peace agreement, should be completed at that stage.

At the request of the United Nations, a contingent of the Army Ranger Wing, amounting to some 40 personnel, was deployed for a three month period from December 2003 to February 2004. This contingent has now returned home. Sadly, as Deputies will recall, Sergeant Derek Mooney of the Army ranger wing lost his life while on duty in Liberia and one of his colleagues was injured.

The main Irish contingent operates as the force commander's rapid reaction reserve. The role of the Irish personnel is the provision of an immediate response capability, deployable in sufficient strength and with the required level of force to provide a swift and decisive military reaction to any crisis. To date, the Irish battalion in UNMIL has mainly operated in a path-finding and reconnaissance role supporting the deployment of other UN contingents.

It has also conducted long-range patrols beyond Monrovia and well into the interior of Liberia in order to display a strong UN presence, deter lawlessness and protect local populations. The contingent also undertakes regular daily patrols within the Monrovia area. While the UN contingents have now deployed to their areas of operation throughout Liberia, the Irish battalion remains available to the force commander to provide support and a rapid response capability in the event of a breakdown in law and order or further conflict.

A wide range of equipment and force protection assets have been deployed with the contingent including Mowag APCs, armoured vehicles and support weapons, heavy machine guns and mortars. Due to the equipment modernisation programmes that have taken place in the Defence Forces over the past few years, UNMIL will be the best-equipped battalion ever to serve overseas.

I visited Irish troops serving with UNMIL during the period 21 to 23 January 2004 and observed at first hand the work of Irish military personnel serving in the area and conveyed to them, on behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland, our deep appreciation for the outstanding manner in which they continue to perform their duties on overseas service. UNMIL is a challenging assignment and the Defence Forces are to be congratulated on the expeditious manner in which they planned and undertook their first deployment to this mission.

Camp Clara, the headquarters of the Irish troops serving with the 90th infantry battalion, UNMIL, is located 10 km. from the main town of Monrovia. Since its deployment, the Irish battalion has put a significant amount of work into the establishment and development of the camp, including the provision of recreation and training facilities. Further facilities will be added in the future as appropriate.

Deputies will be aware that the adoption of a number of local humanitarian projects is a feature of Irish peace support operations. While in Liberia, I visited an AIDS hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity, the order of Mother Theresa — now St. Theresa — which is being assisted on a personal voluntary basis by members of the Irish battalion. During this visit to the hospice, it gave me great pleasure in announcing that Development Co-operation Ireland is contributing €15,000 to the humanitarian work of the current contingent in this regard. I have also allocated €10,000 from the Vote for defence to the contingent to support this important humanitarian work.

During my visit I found morale among troops to be very high. I congratulated the Irish personnel on the success of their mission so far and observed the positive effect their presence is already having in Monrovia and other areas since their arrival.

What provisions are in place for medical cover and care for the troops? Is the Minister satisfied they are adequate? Is he satisfied with the level of accommodation available for the troops? How long does each contingent spend there? He might have mentioned that in his reply. How often do they have an opportunity to return home? It appears unreasonable to charge personnel €500 to travel home on an Army plane.

I am delighted to hear I have such planes — I do not have Army planes in that sense. One will not fly to Monrovia on the Army's aircraft. One might if one could fly on the G4.

That is why we need another Government plane.

That is why we need a bigger one. That aircraft could accommodate only ten or 12 personnel. Chartered flights are booked for personnel and they cost a bit of money, but we heavily subsidise the cost of such flights. I do not need to go into that because we want to be as generous as we can.

We have done considerable work on improving the medical facilities. There may be an opportunity for me to arrange for Deputies opposite who are interested in defence matters to view the equipment and medical facilities. Some hospitals here do not have facilities that I was proud to see in Monrovia. The facilities there have to cover many disease risks. There are many problems there and they need to have the best we can give them. We had problems originally with regard to third level care. We are trying to mastermind that now by having a facility to transfer any patient to facilities by way of helicopter. One can never say everything is perfect, but we have a sufficient number of medical personnel. They are backed up by a significant number of paramedics. They have the best equipment we can give them. We have second level services available. Once the Dutch ship has returned, we are adapting the position to meet the need for third level services if they are required but hopefully they will not be.

The accommodation is fine and it continues to be improved. A marvellous job of work was done in a few months to provide the types of facilities in place. The next contingent will add to that when they get the chance.

With regard to the length of time a contingent spends there, members' stay is reviewed after one year. I like to review matters because I do not want them to drift along and to take them for granted. We will be there for longer than that period.

I am sure the Minister will be pleased to know that at our recent party Ard-Fheis a motion was tabled congratulating the Irish troops on their mission in Liberia. They are doing an outstanding job. What other UN contingents and other troops are there along with the Irish troops? Does the Minister believe the situation has become safer because there was an anxiety that this would be one of the most difficult missions upon which our troops have embarked? Is the situation no longer code red? Is it no longer a difficult mission? Has it become much safer or to what extend has it become safer?

In light of the impending visit of George W. Bush, had the Minister considered withdrawing some of the troops from there to afford him protection in Ireland, as his visit is becoming a security problem?

I would like to have the agility of mind which can transfer from Liberia to President Bush visiting Ireland in June, but I do not have it.

About 15 other nations are involved in Liberia. They are primarily African. Swedish troops are being sent there but I am not sure whether they have arrived. We were the only EU partner involved at the initial stages.

Along the streets of Monrovia people were beginning to put up their stalls again with simple products, which was a change after two months. The EU flag, the APCs and the transport arrangements are creating a climate of security. I would not go so far as to say that the risk is no longer high. We have to be vigilant, particularly when one moves out from Monrovia. The further one moves out from it, the more treacherous that path can become. I would not like to indicate any lowering of defences in terms of the security risk. Our troops told us that in the first few weeks the stalls were not there but that people gradually felt they could come out and set them up again. That is comforting and encouraging and we will try to ensure that continues.

We will not be bringing back any troops from Liberia. Deputy McGinley knew that from the beginning but because of his mischievous character, he could not resist the temptation of posing that question.

I am not Deputy McGinley.

What procedures are in place to allow Army personnel to keep in touch with their families?

We continue to improve those procedures as we receive requests. There are facilities for personnel to make a number of telephone calls each week to their homes. We will note any request we get with regard to how we can improve those. The postage arrangements have been made and are quite satisfactory. I have received no complaints of that nature. Contact with the home is important. We are indebted to the parents, spouses, husbands, partners and families of the Defence Forces because often they have to carry out duties, functions and deal with family matters without their partners, parents, husbands or wives. It is important that the maximum contact and co-operation and facility is afforded to them. We seek to do that. If I get further requests, I will try to respond to them as positively as I can. Each mission is different.

I will take a brief question from Deputy McGinley.

I apologise for making the mistake earlier of referring to Deputy Gormley as Deputy McGinley.

As long as they know me in Donegal, I am not too worried.

The last time we had questions to the Minister for Defence, I expressed serious concern to the Minister when it was reported that the ship assigned to go to Liberia with a cargo of equipment and other necessities for our personnel serving there was cancelled. The Minister was unsure on that occasion as to what happened and I do not think the ship has sailed since. However, many families from different parts of the country put considerable effort into preparing food parcels and other necessities which are unavailable to their kith and kin in Liberia. I think the depot was at Athlone Barracks and the cargo was to be sent from there to Cork and on to the boat for Liberia, which was cancelled.

Does the Minister have any idea what happened to all this material and goods which were lovingly packed by so many families to go to their loved ones? Have they been sent out or are they still in Athlone and what can we expect to happen?

There was no cancellation. A number of people undertook to make arrangements without having clearance from the military authorities and speculation took place for which we cannot account. Nevertheless, there was no cancellation or decision to send a ship.

We normally ensure that all the material and support to the missions to which the Deputy referred is flown out and that is what has been done in all these cases. It is a more expeditious way of dealing with it and is more likely to survive in better form at the end of a shorter journey. There was no cancellation since there was no decision in the first instance to have it.

Does the Minister agree that a great deal of preparation took place in Haulbowline in anticipation of the trip to Liberia?

Has the Deputy ever made arrangements to do something for which he did not have authority? There was no decision whatsoever to send a ship. I checked it out very fully after the last meeting.

Defence Forces Personnel.

Joe Costello

Question:

11 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Defence the progress made with regard to an integrated personnel management plan for the Defence Forces as recommended in the White Paper on Defence; when it is expected the plan will be introduced; the progress of the consultation with the representative organisations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9274/04]

The White Paper recommendation for an integrated personnel management plan, or system, and other related White Paper recommendations are enshrined in An Agreed Programme for Government of June 2002. Under the programme, we are committed to, among other things, the introduction of an integrated personnel management system, known as the IPMS, for the Defence Forces which will deal with the broad range of human resources management and development issues. These include manpower policy and planning, equality of opportunity and treatment and the right to dignity at work, recruitment, terms of enlistment, induction, training, education and development, physical and medical fitness, career planning and guidance, promotion, the regulatory framework, retirement and pensions.

In effect, what is envisaged is the development and implementation of a fully comprehensive human resources strategy for the Defence Forces, Army, Naval Service and Air Corps. I am pleased to say that we have made very good progress. Initial proposals for an IPMS were developed by the military authorities and then referred to the top level civil-military strategic management committee for further development. Some of the key proposals were then put to the associations representing officers and enlisted personnel late last year in the context of the negotiations on the application to the Defence Forces of Sustaining Progress. Those negotiations also involved the preparation of an action plan covering the development and implementation of a range of modernisation elements, including key IPMS elements. I am pleased to say that the negotiations were successful in the period before Christmas and that both associations signed up to Sustaining Progress and to the implementation of the action plan over the period to mid-2005. The implementation process is now under way.

The proper handling of management of human resources is critical to the success of the Defence Forces. Will the Minister tell us when the action plan agreed with the representative organisations will be published?

The action plan agreed is known to all the associations — there is nothing hidden about it. Is the Deputy referring to publication in terms of it being available to the public at large?

That will be under discussion for the next year or so. There are complex human resource and development issues which we want to get right. The Deputy is correct that it is a critical part of how we move forward. The process will evolve and publication will be the subject of a combined decision of us all. I would not pre-empt any of these negotiations at this stage. I want to get the best chance possible to work, facilitate the negotiations in every way I can and support the military and the associations in trying to come to the kinds of conclusions which will help us to develop.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.