Other Questions.

———

EU Defence Agency.

John Gormley

Question:

62 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Defence if Ireland has agreed to take part in the newly established EU armaments agency; if so, when this decision was taken; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17913/04]

Eamon Ryan

Question:

76 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Defence the progress made in the establishment of a new European armaments, research and military capabilities agency. [17909/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 62 and 76 together.

Work with EU partners towards the establishment of an intergovernmental agency in the field of defence capabilities development, research, acquisition and armaments has been a key priority of the programme of the Irish Presidency of the European Union. Deputies will recall that the conclusions of the European Council held at Thessaloniki in June 2003 tasked the appropriate bodies of the Council to undertake the necessary actions towards creating, in the course of 2004, an intergovernmental agency in the field of defence capabilities development, research, acquisition and armaments.

As I have reported to the House on regular occasions during our Presidency, discussions on the establishment of the agency have been ongoing at EU level and were progressed by way of official level meetings held during our Presidency in Brussels and in Dublin. The issue was also discussed during the informal meeting of Defence Ministers held in Brussels in April 2004 and during the General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting with Defence Ministers also held in Brussels in May 2004, on which I will report in more detail later. I am pleased to report that political agreement on the joint action to establish the agency was reached at the GAERC meeting on 14 June 2004. It is now intended that formal adoption of the legal act will take place before the end of the Irish Presidency.

The overall aim of the agency will be to support member states in their efforts to improve European defence capabilities in support of European Security and Defence Policy. At a time when there is little appetite among the EU member states to increase spending on Defence equipment, I have long advocated the necessity to focus on ways in which we can qualitatively improve our capability to carry out peace support operations.

We do not need reminding of the increasing demands on the international community to contribute to UN-authorised peace support operations. Current events in Africa, notably in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as recent events in Kosovo and Liberia, where contingents of the Defence Forces are deployed, have been the cause of serious international concern. If the United Nations is to respond effectively, countries participating on peace support operations in locations such as these must have the necessary resources available, both for the protection of personnel and in order that they may professionally discharge their mandate. It is important, therefore, that the EU should seek to improve competitiveness and efficiency in the defence equipment sector, which has been notable for fragmentation and duplication. The agency is an appropriate method by which this might be achieved. Ireland is not a major consumer of defence equipment. My approach in respect of the creation of the agency and Ireland's participation has been supportive, given that it may yield some economies of scale for equipment procurement for the Defence Forces. In this regard, the question of Ireland's participation in the agency will be considered over the coming weeks. Participation in the framework of the agency would not imply a commitment to participate in any specific project of the agency. Such participation will remain a matter for national decision on a case by case basis.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I had difficulty hearing him at times because there was quite an amount of noise in the Visitor's Gallery. I take it, however, that he has agreed to join the agency. Article III-212 of the draft constitution — which, we believe, will be agreed this weekend — states that the agency shall be open to all member states wishing to be part of it and I take it the Minister, on foot of the reasons he outlined, will avail of this opportunity to join the agency. It has been stated that the agency will increase competitiveness and that harmonisation will result in reduced defence spending for the EU. The average spend in this regard across the EU is approximately 1.9% of GDP, while Ireland's level of spending is the lowest in the European Union. Will the Minister admit that if others are to reduce their spending, Ireland will, in turn, have to increase its spending?

I remind the Deputy that supplementary questions are limited to one minute.

If we are to increase our spending to match the EU average, will the Government cut spending in the areas of health, education, the environment in order that we will be able to comply with our commitments?

Ireland's participation in the agency will be considered in the coming weeks. Participation in the framework of the agency would not imply a commitment to participate in any specific project.

On numerous occasions, and with the limited ability I possess, I have failed to penetrate the Deputy's mind with regard to expenditure on defence in Ireland, who has responsibility for it and what will happen in the future. Expenditure in the defence arena is a sovereign matter in this country and anywhere else. I have no intention of proposing an increase in that or taking funds from education, health and other places. The Deputy would delight in saying how much had been taken out of these areas to spend on defence. He got it wrong and some day he will realise that. I am afraid that in spite of my best efforts, I have failed to convince him.

The Minister has utterly failed to convince me.

Defence Forces Strength.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

63 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Defence his views on the current staffing levels for the Defence Forces; if it is planned to increase these staffing levels over the coming 12 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17855/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

90 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence his plans to increase the strength of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17861/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 63 and 90 together.

The White Paper on Defence of February 2000 sets out a figure of 10,500 personnel for the Permanent Defence Force, comprising 930 for the Air Corps, 1,144 for the Naval Service and 8,426 for the Army. The strength of the Permanent Defence Force as of 30 April 2004 is as shown in the following table:

Service

Officers

NCOs

Privates

Cadets

Total

Army

1,018

3,085

4,311

96

8,510

Air Corps

138

410

331

10

889

Naval Service

135

464

453

29

1,081

It is my intention to maintain the established Government policy of ongoing recruitment to the Defence Forces. Recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force will continue to maintain the strength at a level required to meet military needs and as set out in the White Paper, that is, 10,500 Permanent Defence Force, all ranks. The Government remains fully committed to the policy of ongoing recruitment to ensure an overall PDF strength of 10,500 is achieved and maintained. The ongoing recruitment campaign for enlistment in the Defence Forces, which I have approved, is designed to address any shortfall in personnel in the Defence Forces. It is proposed to recruit ten cadets to the Naval Service, 50 cadets to the Army and six cadets to the Air Corps from the 2004 cadetship competition. It is intended to recruit 15 apprentices to the Air Corps in 2004. From January 2004 to date, there has been an intake of 165 general service recruits. The requirements for any further intakes will be reviewed on an ongoing basis.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive account of the present strength of the Defence Forces. I am sure he appreciates, as we all do, the demands on the Defences Forces both nationally and internationally. The international commitment is becoming more pronounced every year. We were all delighted when our first contingent to Liberia recently returned home safely. I had the pleasure of meeting one member of that contingent in my constituency last week with whom I had a conversation about what went on out there. We appreciate what they are doing.

Is the Minister confident the White Paper target of 10,500 personnel is sufficient to meet the demand at national and international level? How many non-commissioned members of the Defence Forces have been taken on this year and will there be another campaign during the remainder of the year?

There have been 165 general recruits this year. Ongoing recruitment is dependent on how the numbers are going. It usually reaches a total of 400 to 500 at the end of the year. I cannot speak specifically for this year, as there was some reduction because of the decision taken in regard to the 10,500 plus the 250 in training. A proportion of that number is obviously affected by that decision.

As to whether 10,500 is enough, one could always do with more. That is the decision that has been taken. There are times when we are stretched in meeting our UN requirements. What the public may not often understand is that when there are roughly 800 troops abroad, another 800 troops are in preparation and training to replace them and there may well be another 800 in the early stages of preparation for a subsequent tour of duty. A great deal of training is required for the new missions and we must also ensure safety equipment and so on is dealt with. Overall, it is working well and morale is high. There has been significant investment in equipment and accommodation.

The work done by the first contingent to Liberia which set up Camp Clara has been excellent. I am anxious that Front Bench spokespersons in the House and others who are interested would have an opportunity to visit and see at first hand the work that is being done there. I would encourage that very much. The one person I would be delighted to have there is Deputy Gormley. It is necessary for him to go through such a process to be convinced in a way that is not necessary for other Members.

Is that an invitation?

That is most certainly an invitation.

I would be delighted to take the Minister up on it.

I appreciate the Minister's invitation which we will consider. From what I heard from those who returned from Liberia, the Minister's visit there was much appreciated by serving personnel.

In addition to difficulties regarding recruitment in the past and more recently, there was a problem with an exodus from certain sections of the Defence Forces. I refer especially to members of the Air Corps and An Slua Muirí. Have these difficulties been overcome and are we able to recruit sufficient personnel to man these two important arms of our Defence Forces? Incentives were given to people who had valuable training to leave the Air Corps. An Slua Muirí had other difficulties. The demands on parts of it were so great that members spent too much time away from home and did not have enough time ashore with their families. Have these difficulties been sorted out and are more recent recruits remaining in the Defence Forces?

When the economy is going well and there are plenty of alternative employment opportunities, people in the Defence Forces, like everywhere else, look to the various options available to them. Civil aviation opportunities exploded for Air Corps pilots in particular, but that has slowed down considerably. The haemorrhage is not as acute as in the past.

Other factors must also be taken into account. Non-commissioned officers qualify for a pension after 21 years and officers qualify for a pension and lump sum after 12 years. In theory, an officer could leave in his 30s with a pension for life and a lump sum. The arrangements for the Defence Forces are fairly generous, which sometimes act against us to a degree. The training programmes in the Defence Forces, both in the science and technology areas as well as defence, are highly specialised. Defence Forces members are fit and able people and there has been a significant investment in training and third level education for some. It is desirable to retain such people for as long as possible within the Defence Forces. However, even when people leave, there is not a loss to the economy if they take up other important jobs because the capacity they have developed enhances the work they do in other areas.

Overall, it is working reasonably well although there are times we lose specialists. We have particular problems with keeping up the numbers of artificers, engineers and others as far as the Navy is concerned. As I informed Deputies on a previous occasion, we are very troubled in terms of trying to retain medical personnel.

Regarding the age profile of Defence Forces members, is it envisaged there will be a haemorrhage in the near future due to the retirement of a large group of members and has that been factored into the recruitment plans? Is a Defence Forces strength of 10,500 sufficient to meet UN and rapid reaction commitments? If we have a rapid reaction commitment the same year, the equivalent of 1,600 personnel would be abroad at any one stage.

The UNSAS and rapid reaction commitments are one and the same and we do not have a doubling of the figure of 850. I would be faced with an horrendous situation if there was a problem in Europe or elsewhere where we had to make an attempt to meet such a demand. We would not be able to meet those needs and that is why they are one and the same. However, that is not to say that in stretched circumstances, depending on the distress and humanitarian needs involved, we would not be able to stretch ourselves a bit further for a temporary period. This is not something I invite, envisage or would be happy about, because it could not be maintained.

Will the Deputy remind me of the first part of his question?

I asked whether there was a specific group or year.

The problem existed in the past. One of the reasons I changed to constant recruitment was because we had periods where there was no recruitment for four or five years and we then had to fill a gap. The circumstance outlined by the Deputy arises from those conditions, where all of these people were the same age and retiring early at the same time. We dealt with that problem and should never invite anything like it again.

The age profile is reducing all the time. Both the Gleeson and the earlier report on the Defence Forces said the age profile was too high but it is coming down dramatically and will continue to do so.

Are the Minister's plans sufficient to meet the strength requirements for the Defence Forces for the foreseeable future? Are current manpower levels adequate to cater for all eventualities?

These questions were asked earlier.

We are listening and waiting for the answers to them.

No matter what we do, we will not get the Deputy to stick to the rules. Leaving that aside, there is no doubt that there are times when we are stretched. We have up to 800 people engaged in UN, OSCE or other missions at present and are stretched when we must cope with potential problems such as foot and mouth disease. On the other hand, the development of the peace process has ensured that the demands on the Border have been considerably reduced. The transit of money, thankfully, is beginning to decline somewhat and there is greater support for the Garda in other matters. The numbers are adequate if——

Has the Minister no plans to increase the numbers?

No other party in this House has such plans.

That is not the purpose of the question. The purpose of the question was to elicit what plans the Minister has to increase the strength of the various elements of the Defence Forces. The Minister's answer is that he does not propose to increase anything.

The White Paper on Defence specified a ten-year span of 10,500. This was made clear to the public and supported by every party in the House.

Those circumstances have changed. There are now serious threats from overseas that did not exist then.

The Deputy should not try to pretend——

I am surprised by the Minister. I thought he was prepared to cover all eventualities.

The Deputy will not get away with that sort of pretence.

The Minister is shadow boxing.

Civil Defence.

Joe Sherlock

Question:

64 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence if he is considering replacing the chairman of the Civil Defence board and appointing a new chairman; the basis on which this will be done; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17823/04]

On 4 May 2004, I wrote to the chairman of the Civil Defence board regarding his position. A response has been received within the last few days. I will consider the response at the earliest opportunity but pending such consideration it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the issues involved at this stage.

I am a great supporter of the decentralisation policy.

The Deputy should make sure not to take the side track on this. He should keep on the road.

Fan go fóill. Does the Minister accept that the decentralisation situation of the Civil Defence board does not augur well for the decentralisation programme announced in the budget? Four years after the move to Roscrea was first announced the move still has not taken place and less than half of the staff have indicated——

The question is about the appointment of the new chairman, not about decentralisation.

The Chair should hear me out, it is part of the situation. Will the Minister confirm that a premises in Roscrea has been located? Has a contract been signed and will he indicate from whom the building is being leased? These questions have to do with the chairman's position.

The public in my area and this House are aware of the circumstances involved. It is well known that I was anxious this decentralisation would take place to the old Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea. Unfortunately, because of costs associated with the restoration and development of the building to meet the requirements of health and safety, that proved too expensive.

The Office of Public works, which has direct responsibility for the matter of providing Government offices for civil services, then asked for expressions of interest. I understand there were four of these and the OPW decided on one of them independently. Work has been carried out on that building and I understand the tender process for fitting out the final stages is in hand. Some 12 members of the existing staff in Dublin have indicated their wish to transfer to Roscrea and over 100 other applicants from other Departments have also signified an interest in coming to Roscrea. It is clear sufficient numbers are interested in moving there.

The premises is owned by six people who live in or near Roscrea town. One of those was a Fianna Fáil public representative. The decision on that premises had nothing to do with me and I had no hand, act or part in the matter. I resent the implications that I have been involved in some way. It is well known I did not want the Civil Defence to go to that building but to the old Sacred Heart school where it could continue the tradition of education. The Office of Public Works, for good sound reasons, could not proceed on that and independently sought other premises.

I stand over the arrangements made and resent the insinuations. The people of my home town responded positively to them in a way which is the only democratic answer I can give.

Will the Minister confirm that the chairman of the Civil Defence regards the proposed premises as totally unsuitable? Is it appropriate that he should seek the removal of the chairman of the board simply because he objects to the poorly thought out plan?

I have no say in the type of building which will be decided on by the Office of Public Works for the Civil Defence. The OPW decides independently and is an expert in such decisions. I will not go into detail as to why I sought the chairman's resignation, although I admit the decentralisation to Roscrea is part of the reason. There may also be other more fundamental reasons.

At this stage I do not wish to say any more, beyond the fact that when the building is fitted out and people see what has been done, I am quite confident the people who will come and work there will be very happy with the accommodation provided for them.

Will the Minister agree that the central difference of opinion or the crux of the difference of opinion between him and the chairman of the Civil Defence would be the selection of premises in Roscrea?

If it is not the selection of premises in Roscrea, is it perhaps the move to Roscrea?

That among other things. The answer to the first question is "no".

Does the Minister agree that this is indicative of the Government's approach to decentralisation, namely, no planning, consultation or co-ordination——

We must proceed to Question No. 65 as the time has expired for the question.

——and actions being taken on the hoof? It is four years since decentralisation was announced and nothing has happened. Will the Minister say when the Civil Defence will be transferred?

The Chair has called Question No. 65. I ask the Minister to deal with Question No. 65. The time has expired for this question. I have given the Deputy ample latitude.

I just wish to have the position clarified by the Minister. Is he saying that the chairman saying the premises were unsuitable is not the reason he is being removed from office?

I said it is not the only reason. There are more fundamental reasons.

Was that part of the reason?

What are the reasons?

I have called Question No. 65.

I extend my second invitation to Deputies McGinley and Sherlock to inspect the premises since they are much more capable on this matter than I am.

I ask the Minister to deal with Question No. 65.

Overseas Missions.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

65 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence the measures his Department has taken to ensure that members of the Defence Forces deployed on international peacekeeping missions do not engage in the sexual exploitation of local women and girls, as has been reported by UN troops serving in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and elsewhere. [17919/04]

I am advised by the military authorities that all Irish personnel deployed overseas are briefed on the provisions of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UNDPKO, policy prohibiting the sexual exploitation and abuse of local women and girls through human trafficking. In addition, the standing orders, SOs, of Irish units on United Nations overseas service lay down strict guidelines expressly prohibiting inappropriate fraternisation with local persons. Any infringement of these SOs constitutes an offence under military law. The Code of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets as laid down by the United Nations unambiguously requires all peacekeepers to refrain from "immoral acts of physical or psychological abuse or exploitation of local population, especially women and children". Any infringement of this code constitutes an offence under military law.

The Minister will be aware of the shocking findings of Amnesty International that UN peacekeepers and NATO troops in Kosovo participated in sexual exploitation of women and girls, including human trafficking for the purposes of forced prostitution. He will also be aware of the UN inquiry into allegations of sexual exploitation of local women in the Democratic Republic of Congo by UN peacekeepers. He will also remember the horrific discovery only two years ago that Irish peacekeepers sexually exploited and made pornographic videos of local women in Eritrea. Concerns have been raised recently about the potential for similar circumstances or situations to occur in Liberia.

What steps have been taken by the Minister and the Defence Forces to prevent other Irish peacekeepers from engaging in such behaviour while abroad or at home? When will the recommendations of the Doyle report on sexual harassment, assault and other sexual misconduct in the Defence Forces be fully implemented?

An investigation into the incidents in Eritrea was carried out and charges were brought under the Defence Act 1954. The charges were proven against four soldiers who were reprimanded, warned and fined. I understand that further charges are pending in the case of one individual soldier. I have outlined in my earlier reply the standing orders and the system which is operated by the Defence Forces to ensure personal conduct is above reproach.

The UN report on the Kosovo matter was somewhat unbalanced, but nevertheless there was trafficking. There may have been up to 60 incidents involving members of the international community and regarding which charges are being made. It is being dealt with in a strong and deliberate manner because such behaviour is unacceptable. As far as the Defence Forces are concerned, the only incidents, regrettable as they are, are those involving a small number of soldiers who served in Eritrea. It is not acceptable to have even one case, not to mind the others.

It is good the standing orders exist. What additional steps will be taken, considering there has been a series of incidents? The UN will obviously need to examine them again because there have been three incidents in a row involving peacekeepers and, thankfully, only one incident involving the Defence Forces. Ireland has a good record. Additional steps to reinforce the standing orders need to be taken by both the UN and the Defence Forces. What steps would the Minister suggest?

I accept the points made by the Deputy. Once I became aware of these incidents, I asked the Chief of Staff to ensure that the highest standards were imposed and met. The Defence Forces have a unique and very satisfactory record. I do not wish to see their record tarnished in any way and I will be happy to undertake any action required at ministerial level.

Has there been an increase in the level of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS among military personnel serving abroad? Are they warned in advance about STDs and are they supplied with condoms?

While I cannot answer the second part of the Deputy's question, I will certainly have the matter investigated and reply directly to him. All these matters are covered comprehensively in the training programmes, the code of conduct is explained and medical personnel are involved. I have visited all these countries and I am happy with the standards, their application and the efforts made by the Defence Forces. Senior personnel act in a most responsible manner in all these areas.

David Stanton

Question:

66 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Defence his views on the number of Defence Forces personnel serving in Kosovo; if he will report on the conditions in which they are serving; and the operations in which they are engaged; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17845/04]

Joan Burton

Question:

74 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Defence if he has brought proposals to Government to allow the Defence Forces to maintain a presence in KFOR beyond the planned termination date of October 2004; the expected level of commitment after this date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17827/04]

I propose to take Question Nos. 66 and 74 together.

KFOR was established on 10 June 1999, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, for an initial period of 12 months, to continue thereafter unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise. The role of KFOR is to support the maintenance of civil law and order within Kosovo to allow a climate of safety and security to develop which will enable the transfer of increased responsibility to the civil authorities.

Ireland has participated in 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. Since then, the Government has reviewed and approved annually continued participation by the Defence Forces in KFOR. On 27 May 2003, the Government approved continued participation by a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force in KFOR for a further period of 12 months beyond June 2003.

The Irish contingent comprises an infantry group of 213 personnel together with a number of personnel in staff posts at various headquarters. The infantry group was first deployed last September. Previously, a transport group had been deployed with KFOR since August 1999. Three Defence Forces personnel also serve with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

The Irish infantry group operates as part of a multinational grouping within the Finnish-Irish battle group. It comprises a Mowag APC mounted company with support and logistic elements. The main tasks of the Irish infantry group include the following: provision of general security to all ethnic groups, institutions and cultural sites; provision of support to UNMIK police and other agencies with security tasks; identification of and reporting on extremist groups and activities; vehicle and foot patrols; vehicle checkpoints; and operation of observation posts.

It had been anticipated that a re-organisation and scaling down of KFOR would take place this year. This had partly commenced when civil disturbances broke out in March. The withdrawal of the Irish contingent was planned as part of this reduction in KFOR presence and was to have been completed by October 2004. However, having regard to the fragility of the peace in Kosovo and subject to ongoing assessments of the position on the ground, Ireland will continue to maintain an appropriate presence in KFOR in 2004. Later this month, I intend to bring proposals to Government with regard to the continued participation by the Defence Forces in KFOR beyond June 2004.

Members of the 27th infantry group of the Defence Forces were serving in Kosovo at the time of the serious outbreak of violence in March 2004. A major contribution was made by Irish personnel in protecting Serb enclaves in and around Pristina. In holding the line against overwhelming numbers of Kosovan Albanians, the Irish Defence Forces saved numerous lives and the homes of Serb families from certain destruction. In addition, members of the Defence Forces based in KFOR headquarters, on their own initiative and at no little risk to their own safety, went into Pristina at the height of the disturbances and evacuated more than 340 Serbians to safety, without doubt saving their lives in the process.

Letters of commendation were awarded to 18 Irish personnel by the commanding general of the multinational brigade centre, in whose brigade the Irish personnel serve, for their actions during the course of the disturbances. The commendations were for leadership, initiative and brave participation in the rescue team, which also included other nationalities. Thankfully, the personnel involved suffered only minor injuries. I am advised by the military authorities that, while tension still exists in Serb minority areas, the current security situation in Kosovo is described as being calm in most areas.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. He stated that some of our personnel serving on the KFOR mission suffered minor injuries. How many personnel were involved? Is the Minister satisfied with the level of medical backup available to our forces on the mission?

While I do not know the exact number of personnel involved, it was higher than 18, the number of those who received commendations. The personnel in question suffered only minor injuries. One of the features of their success was the speed with which they acted. It appears that other contingents were awaiting directions from home, making contact with the relevant ministries and so forth, whereas the Irish, because of the experience they had gained in different missions, were aware that time is of the essence and acted quickly. I am very grateful and proud of them.

As regards the Deputy's second question, one could never be fully happy with the medical backup available. The medical facilities available in Kosovo are good and would not be available in other places. As I indicated to the Deputy in an earlier reply, despite placing a number of advertisements and attempting to recruit more medical personnel, the Department remains very stretched in terms of meeting medical requirements and having medical personnel employed directly in the Defence Forces. In recent weeks, I have been compelled to move towards using agencies to meet all medical requirements for the safety or our troops on missions.

I may have missed a point. What is the expected level of commitment after 2004 and will the Minister make a statement on that matter?

Notwithstanding our original intention, the Government, as a result of the fragility of the situation in Kosovo and the disturbances which took place in March, including the destruction of property and the killing and injuring of people, is concerned to maintain a significant presence in Kosovo for a longer period. We have not yet come to a conclusion on the timeframe of the mission but we will keep the matter under review. As a result, the question of withdrawal in October no longer stands.

Is the Kosovo Liberation Army still in existence? If so, does it pose a threat to Irish personnel on the ground?

The KLA still exists. The security situation in Kosovo is considerably better now than previously but I am informed at times that the region is like a match and can light up at any time. The troubles and disturbances in March frightened everybody a little because matters had been proceeding very well before suddenly becoming very vicious. One of the reasons we are maintaining a presence in Kosovo is that nobody can be confident that the same circumstances will not arise again. While that may be unlikely, the security position remains fragile.

Trevor Sargent

Question:

67 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Defence the position regarding the Irish peacekeeping mission in Liberia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17910/04]

Pat Breen

Question:

78 Mr. P. Breen asked the Minister for Defence his views on the number of Defence Forces personnel serving in Liberia; if he will report on the conditions in which they are serving and the operations in which they are engaged; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17844/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 67 and 78 together.

The Defence Forces contingent deployed for service with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, in December 2003 comprises a motorised infantry battalion of some 435 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 UN, a contingent of the Army Ranger wing, numbering 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 90th infantry battalion has recently returned home having successfully completed its tour of duty and has been replaced by the 91st infantry battalion which has just begun a six-month tour of duty.

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 has been deployed with the contingent, including Mowag APCs, armoured vehicles and support weapons, heavy machine guns and mortars. Due to the equipment modernisation programmes in the Defence Forces in recent years, our UNMIL units are the best equipped 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. I 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 91st infantry battalion, UNMIL, is located ten kilometres 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. Additional facilities have been added and 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 the Department of 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.

I congratulate our troops serving in Liberia. Before they were deployed, the Minister informed the House this would be a dangerous mission. Have our troops been engaged in firefights with local militia?

I refer to the Mowag APCs. Last spring, the Minister informed us a number had experienced hairline cracks. Is that equipment all right? Will he give the House an assurance that all the equipment being used in Liberia is in order?

The Minister mentioned modernisation. The Department recently invited tenders to supply the Air Corps with six new military helicopters. Are they capable of being used in Liberia and, if so, is it intended to deploy them there? Is the purchase related to the headline goals for the rapid reaction force?

The White Paper specifically outlines that both the Naval Service and the Air Corps will not be involved in UN missions and, therefore, there is no commitment under the UNSAS or rapid reaction force agreements to use the Naval Service or the Air Corps.

The helicopters will be primarily and virtually exclusively used as air ambulances and for training and search and rescue operations and other activities for which modern helicopters can be called into service.

We accept the security situation in Liberia remains serious. Monrovia is medium risk but the further one travels from Monrovia, one moves into higher risk areas. More than 13,000 troops are deployed in Liberia and this number will increase to 15,000. The greater the expansion in UN control, the more improvement there will be in security.

The 19th battalion has been involved in a number of incidents. Troops rescued 30 people who had been held captive and abused by the militia in one incident 300 kms from Monrovia.

With regard to the hairline cracks on the Mowags, we had useful consultation with the manufacturers. The APCs we purchased were among the first eight or ten to be commissioned. There have been no problems since. Other people have travelled to Ireland to see them in operation and a number of other armies are purchasing similar Mowags. We are happy the arrangements made to satisfy the conditions of the contract were fully met in this regard.

Partnership for Peace.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

68 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Defence the exercises or programmes that Ireland has been or will be participating in under Partnership for Peace in 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17907/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

119 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence the new developments in the PfP; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18115/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 68 and 119 together.

Ireland's participation in PfP to date is set out in our four individual partnership programmes, IPPs, copies of which have been lodged in the Oireachtas Library. Activities consist of training courses, seminars, workshops, conferences, staff exercises and table top exercises. Ireland's fourth IPP, covering the period 2004 to 2005, has been completed in consultation with the Departments of Foreign Affairs, the Environment and Local Government, Justice Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children, and Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

As provided for in the presentation document for PfP, Ireland also participates in the PfP planning and review process known as PARP. In common with other EU neutrals, Ireland is using the PARP process in connection with planning for the Petersberg Tasks. The scope of our involvement in PARP is focused on enhancing interoperability and familiarity with operating procedures in a multinational environment.

Participation in Partnership for Peace activities is entirely voluntary and is based on the principle of self-differentiation, that is, a state selects for itself the nature and scope of its participation.

Does the Minister agree PfP is a crucial element in the development of NATO? Does he accept the concept of interoperability is part and parcel of increasing the effectiveness of NATO and that PfP was a lifeline for the organisation because it had become stagnant? Does he further accept Ireland ought not to participate in PfP because, as the Taoiseach emphasised at the time, it compromises our neutrality?

I disagree fundamentally with the Deputy, not for the first time. PfP helps the Defence Forces to keep very much abreast of developments in training and in the humanitarian aspects of peacekeeping missions. I do not know if it is properly understood and I do not wish to pretend that I know more about this than anybody else.

Peacekeeping missions have been undertaken in Eritrea, Liberia, Kosovo and East Timor, and our troops have operated side by side with those from 30 other countries who have received different training and come from different cultural backgrounds. Understanding the contingents immediately beside the Irish contingent is fundamental to their safety and security and to the operation itself. Training and co-operation is needed to get to the point where each contingent understands how the other operates. The safety of our troops is important in the first instance followed by the peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks.

Troops participating in these missions encounter distress, suffering, conflict, murder and genocide. I have given examples previously. The Deputy and I will sit down some day and agree on this. He will be so happy to realise there is no basis for the worries he has expressed trenchantly over the years.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.