I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 21, 25, 26, 30, 33, 35, 38, 43, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 64 together.
The ambition of the EU to be able to respond rapidly to emerging crises has, and continues to be, a key objective of the development of the European security and defence policy, ESDP. The tasks to be carried out under ESDP, the so-called Petersberg Tasks, are defined in the Amsterdam treaty as "humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking." Our participation in ESDP, and in the Petersberg Tasks, has been endorsed and supported directly by the people in the referendum on the Treaty on European Union, TEU, and the subsequent referenda on the Amsterdam and Nice treaties. Our participation in ESDP is also fully in accordance with our traditional support for the UN and our obligations as members of the international community, to respond to crises, events and humanitarian disasters, wherever they may occur.
Ireland supports the development of the EU's rapid response capability in support of UN authorised missions and is positively disposed towards participation in the rapid response elements in this regard. To this end I established the interdepartmental group to examine all issues relating to Ireland's potential participation in an EU-led rapid response capability. The group reported to me in November 2005 and, since then, its report has been considered by the Cabinet sub-committee on European affairs and, informally, by the Government.
On the basis of the study and informal discussions at Government level, I have authorised my officials to open discussions with potential partners on Ireland's participation in a battle group. We will seek, in co-operation with like-minded nations to contribute to the development of the battle group concept and, through this, to remain at the forefront of developments within the international community in supporting international peace support operations. With my recent announcement, 23 of 25 member states have now signalled their intention to participate in battle groups.
My intention would be to identify specific options in relation to participation and then return to Government for a formal decision. In the first instance we intend to talk to Sweden, which is the framework nation for the Nordic battle group. We have identified a range of potential offers ranging from smaller niche capabilities up to an APC mounted light infantry company group of approximately 200 personnel plus support elements. While there have been some preliminary informal discussions with Sweden, regarding potential participation, to date there have been no formal discussions with any EU member state. As such, I am not in a position to state what will come out of these discussions. However, arrangements have now been made for a formal meeting between representatives from the Departments of Defence, and Foreign Affairs, and the Defence Forces of Sweden and Ireland on 10 March in Stockholm to discuss possible Irish participation in the Nordic battle group. As the Deputies will appreciate, the Nordic battle group was organised some time ago and, I understand most of the core elements are already in place, with Sweden contributing the core manoeuvre battalion. In addition, battle groups covering the period out to 2010 have already been announced and, on this basis, I would expect that our contribution in the period to 2010 is likely to be limited. However, this will be a matter for ongoing discussion with other member states over the coming months, in particular, with Finland and Austria with whom we have also had some initial informal exploratory discussions.
There are no plans for the involvement of Naval Service or Air Corps assets although individual members of the Naval Service or Air Corps may be deployed on overseas peace support operations as they have been in the past. Any commitment to a battle group will be met within the context of the overall ceiling of 850 personnel serving overseas at any one time set in the White Paper on Defence.
In the event that we participate in a Nordic battle group we would be the only participant with a legal requirement for a UN mandate. That said, many member states acknowledge that it would be politically desirable, if not a political imperative, to have a UN mandate for any battle group deployment.
I am fully satisfied that our participation in the battle group concept in no way weakens or undermines Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. I have reiterated on many occasions that our participation in peace support operations would continue to require UN authorisation. Participation in battle groups will not diminish this requirement in any way. Ireland's basis for participation in missions undertaken by the EU is grounded in the legitimacy conveyed by the UN Security Council. This will not change. The triple lock of UN, Government and Dáil approval will remain in place.
Participation in a battle group imposes no obligations in relation to international or multilateral defence. Participation of our troops in individual missions will be decided on a case-by-case basis within the framework of our national decision-making process. I would like to stress again that any decision to participate in any mission will be a national sovereign decision.
As part of its study the interdepartmental group recommended changes to current legislation in light of the increasing range of operations where military forces can play a role and the need for increased interoperability and training so as we can be more effective and more efficient once deployed.
It is important to the development of capabilities and the ongoing training of the Defence Forces that they can undertake training overseas and learn from best practice in other countries. While not conclusive, the study raised possible questions as to whether Defence Forces can be sent on such overseas training. This training is essential to the development and maintenance of high standards in the military and our existing peace support operations, where we work alongside many other armies.
I intend to introduce amending legislation to put this issue beyond doubt. Moreover, in light of developments since the Defence Act was amended in 1960 to provide for participation in UN peace support operations, for the avoidance of doubt, I also intend to update the wording in the Act to more closely reflect current practice in the formulation of UN Security Council resolutions endorsing peace support operations. The triple lock requirement of UN, Government and Dáil approval will stand.
I also propose to provide for the participation by Defence Forces personnel in humanitarian operations in response to natural and man-made disasters such as the tsunami in south east Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan. Currently personnel must volunteer for service with a civil undertaking, in the same manner as any ordinary citizens and cannot be deployed at the behest of the Government.
These issues are important and must be addressed. The requirement for this amending legislation arises irrespective of our participation in battle groups. It is my hope, with the co-operation of the Oireachtas which I expect will be readily forthcoming, to have the necessary legislation enacted before the summer recess.