Priority Questions

Overseas Missions

David Stanton

Question:

21 Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Defence if an approach has been made to the Defence Forces to supply a unit to United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon; if such a contribution is under consideration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30263/10]

I welcome Deputy Stanton, the new Fine Gael spokesperson on defence. I acknowledge the hard work and difficult questions put to me by Deputy Deenihan heretofore.

Ireland has offered, through the UN stand-by arrangements system, UNSAS, to provide up to 850 military personnel for overseas service at any one time. This figure equates to some 10% of Ireland's standing Army, excluding reserves, and demonstrates Ireland's commitment to the cause of international peace. This is the maximum sustainable commitment that Ireland can make to overseas peacekeeping operations.

Following the recent withdrawal of the Irish battalion from the United Nations mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, MINURCAT, Ireland is, as of 1 July 2010, contributing some 170 Defence Forces personnel to 12 different missions throughout the world.

With regard to future deployments, Ireland receives requests from time to time in regard to participation in various missions, and these are considered on a case-by-case basis. When considering any particular request, the existence of realistic objectives and a clear mandate, which has the potential to contribute to a political solution, consideration of how the mission relates to the priorities of Irish foreign policy and the degree of risk involved are among the factors considered. No request has been received to date from the UN in regard to the deployment of a Defence Forces contingent to the UN force in the Lebanon, UNIFIL, or to any another UN mission.

Following the recent withdrawal of the MINURCAT contingent, the Defence Forces will undertake essential and extensive maintenance of equipment, which will be repatriated from Chad later this month, in order to prepare for and be ready for their next deployment. The process of examining further options for Defence Forces overseas operations has already begun.

Initial informal inquiries have been made at UN level on available missions and my officials are consulting like-minded nations on potential future operations. I am aware that participation in overseas operations over the years has given Defence Forces personnel the opportunity to develop skills and competencies through practice in actual operational circumstances. Over the years, Ireland has built up a fine reputation in the field of international peacekeeping and a considerable volume of international goodwill has resulted. I assure the House of the Government's continuing commitment to international peacekeeping under a UN mandate.

Does the Minister agree that UN overseas operations, particularly peacekeeping missions, have been very valuable and important to the Defence Forces, particularly regarding its professional development? Does the Minister expect anything will come of the informal inquiries he mentioned? Can he give the House more information on those inquiries? What are the like-minded nations the Department is consulting?

No consideration has been given to any specific location. The question is about the UNIFIL mission. The reality is that, following a very difficult mission such as that undertaken in Chad, there will be considerable work to be done on the equipment on its return. This will take time. Issues arise over leave for the military personnel. Work is to be done in that regard.

We served with Finnish troops on the recent Chad mission. On that occasion the hospital facilities were provided by a Norwegian contingent approximately 100 km away. I met some of the Finnish people at a conference some months ago, perhaps in April. There are ongoing talks and very informal discussions between military personnel deployed in the Brussels office, for example, and departmental officials and various UN officers with whom they have reason to be in contact. It is very clear that the UN is aware we have committed 850 personnel and that, in the not-too-distant future when we find a suitable mission, we will have a number of troops to deploy.

Will the Minister indicate the timescale according to which a force would be ready to move and get the equipment up to speed? If a request were received in the next month or two, how long would it take for the Defence Forces to get up to speed?

A period of a month or short few months would not be a practical period within which to deploy troops and equipment overseas. An assessment of the state of the equipment used in Chad will be conducted when it is returned. That may be in the last week of this month. Some work will undoubtedly be required. Issues arise over leave and other matters. A longer period would be required.

Irish Red Cross Society

Brian O'Shea

Question:

22 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Defence his plans regarding the reform of the Irish Red Cross; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30355/10]

The Irish Red Cross Society is an autonomous body, established by the Irish Red Cross Society Order 1939 pursuant to the Red Cross Act 1938. The society is a charitable organisation with full powers to manage and administer its affairs through its governing body, the central council. Membership of the central council is by way of appointment by the Government or by election in accordance with the rules of the society.

The formal report of the working group established by the Irish Red Cross Society to examine the issue of governance was received in the Department of Defence in January of this year. The Department of Defence held preliminary discussions with the society on the recommendations contained in the report during February 2010. On 18 May, I met the acting chairman and secretary general of the society and assured them of my support in helping them achieve the aims set out in the report. To implement the recommendations made, there will be a requirement for significant amendments to the Irish Red Cross Society Order 1939.

Representatives of the society and officials from the Department of Defence met on 9 June to discuss the specific changes required to the 1939 order. The Department of Foreign Affairs, which engages on an ongoing basis with the various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and with the Irish Red Cross Society in regard to its overseas work, and the Department of the Taoiseach have been invited to participate in these discussions. Thereafter, any statutory changes necessary will be brought before the Government. I understand no issue has arisen that might necessitate an amendment to the Red Cross Act 1938.

In accordance with Article 9 of the Irish Red Cross Order 1939, the chairman of the society must be a member of the central council. In nominating persons to the central council, the Government considers it is highly desirable that the society have on its governing body professional people with a wide variety of knowledge and expertise, gained through work experience in both the public and private sector or volunteer experience with the society.

Has the Minister reached a conclusion on whether an interim chairperson should be appointed? I raise this issue because I have received further negative correspondence regarding the atmosphere within the Red Cross. It has been put to me that a variety of proposals on terms and conditions were rejected, 19 to nil, by the staff. The bad press continues unabated. A mechanism must be found to bring the matter to a conclusion, such as some form of independent arbitration. While I fully accept that the Red Cross is an autonomous body, the State provides almost €1 million per year towards its running costs. It has done and will continue to do a great deal of good, but the negative reports that are surfacing must end.

I take the point that a highly qualified person is required to act as chair. Any change made in the method of his or her appointment will take time. However, is there not a strong case for appointing an interim chairperson with the skills and experience to deal with the issues arising? I do not know who is right or wrong, but this matter must come to an end.

I agree with Deputy O'Shea that the continuation of controversies surrounding the Red Cross is undesirable. We would like to do anything we can to address them. The Deputy will remember that the first time I answered parliamentary questions as Minister, one of my concerns related to the indications at the time that legislative change to proceed with some of the changes recommended by the working group might be required. I am relieved that the current indications are that this is not likely to be the case. This is somewhat helpful.

The House will understand that the issue of terms and conditions of employment is entirely a matter between the employees and board of the Red Cross. I have no intention of interfering. Issues, such as changes in the manner of appointment, arise from the working group's recommendations. I have been trying to assess those changes, as I told Deputy O'Shea. In principle, I am well disposed towards the recommendations, but I have one or two minor concerns about matters that I would tweak were I working on them. There is a good case for an interim chairperson, but I would like to be clear on whether legislative change would be required. If I had established this as being the position, consulting with the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs would be fair and reasonable, as they have some responsibility in these areas. I do not anticipate that process taking long. While I would like to be in a position to move on the matter this month, it seems a more difficult aim to attain as each day goes by.

I take on board the Minister's comments and in no way would I suggest that the independence of the Red Cross should be interfered with. As a measure to resolve the issues and given the climate within that organisation, though, there is a strong case for the quick appointment of an interim chairperson with the necessary skills so that the body can function to its maximum potential. I do not know what is occurring within it and we all get representations, but something is wrong and must be addressed urgently.

The case for an interim chairperson would be absolute were we clear on the mandate that he or she would be given. In the current circumstances, I would like to be clear on the legislative base, the 1939 orders in the first instance and what we need to achieve in terms of the working group's recommendations before approaching someone and asking him or her to take on a specific job. Lumbering someone with a job would not be fair if he or she did not know what was expected of him or her.

Defence Forces Strength

David Stanton

Question:

23 Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Defence when it is expected that agreement will be reached on the employment control framework for Defence Forces; and if he make a statement matter. [30264/10]

Within the context of consolidating the public finances, the Government is focused firmly on maintaining the operational efficiency of the Permanent Defence Force, PDF. Government approval was secured in the context of budget 2010 for a level of 10,000, all ranks. This reflects the reductions in personnel recommended in the report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes. I am advised by the military authorities that the strength of the PDF on 31 May 2010, the latest date for which figures are available, was 9,809, broken down as follows: 795 for the Air Corps, 1,018 for the Naval Service and 7,996 for the Army.

Officials from my Department, together with the military authorities, are in the process of finalising a review of the structures and posts required to meet the operational requirements of the PDF within the reduced numbers for submission to the Department of Finance. This will be completed shortly and discussions will then commence with the Department of Finance to agree an employment control framework for the Defence Forces. Once the framework has been agreed with that Department, sanction for promotion will be delegated to the Department of Defence, with ongoing control monitoring by the Department of Finance on a monthly basis to ensure compliance with the overall parameters and controls set by the Government for each sector. It will be necessary to underpin the re-organisation with the required amendments to regulations and administrative instructions.

While these are challenging times, my priority is to ensure that the Defence Forces are organised, equipped and staffed in a manner that will ensure they can continue to deliver the services required of them by the Government. I am advised that, at this time, the Defence Forces retain the capacity to undertake the tasks laid down by the Government at home and overseas.

The Minister stated that the review would conclude shortly. Could he be more specific? Will it conclude this year, next year or when? Does he agree it is critical that the employment control framework be put in place soon, given that the operational capability of the Defence Forces depends on the officer corps, the NCO ranks and so on being intact and maintained at a critical level?

I am always reluctant to be specific about a timeframe. In this instance, however, I am fairly confident that the review will be completed this month and that the initial discussions with the Department of Finance might take place within such a timeframe. Otherwise, the review will run until September, as Deputies will be aware, but that situation is undesirable. I am hopeful, if not entirely overconfident, that we will move on to the next phase with the Department of Finance this month.

Is the Minister asserting that not only will he be in a position to put in place permission for promotions, but that recruiting will recommence to bring the numbers up to the 10,000 to which he referred in his response?

As Deputies will be aware, we have already commenced recruitment to the Naval Service, the area in most urgent need. Those new recruits will be coming on stream shortly. The next two phases will involve a cadet class — I have not completed discussions in this regard — and an intake to the military. I hope to move on this process towards the end of the year.

In previous years, the number of personnel leaving was considerably greater than is the case currently. This would have given room for a recruitment campaign that enabled us to deploy people to the areas most in need. However, a small number of personnel are leaving, so the leeway in terms of deploying people is not as great as one would like.

Reserve Defence Force

Brian O'Shea

Question:

24 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Defence his plans to reform the Reserve Defence Force; and if he will make a statement on matter. [30356/10]

The current White Paper on Defence 2000 outlined the overall strategy for the development of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF. This was based on the report of a special steering group established by the then Minister for Defence in January 1998. The steering group directed the work of a military board, which carried out a comprehensive review of the RDF. The process involved extensive consultation with stakeholders, including the Reserve Defence Force Representative Association, RDFRA, and members of the reserve.

The development strategy outlined in the White Paper led to the RDF review implementation plan, which has provided for the phased development of the reserve's capabilities in recent years. The plan outlined a series of steps that were designed to enhance RDF capabilities and improve interoperability with the Permanent Defence Force, PDF. These steps included re-organisation, improved training, enhanced working relationships with PDF units and improved equipment. In accordance with the plan, the reserve has been re-organised, new equipment, clothing and opportunities for improved training have been delivered and a revised training strategy is in place. These improvements represent a positive advancement for the reserve.

The plan also provided for the development of an integrated element of the reserve. This element was to integrate and train with the PDF. A pilot integration programme was introduced in 2007 and extended into 2008, but the numbers participating in these pilots were disappointing and this element of the plan has not achieved the intended results. Plans to send members of the reserve overseas were progressed, but postponed in light of the moratorium on recruitment to the public service. There are no plans to send members of the Reserve Defence Forces overseas in the foreseeable future.

As the Reserve Defence Forces review implementation plan has reached the end of its timeframe, there is a requirement to critically examine the approach that has been made to date to consider options for the future development of the reserve. A value for money review of the Reserve Defence Forces commenced in February this year. The steering committee overseeing this review has an independent chair in line with Department of Finance guidelines for such reviews. As part of the review process, the steering group committee will be engaging in stakeholder consultation on a phased basis. I understand that as part of this process it has recently written to the representative associations, inviting submissions. The findings of the value for money review, including the lessons learned through the RDF implementation plan process, will complement the development of a new White Paper on defence which will commence in the near future. This will ensure that further development of the reserve is appropriately informed by the lessons of the past and requirements for the future.

Will the Minister not agree it is serious that the full complement in the Reserve Defence Forces on 1 January 2009 was 7,671, and had dropped to 6,394 by 31 March this year, a loss of 1,277? The McCarthy an bord snip nua report has been described by the chairperson of the representative association of the Reserve Defence Forces as a ‘sword of Damocles'. The report recommended a reduction both in budget and personnel strength of two-thirds. I understand an undertaking was given that this would not happen, yet the number of man days allocated to the Reserve Defence Forces this year has been reduced by 31,000, effectively a two thirds reduction on the 2008 usage.

I realise the review is ongoing, stakeholders are being consulted and so on. However, the situation continues to deteriorate and positive signals need to be sent to the Reserve Defence Forces to the effect that there will not be further cuts this year. Any further cuts would do enormous damage to morale. Essentially, I am asking the Minister to send strong signals that he sees a real future for the Reserve Defence Forces and indicating that he wants to develop them. Very importantly, and we agree on this, in terms of the functions they carry out, they should be reassured, and it is possible for them to interact effectively with the community at large in a whole myriad of areas.

I agree with Deputy O'Shea in regard to the latter point. I have had some experience as regards the Reserve Defence Forces over the last three months since my appointment and I have been looking at the various recommendations that arose along the way. It seems to me that by and large, as regards the recommendations that came forward, at least a positive attempt was made to implement them. The pilot scheme is a particularly good example of something that did not work out in the manner that was anticipated.

The issue of paid training days and that of the McCarthy report seem to me to come somewhat further along, although it is highly unlikely that either is positive, quite frankly, in terms of their impact on the reserve. Nevertheless, the drop in numbers and the lack of interest in the reserve, if that is what we are seeing, seems to pre-date both of those by a considerable period. I agree with Deputy O'Shea that there is a considerable challenge there. Last weekend I was out with the Naval Reserve in Kilrush bay and I was very impressed with the equipment, training and so on. I visited Lahinch barracks where there was a communications and information training week. The quality of the equipment was far beyond anything to which I could aspire to knowing anything much about. I was very impressed by the commitment of the people to learning about this, and of course, in their civilian employment they know a considerable amount about such equipment in any event. I attended the annual conference and heard exactly what Deputy O'Shea has been saying about the concerns current activists in the reserve have about this area.

I believe we can send a positive signal in this House. One of the opportunities to do that will be the White Paper, which will be coming up later in the year.

I have two final points. One is the issue which is of great concern to the representative association, that is, the appointment of a brigadier general to head up the organisation. My understanding of the Minister's responses to me on that was to the effect that he had no particular objection to this, off the top of his head. This is something that can be addressed on its own because, while this is no reflection on any individuals, there is the issue that the Reserve Defence Forces are being headed up by a member of another organisation, whereas if a member of the general staff was involved that would be a different matter.

I believe the whole issue of being able to serve overseas would be an added incentive towards getting young people to join the Reserve Defence Forces. That aspect was postponed because of financial considerations but there are areas in the Permanent Defence Force, mechanics, engineers and so on — not troops in the firing line, as such, but rather people involved in the back-up services — which are worthy of focus. I believe there is considerable scope here and that this is worthy of examination.

If I appear unenthusiastic about the idea of a brigadier general, it is partly because it seems that many of the recommendations regarding the reserve that have been implemented do not appear to have brought about the positive results people had hoped for. I have an open mind on this but I am a good deal short of being convinced that it will address what seems to me to be much more fundamentally difficulty. With regard to overseas service, I understand the ban on recruitment was one of the factors, as well as the financial ones mentioned by Deputy O'Shea. However, it seems to be the case that were that opportunity available a number of those concerned would be interested in pursuing it.

Naval Service

David Stanton

Question:

25 Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Defence if he expects the replacement of vessels in the Naval flotilla to happen in line with the original proposed schedule; if the Department of Finance has given any indication as to whether the replacements will be made to that schedule; the contingency plans his Department has to replace one of the Naval vessels should safety concerns require the immediate retirement of a current ship in view of the importance of the flotilla in the war against drugs and piracy and the small size of the flotilla; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30265/10]

A strategy for the replacement of Naval Service offshore patrol vessels, OPVs, is currently in progress following the commencement of a tender competition in 2007. The competition sought tenders for the purchase of two OPVs with an option for a third. The process comprised two stages — stage 1, a request for proposals and stage 2, an invitation to tender.

During 2008, stage 1 of the tender process was completed and tenders were received in response to stage 2. Following tender evaluation, a preferred bidder was selected last year and detailed and extensive contract negotiations are now close to conclusion. The decision to proceed with the final award of the contract to purchase the OPVs is subject to these negotiations reaching a satisfactory outcome and Government approval of the 2011 Estimates. Subject to a satisfactory conclusion of the contract negotiations, delivery of the new vessels would be expected to commence on a phased basis from 2014. This strategy, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair, will ensure that the operational capability of the Naval Service is maintained at a satisfactory level.

The acquisition of modern new vessels will ensure that the service continues to be fully equipped to carry out its day to day roles in enforcing the State's sovereign rights over our waters and our fisheries and meeting Ireland's obligations in the area of maritime safety and security and fisheries protection.

Is the Minister optimistic that the purchase of those two vessels will go ahead? Will he inform the House as to the size of the vessels that are being considered, bearing in mind that it appears the seas are getting rougher and some of the ships we have find it difficult to negotiate some high seas? Will he also say what his views are with respect to at least two of the offshore patrol vessels, whose normal replacement date has passed at this stage?

I am not a great expert on the dimensions of ships and descriptions of them but it is true that new ships, should they be acquired, will be at the larger end of the scale because of the maritime conditions, as outlined by Deputy Stanton. The decision on whether to proceed this year or next will depend on two factors. First, there is some work to be done on the conclusion of negotiations and, following that, approval by the Government. While two of the ships, as the Deputy says, are reaching the notional age at which it is perhaps not wise to have them in service for much longer, the fact is that they are in very good shape. The engineers in the Naval Service have done wonderful work. I was on board LE Aoife on Saturday and it is in very good shape. I was taken down to the engine room where I was very impressed by the enthusiasm of a young engineer.

Will the Minister agree these ships' normal lifespans are 30 years and that two them are older than that? While waiting for the new vessels to come on stream, are there contingency plans in the event of either of the older ships becoming non-operational?

We have been fortunate that the vessels in question have not indicated major difficulties and have been very well cared for. While 30 years is the normal lifespan for one of these ships, I do not anticipate any difficulties. Some maintenance issues requiring dry-docking have been attended to more than competently. I accept Deputy Stanton's concern that even if I were in a position to sign the contracts next November, there would still be a considerable lead-in time.