Priority Questions.

Overseas Missions.

Jimmy Deenihan

Question:

57 Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence if he is satisfied that Irish troops serving in Chad are receiving the logistical support required following the transfer of authority for the mission from the EU to the UN, with specific reference to the provision of fuel and emergency medical evacuation resources needed to ensure their safety; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18111/09]

On 15 March 2009, MINURCAT, the United Nation's-led mission in Chad and the Central African Republic, assumed operational control of the UN force of 2,085 personnel, including 1,877 troops re-hatted from eight EUFOR contributors. An Irish officer, Brigadier General Gerald Aherne, has been appointed deputy force commander in the mission.

In the eight short weeks or so since MINURCAT took over the force, the mission has faced a number of challenges — mainly force generation, a shortfall in helicopter assets and fuel shortages in Chad. In his report last month to the UN Security Council on the MINURCAT mission, the Secretary General indicated that the build-up of the force will be phased, with a period of consolidation prior to the beginning of the rainy season in June 2009. The force was expected to reach its full troop strength of 5,200 by the end of 2009 but this has been revised downwards to 4,700 by that date. As of 30 April 2009, the MINURCAT force strength was 2,400 troops and it is likely to reach 3,000 troops by 30 June 2009. The pace of troop generation has been attributed to the brief period allowed between the UN's authorisation of the military component of MINURCAT and the deployment of military personnel.

In addition, the UN has only received pledges for ten of the 18 military helicopters detailed in the force requirements. It has urged member states to meet the shortfalls in personnel and air assets, particularly night-capable military helicopters, to ensure that the mission can implement its mandate without constraint. With regard to helicopter support available to the Defence Forces contingent in Goz Beida, two UN helicopters are currently available to the Defence Forces serving with MINURCAT. In addition, they have retained the two contracted Mi-8T helicopters to support their operations in Chad. Four helicopters are based in Goz Beida.

The fuel problems being encountered by MINURCAT are common to the whole of Chad, as there is a country-wide fuel crisis. The UN is fully exercised on the issue and all possible sources of fuel for MINURCAT contingents are being investigated by the UN to meet the mission's current needs. This includes the airlifting of fuel from a neighbouring UN mission, which has been ongoing. The UN has indicated that once sufficient fuel stock has been rebuilt in Abeche, it should be prepared for future country-wide crises of this nature. Fuel conservation measures at Camp Ciara, where personnel from the Irish battalion are based, are being constantly reviewed. While there have been some limitations on operations conducted by the Irish battalion, the maintenance of essential "life support" systems in the Irish camp, that is, water, cooking, sanitation, air conditioning, etc., has continued to be prioritised by the Defence Forces. The battalion has retained the capability to react to emergency situations using both air and land assets. Fuel rationing is expected to continue until 1 June when a new UN contract is mobilised.

The situation continues to be monitored closely by the Defence Forces. I am satisfied that all necessary measures are being taken by the UN to address the various difficulties faced by the mission in its transition period.

Is the Minister concerned by the apparent lack of fuel to run generators in the camp, which has led to a shortage of fuel for lighting and vehicles, for example, with the result that the mission is confined to camp and troops are unable to carry out the patrols for which they were deployed? Is he aware the logistical support provided by the UN is not at the same level as when EUFOR was in charge and the UN did not stockpile enough diesel, for example, to ensure that this problem would not happen? It is important that the Minister gives us an assurance that there will be no problem with medical evacuation if fuel is not available or if there is a fuel shortage and a member of the mission is injured in a remote part of Chad and there is no capacity to airlift him or her for medical treatment within the "golden hour".

It concerns me that there are shortfalls in the mission to date. As Deputy Deenihan is aware, MINURCAT has taken over since 15 March and there are some teething problems. To the best of my knowledge, the fuel crisis was unanticipated. The Irish troops have been sent out to Chad, as have the other MINURCAT troops, to do a job and anything that prevents them doing it to the best of their capacity or capability is of concern to me. It is not true to say that the Irish troops are confined to camp. They have been forced to cut back on some routine patrols due to the fuel shortage. However, I am also assured by the military powers that they have sufficient fuel to undertake any emergency journeys that are necessary or to respond to emergencies either by land or air.

It is expected that the rationing will come to an end in approximately three weeks, but that is not to say there will not be future crises of that nature in Chad. We are on notice of that now. I assure the House that there will not be any problem with medical evacuation. I have discussed that with the relevant personnel in the Army and I have been assured that there will not be any problem. The force commander has put a plan in place for medical and other evacuations. That is part of his brief. The plan is in place and it is ready to be implemented, if necessary.

It is important that a sufficient supply of fuel is available not only for light, but also for air conditioning, which is essential given that temperatures reach 50° Celsius. It is also important for the movement of people. I did not say the soldiers were "confined to base". I said they were not going on the number of patrols on which they expected to go and that they were restricted to the base. It will emerge in the next reply that the soldiers cannot even play football in the base. The mission has gone well but the Minister needs to take a more hands-on approach due to the threat that exists. We need more logistical back-up than when the mission was a European one.

As we will see in the reply to the next question, the restriction on playing sports has nothing whatsoever to do with the fuel crisis.

No, but I am just——

We will not anticipate the next question.

We will come to that. I was merely responding to something Deputy Deenihan said.

The troops are confined to base.

The troops are not confined to barracks. They are not able to engage in some routine patrols due to rationing of fuel. Fuel usage has been prioritised for life support systems in the camp such as air conditioning, to which Deputy Deenihan referred, and lighting and heating. I am advised that the situation should substantially be resolved within the next three weeks, in which case, I hope, we will be back to full operational capacity.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

58 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Defence the restrictions placed on Defence Forces personnel serving in Chad in terms of sporting activities in which they are permitted to engage; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17791/09]

In exercising his statutory duty of care to his troops, the Irish commander of the 99th infantry battalion deployed with the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, MINURCAT, conducted a risk assessment of all activities, including sporting activities, carried out by personnel deployed in the theatre of operations.

It was the commander's assessment that the risk of hospitalisation or permanent repatriation of personnel due to sports injuries was not acceptable to him as all personnel are required for operational deployments on immediate notice. He, therefore, imposed a ban on competitive contact and other sports such as soccer and volleyball. A wide range of sporting activities including unarmed combat skills, running and the use of a well equipped gymnasium remains available to troops based in Camp Ciara.

The Minister said the decision was taken in light of the need to have all troops ready for duty and that permanent repatriation was not something that could be countenanced. How many troops have been permanently repatriated since the Irish troops went to Chad? Has this kind of restriction ever been imposed before for troops on overseas missions?

If I understood the Minister correctly, the two sports that are banned are soccer and volleyball. Are other physical contact sports banned or is it possible for troops to play them?

Volleyball is not a physical contact sport.

I was puzzled how volleyball could be one of the sports that is restricted. What sports are restricted? Is this bad for morale? Physical contact sports, be they in Chad or in Ireland, are a good way of letting off steam and of relaxing at the end of the day. The soldiers in Chad are in a pretty tough environment.

I understand that there was a significant cost in repatriating one soldier who was working in Chad. I also understand that he had to be accompanied by a medical person. Is that the real reason? Is it a financial consideration, or is it the health and safety issue to which the Minister alluded in his reply?

There are a number of issues in the Deputy's statement. I do not know whether this restriction is being imposed on other missions, but I can find out for him. The force commander has a responsibility and a duty of care to look out for the health and safety of troops under his command. The reality in Chad is that the ground is extremely hard. Some of the sports are played out on open ground and when people fall, it tends to have a much greater impact on their bodies than falling in a field in Ireland, where the ground is not nearly as hard. While we would prefer it if there was no ban on any type of sporting activity, the force commander has a duty of care for the health and safety of the troops under his command. It is not a question of finance, but a question of the health and safety of the troops under the commander's jurisdiction.

The force commander is the person in place on the ground. He knows what is more likely to endanger health and safety and what is likely to do so. The force commander imposes these detailed rules and keeps the situation under ongoing review. It would not be appropriate for me to be trying to designate one sport over another in Chad from a safe distance in Dublin. I have been informed by the military that the force commander in Chad is trying to be as flexible as possible. While rugby probably is not allowed, as it is a very physical game, football kick-abouts are allowed. I can ascertain the precise nature of what is allowed but it is a matter more appropriate to the force commander on the ground.

I believe 34 or 35 troops have been repatriated so far. The grounds on which they were repatriated are divided equally between medical grounds and humanitarian grounds. There was one case that did not fall into either category, as I believe the person was simply asked to go home. The individual mentioned by the Deputy broke his collar bone. He had to be repatriated at short notice. The cost was high, as the medic had to travel with him and come back again. The cost of the return flight was included in that. Commercial air companies charge in accordance with the amount of notice. The shorter the notice, the greater the charge. By definition, theses things are done at very short notice. The cost for the other 33 or 34 people who were repatriated is much less per individual, and the total cost for them was around €60,000.

The Minister's reply only goes so far. He has not told me how many people were repatriated due to sports injuries.

I said 34 or 35.

Were they all repatriated due to sports injuries?

No, I meant 34 or 35 in total.

The question was about the number sent home due to sports injuries. Can we overdo the health and safety aspect? Deputy Aylward would be very much aware of a serious enough injury to one of the Kilkenny players in last Sunday's league final. Should we ban hurling because we have occasional injuries? Are we overdoing it here? People in the Army are physically fit and they want to indulge in contact sports.

The Minister is not providing evidence that there was a great number of injuries. As far as I am aware, only one such injury has been recorded. Is this sufficient reason to deny physical contact sports to our troops to whom, I believe, sport is important in terms of morale?

While I do not believe health and safety should be the sole criterion in this regard, we cannot totally ignore it. As far as I am aware, one soldier suffered a serious injury as a result of engaging in sport. Anybody who has visited the region will know that the ground in the area is not suitable for sports involving bodily contact.

The commander, the Government and I as Minister have a duty of care in terms of the health and safety of personnel. We are on notice that certain of these activities can result in serious personal injury to people already in a hostile environment and who run the risk of injury owing to their duties. I know for a fact that the Force commander on the ground is being as flexible as possible in this regard.

There is no suggestion that all sporting activity is banned. Personnel can engage in running and they have access to a first class gymnasium which includes such facilities as mats for engagement in judo and other self defence activities which may assist personnel in warding off assaults. A wide range of activities is provided. The ban applies in respect of those activities, which in the judgment of the Force commander on the ground, are most likely to give rise to serious personal injury thus causing a person to be repatriated from Chad.

Jimmy Deenihan

Question:

59 Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence if the Defence Force personnel serving in Chad beyond 15 March 2009 and returning to Ireland in May 2009 will be eligible for the award of a UN MINURCAT mission medal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18112/09]

Medals are awarded to members of the Defence Forces on the basis of various criteria, including length of service, service overseas and for acts of bravery associated with such service at home and overseas. Members who serve overseas on UN missions or UN mandated missions, subject to certain criteria, are eligible for the award of the United Nations peacekeepers medal. This medal is awarded only once to an individual, irrespective of the number of overseas missions completed during his or her career.

In addition to the peacekeepers medal, a member who serves overseas may also be eligible for the award of a mission-specific medal by the international organisation responsible for the mission. Accordingly, in this instance, qualifying personnel currently deployed to Chad as part of the EUFOR Chad/Central African Republic, CAR, mission were awarded European Security Defence Policy, ESDP, EUFOR service medals prior to being, to use the term, "rehatted" to the United Nations MINURCAT mission on 15 March 2009.

The qualifying criterion for the award of a UN MINURCAT medal is at least 90 days service in the theatre. Consequently, personnel returning in May will not be eligible for the award of this medal. However, it must always be borne in mind that the medals are awarded not by the Irish Defence Forces but by the international organisation in question. Furthermore, owing to the importance placed on the award of medals and in order to preserve the sense of value and entitlement attached to same, it is policy that only one service medal per tour of duty is recognised.

Personnel deployed to Chad beyond 15 March 2009 or, those personnel who were ineligible for an ESDP EUFOR service medal, will be eligible for the award of a UN MINURCAT mission medal provided they meet the qualifying criteria as set down by the UN, namely, at least 90 days service.

In view of the fact that the mission spent only one month as a EUFOR mission and will spend three months as a UN mission, surely it would be more appropriate to provide the personnel with a UN peacekeeping medal, which, as I understand it, is what the majority of the mission wants.

I ask that the Minister make personal representations to the Force commander with whom remit for the provision of these medals rests. Will the Minister make representations, through the UN or Irish representatives, to the Force commander that consideration be given to the award of these medals? Also, there is precedent in regard to the granting of the peacekeeping medal. Members of the Naval Service served 60 days in Lebanon and were granted the UN peacekeeping medal at that time. There is precedent. This is quite a serious issue. I will certainly campaign on behalf of these people because they feel very strongly about it. They are representing us in very hostile conditions. Surely they deserve this honour. At the end of the day what these people, who were on foreign missions and who risked their lives for us and for world order, have is just that badge of honour — that medal — to show they served there. The UN peacekeeping medal is very highly regarded by any military person in the world, never mind Ireland.

I understand that people who served 30 days and moved from the EUFOR mission straight into the MINURCAT mission will be entitled to an ESDP medal. The question is whether they will have served sufficient time to also get a MINURCAT medal. As the Deputy knows, only one medal is recognised per tour of duty. The Deputy says that those involved would regard it as more appropriate to get the MINURCAT medal because it represents longer service and he is concerned that some might fall just short of the 90 days. In that case, the United Nations, as the organisation responsible for the mission, can break its own rules, as it were, and make exceptions for those who fall just short of the 90 days. If the Deputy thinks it is appropriate and he wishes me to make representations through our people to the force commander who is representing the United Nations on the ground, I would be happy to do so.

I welcome the Minister's response and I recognise that he is taking the matter very seriously. If he could make direct representations to the force commander in whose remit, I understand, is the granting of these medals, I believe those medals will be awarded. However, it needs that representation from the Government through the Minister to achieve this objective.

We will be talking to the representative associations about the matter. Some people may be entitled to the ESDP medal but fall just short of the service required for the MINURCAT medal. Some people might not even be entitled to the ESDP medal and also fall short of the service required for the MINURCAT medal, although I do not think that situation arises. If such people believe the MINURCAT medal would be more appropriate, I am prepared to make representations for them.

Defence Forces Equipment.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

60 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Defence the way the saving of 48% will be achieved in Air Corps equipment and expenses in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17792/09]

The reduction in the provision for the Air Corps this year should be seen in the context of the very significant investment in new equipment for the Air Corps in recent years. This comprehensive investment programme included the delivery of eight Pilatus training aircraft at a total cost of €60 million, inclusive of VAT; two light-utility EC135 helicopters acquired from Eurocopter SAS at a cost of €12.8 million, inclusive of VAT; six utility AW139 helicopters acquired from AgustaWestland, Italy, at a cost of €75 million, inclusive of VAT; and a major mid-life upgrade on the two CASA maritime patrol aircraft, at a cost of €16.5 million. The total cost of these programmes is considerably in excess of €160 million, which I am sure the Deputy will agree is a very substantial amount of money, far exceeding any previous level of expenditure on such equipment for the Air Corps.

There is no provision in this year's Air Corps subhead for the purchase of aircraft. The AW139 helicopter programme and the CASA upgrade were both finalised in 2008 and this accounts for the significant reduction in the 2009 provisionvis-à-vis 2008. The allocation for 2009 is sufficient for the day-to-day operations in the Air Corps and will not affect its operational capability.

My recollection is that the October budget called for a reduction of 44% and it has now moved to 48%. Where is the additional reduction of 4% implemented? Between the fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, there are no fighter aircraft on the list. Does the Air Corps' lack of fighter aircraft represent a deficiency in the training of our pilots? Have there been discussions with the Garda and the Revenue Commissioners on the use of military aircraft in support of the civilian power's fight against drugs and arms smuggling, which are all too prevalent, as the Minister knows from his city?

My understanding is that the 4% relates to a reduction in the payroll. No submissions or representations have been made to me to the effect that our lack of fighter aircraft interferes with training. A function of the Defence Forces, including the Air Corps, is to act as an aid to the civil power, namely, the Garda Síochána. I presume that the Revenue Commissioners are included in this. Discussions are always ongoing between the military authorities and the Garda and Revenue Commissioners.

How will the 4% saving in payroll costs be achieved?

As the Deputy may know, we stopped recruiting in late 2008. When people retire, they will not be replaced. Generally speaking, this is how we will proceed.

Is the figure as high as 4%? If pensions are counted under a separate head, the 4% figure is not a net saving in the Department's overall budget. Or is it the case that, if the Air Corps is not recruiting, it is not replacing those who retire?

To achieve the 4%, how many positions in the Air Corps will not be replaced?

I will get the exact figure for the Deputy, but the Air Corps is close to its authorised maximum figure.

Defence Forces Strength.

Jimmy Deenihan

Question:

61 Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence the implications of the moratorium on promotions and recruitment in the Defence Forces for the capability of the organisation to fulfil its role in aid to the civil power and its overseas commitments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18113/09]

The recent Government decision on savings measures on public service numbers is being implemented in the Defence Forces. The implications of the decision are under consideration by my officials in consultation with the military authorities and the Department of Finance.

I am advised that the Defence Forces retain the capacity to undertake the tasks laid down by the Government at home and overseas. The Defence Forces have improved in every respect since 2000 through the implementation of the White Paper. This represents a significant public service success story. The organisation is therefore in a healthy state in terms of personnel and equipment.

The economic reality is such that the Government decision must be implemented. It can be anticipated that further flexibility and restructuring will be required arising from the implementation of these measures. Therefore, I intend, within the resources available, to retain the capacity of the organisation to operate efficiently across all roles. This will represent a significant challenge in the coming years and one in respect of which I will work closely with the Chief of Staff.

I am sure the Minister would agree that the Defence Forces, as an organisation, are based on promotion. It is critical that people be promoted to ensure a young, fit, streamlined and effective defence force.

Will there be a cadet intake this year? If not, it will be for the first time in the history of the State. Has the Minister discussed with the Minister for Finance the critical appointments that the former must make within the Defence Forces to ensure that they can carry out their role in aid to the civil power and participate in future overseas missions? I would like the Minister to answer these two critical questions.

There were a number of points. I understand the Deputy's comments on promotion. A question arises as to whether people who have gone through most of the promotional process, up to and including the medical stage, can be put through the system. This is a matter I will discuss with the Minister for Finance.

No cadet intake is planned for this year——

That is a disgrace.

——as matters stand. While Deputy Deenihan is aware there has been a cadet intake into the Army every year since the early 1980s, there is a recruitment embargo at present. Incidentally, a number of other issues arise in this regard, such as the question of fixed short-term contracts, when people have an expectation or commitment to go on to become full-time officers in the Army. I must ascertain what is the status of such contracts. Even in respect of general service enlistment, the Deputy is aware that the system works by taking on a recruit for the first five years, after which he or she continues for either four or seven years and then ultimately for the balance of 21 years. The question arises as to whether this system is affected although in my view it is not, because it involves neither recruitment nor promotion.

The House will be aware that I can discuss such matters with the Minister for Finance and seek appropriate exemptions. My commitment as Minister for Defence is to maintain the operational capacity of the Army in order that it will be able to meet the tasks it must undertake at home and abroad. I am satisfied that even with the recruitment embargo in place, within the next year it will be fully equipped to do what it must do both at home and abroad. As I noted, I am taking some advice on some of the technical matters to which I have adverted and when that is done, I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance. That option is open to me and I intend to avail of it.

Deputy Deenihan may ask a brief supplementary question.

The fact there will be no cadet recruitment this year comes as something of a bombshell and certainly will affect the future operational capacity of the Defence Forces. I would not wish to be in the Minister's position and to be obliged to stand over and explain this decision to the Defence Forces. Will the Minister give Members an assurance today that aid to the civil power and future overseas missions will not be affected by this decision? For example, what now will be the fate of those Air Corp pilots who are on a 12-year contract at present and who have been trained at enormous expense to the State? I also refer to soldiers who joined on the basis that promotion was a prerequisite of having their contracts extended. If such soldiers will not be promoted, will they now be obliged to leave the Defence Forces?

An tAire, for a final reply.

I stated in my initial reply that I am quite satisfied and will ensure in my talks with the Department of Finance that the capacity of the Army to do its job, both as an aid to the civil power and in performance of its overseas duties, will not be materially affected by the recruitment embargo. As for cadet recruitment, I did not state there would not be a recruitment competition this year. I stated that recruitment of cadets has been suspended for the present.

When will they be recruited? They must be recruited before September to go to college.

For the present.

However, they go to college——

Allow the Minister to reply.

——and they will have filled out their CAO forms.

Recruitment is suspended for the present, pending my talks with the Minister for Finance.

As for the technical questions raised by Deputy Deenihan, these all are matters which are being discussed at present. I am discussing them with the representative organisations and the military authorities and, ultimately, I will discuss them with the Department of Finance.

I am not taking these measures happily in respect of recruitment. I am doing this because the Government must take a grip on public finances in Ireland. Deputy Deenihan's party consistently states that the Government has let the public finances slip out of control and that it must take immediate action to bring them back into line. However, the difficulty is that Fine Gael is in favour of general saving but particular expenditure. Each time the Government takes action to bring the finances back into line, Fine Gael opposes that particular action, which seems to be downright inconsistent and hypocritical.

There are other areas.

I reiterate I am satisfied the Army will be capable of doing its job both at home and overseas. As for recruitment, it has been suspended across all branches of the Army for the present. However, this is a matter I will discuss with the Minister for Finance.

This measure will decimate the Army.