Priority Questions

Cyber Security Policy

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


119. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence the role he envisages for the Defence Forces in addressing cyber security issues; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11697/15]

This question focuses on the issue of our national security, which nowadays is not just concerned with the security of our communities and Border, but also the security of our cyberspace. Will the Minister focus on the need to develop within the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces a dedicated cyber-defence unit? Could the signals intelligence unit be the body to play that role?

This is a relevant question in the context of the White Paper and the changing security concerns. The growth of cyber threats to critical private, government and defence networks requires a co-ordinated response at national and EU level across member states. There is a need to focus on advanced collaboration between the public and private sectors. The response to the cyber threat remains a whole-of-government challenge, with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources taking the lead role and inputs in the security domain from the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer works closely with Departments in this regard.

Following a Government decision in July 2011, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources established a computer security incident response team, CSIRT, to support Departments and key agencies in responding to cyber incidents, including malicious cyber-attacks that would hamper the integrity of their information systems and harm the interests of the State. The CSIRT also acts as a national point of contact for entities within Ireland and as the point of contact for international discussions on issues of cyber security. The scope of the body's activities covers prevention, detection, response and mitigation services to Departments, State agencies and critical national infrastructure providers.

The Defence Forces provide two seconded specialists to assist with the work of this unit. Its work is also supported by an interdepartmental committee on cyber security, established and chaired by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, that regularly reports progress on cyber security issues to the Government task force on emergency planning, which I chair in my capacity as the Minister for Defence.

I am surprised and pleased to learn there is a unit within the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources but it is a very well kept secret because today is the first I have heard of it. It is, however, in the Department of Defence that such a unit should be based because the high level of expertise required to secure our cyberspace rests primarily within the Minister's Department. Since it is ultimately a defence issue it is in the Department of Defence that the continued development of the strategy should be focused and led, rather than in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. We all acknowledge the inordinate importance for our economic recovery of companies like Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on. Given the huge amount of information the State itself stores about our citizens it is critical that the material be secure.

I agree with all of that. A high level interdepartmental group chaired by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and including senior representatives from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces is finalising a draft national cybersecurity strategy that will focus on improving cybersecurity capabilities in Ireland. The draft strategy will be published this year by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in consultation with other key departments and agencies. This will provide a framework within which the future contribution of the Defence Forces will be assessed.

The Deputy is right that this is a threat that needs a comprehensive response from Government. The only issue is which Department should be the lead. To date the decision has been that the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should be the lead Department for cybersecurity but that Department works with other Departments and we in the Department of Defence have a significant input into the strategy, along with the Defence Forces, because we have the necessary capacity. The Deputy needs to wait to see the detail of the cybersecurity strategy and how it will function. He will see that the Government is working on a complete response to the issue.

My problem with what the Minister has said is that the risk exists now. We have seen the hacking of the Twitter account of central command in the US and production was stopped at Intel, in my own county, earlier this year following a bomb threat. Security risks exist now and we need to move urgently to address those risks. It is very much in the broad national interest that we do so, having regard to the importance of information technology to our economy. Can the Minister at least agree that, notwithstanding the well kept secrets within the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, it is within the ranks of the Defence Forces that the primary expertise exists to develop the sort of strategy that we need? Will he, as Minister for Defence, appoint his Department as the lead Department in this area?

I do not accept that other Departments do not have a significant role here. Yes, there is some expertise within the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces in this area but there is also a lot of expertise within the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It deals with a lot of companies in the private sector on cybersecurity issues and has broad experience across the public sector in the area. Every country, Ireland included, is looking at cybersecurity issues as the threat evolves and changes and even the most powerful countries in the world find themselves the victim of hacking and other issues relating to cybersecurity. As the chair of the Government task force on emergency planning, I get regular updates from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on cybersecurity. We are close to finalising a cybersecurity strategy which will have the input of all relevant Departments, including the Department of Defence, and we should be less concerned about who is taking the lead and more concerned about a complete cross-Governmental response. It is a current issue and one which needs a response this year. That is what it will get with the national strategy. The strategy is no secret as it has been worked on for some time.

European Council Meetings

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


120. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence the discussions that took place at the informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Riga on 18 February 2015; the position he took on the review of the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy; and if it will have implications for the work and deployment of the Defence Forces. [11664/15]

I have tabled this question to find out more about what was discussed at the informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Riga last month. Irish citizens and others throughout Europe are opposed to the further militarisation of the European Union and concerned about future developments in the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy, especially as it works its way towards the creation of a standing EU army.

First, there is no standing EU army and as there are no plans for one, I am not sure where the Deputy is coming from in his question. It seems to suggest the informal meeting of Defence Ministers in Riga recently was undercover but nothing could be further from the truth. The most recent informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers took place in Riga, Latvia on 18 and 19 February. The informal defence ministerial meeting is not a decision-making forum, rather it provides an opportunity for Defence Ministers to discuss current issues and review ongoing progress in Common Security and Defence Policy developments. As such, the meeting did not have new implications for the work and-or deployment of the Defence Forces.

The first working session during the informal meeting was focused on preparations for the June 2015 European Council at which the issue of defence will be on the agenda. Clarification was provided by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the process leading to the June meeting and the issues she regarded as priorities for Heads of State. She informed Ministers of her intention to initiate a process to review the European security strategy and produce a new foreign and security policy. In her presentation to the European Council she will signal the launch of the process.

The meeting of Defence Ministers continued with discussions on the importance of strategic communications and the complex issue of hybrid conflict such as we have seen in Ukraine and Syria. Strategic communications are a key enabler in securing popular support for the activities of the European Union in crisis management operations.

During the final working session Ministers were briefed on the ongoing Common Security and Defence Policy military operations. During this session there was also a forward-looking briefing, linking rapid response and the battle groups with possible scenarios and concrete crisis areas. In the past few days I had the privilege of visiting, meeting and spending some time with the Irish troops in Mali in west Africa in one of the EU-backed missions. I take the opportunity to congratulate them on the impressive project on which they have embarked in undertaking a training mission in Mali.

I hope my question did not suggest what the Minister said it did, namely, that there was a hidden agenda. That was not my intention in tabling the question, rather I was trying to find out what had been discussed. For instance, given that the Council meeting was held in Riga, was there a discussion of the Maltese navy and its call for help from the European Union in dealing with the continuing migrant problem on the Mediterranean? The UNHCR has stated that this year alone 3,500 migrants will die on the Mediterranean in trying to access the European Union. Was there a discussion of whether more could be done by way of an EU search and rescue effort? Ireland recently offered the decommissioned LE Aoife to the Maltese. Could more be done by neutral states such as ours?

The Minister has said there is no question of having a standing army, but the Secretary General of NATO stated in his opening remarks, "During these challenging times ... NATO Allies spend more on defence, and spend better." Does the Minister agree with him and that it should be the other way around - that less should be spent in Europe on defence, given that more than €200 billion is spent by EU countries during a time of austerity?

They are all very fair questions. We have an agreement to provide the LE Aoife which has been decommissioned to be used in Malta for security purposes and as part of a more effective response to the migration and human challenges faced by it.

There has been some media coverage to the contrary but Malta is delighted to accept the vessel. We will help to train the crew and make sure they are fully trained on the vessel before it leaves from Haulbowline to sail to Malta. We are confident the vessel will be able to perform the function asked of it for the next four or five years while Malta goes through the process of securing a newer vessel for that purpose. It is a good example of collaboration between two relatively small European states. Ireland is not a member of NATO and has no intention of joining NATO. Any comments from NATO representatives apply to NATO member states. I will reply further on budgets in the next response.

The final supplementary question is about comments made since the Riga meeting and related by Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, and backed up by the German defence Minister, who reissued a call heard for a number of years on the urgent creation of a standing EU army. That was the context in which I was asking the question. Does the Minister agree with the comments by the President of the European Commission? Does he believe deepening EU military integration is inevitable and positive? I have the opposite view.

I can only speak for Ireland and different Ministers will have different views on this. I do not envisage Ireland being part of the development of a European army. Through the Partnership for Peace, we are part of the battle groups structure, which is a voluntary structure. Countries volunteer to be part of a certain battle group and we are part of the Nordic battle group, which is something Ireland has agreed to be part of. The collaboration, training and interoperability between the member states that are part of the effort exists so that if Europe collectively must respond to a crisis, which we have not yet used battle groups for, we have the capacity to do so. Various member states contribute to the effort but that is not the same as a European army. From a military perspective, Ireland is the neutral country and we determine our own affairs. If Irish troops go anywhere, it is subject to the triple lock and it will remain like that for the foreseeable future.

Defence Forces Personnel

Clare Daly


121. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence if he is satisfied with the manner in which Defence Forces personnel are being deployed for ATCP duties at Shannon, with particular reference to the two emergency landings that were made by US military aircraft at the end of February 2015; if he has discussed these circumstances with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Justice and Equality; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11651/15]

The question is whether the Minister is satisfied with the manner in which Defence Forces personnel are being deployed on an almost daily basis for aid to the civil power, ATCP, duties at Shannon Airport, with particular reference to addressing the so-called emergency landings of very strange military aircraft in February, in clear breach of our neutrality and potentially endangering the lives of Defence Forces personnel.

This is a matter discussed several times during Question Time. An Garda Síochána has the primary responsibility for law and order, including the protection of the internal security of the State. Among the roles assigned to the Defence Forces is the provision of aid to the civil power which, in practice, means to assist An Garda Síochána when requested to do so. On occasions, the Defence Forces are deployed to Shannon Airport in an ATCP role in support of An Garda Síochána. The decision to seek support from the Defence Forces is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána.

With regard to the two emergency landings mentioned by the Deputy in her question, Defence Forces personnel were deployed to Shannon Airport on both occasions. On 28 February, Defence Forces personnel were deployed following an emergency landing of a US military aircraft. An emergency landing of a US military aircraft also took place on 6 March 2015. On this occasion, Defence Forces personnel were already deployed to Shannon Airport for another aircraft at the time.

Notwithstanding the emergency nature of both landings, the deployment of the Defence Forces in support of An Garda Síochána was in accordance with normal procedures and there was no particular reason for me to discuss these matters with ministerial colleagues. However, I am satisfied that there is ongoing and close liaison between An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces and between my Department and those of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Justice and Equality regarding security matters generally, including in respect of the Defence Forces' ATCP roles.

As the Minister stated, we have discussed this issue on many occasions. Unfortunately, however, we have never addressed the matters which lie at the core of it. Perhaps the Minister is of the view that his repeating the same banalities on each occasion will encourage us to give up and to stop asking questions. I assure him that will not be the case. On 28 February, a US military EC-130H aircraft, described as an airborne tactical weapons system which uses a heavily modified version of the C-130 Hercules airframe and the primary function of which is electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defences and offensive counter-information, landed at Shannon. How could such an aircraft not be in breach of our neutrality? When we posed questions to one of the four Departments responsible for this issue, having to some extent been kicked around in respect of it, we were initially informed that a different type of aircraft had sought permission to land ten days previously. On 28 February, the US military sought permission to land a normal Hercules plane but suddenly a so-called emergency landing was required and an EC-130H, an entirely different aircraft, landed at Shannon Airport. As commander-in-chief, as it were, of the armed forces, how can the Minister for Defence be of the view that it is acceptable for Defence Forces personnel to be called out to deal with such a scenario? Is it not his obligation to discuss matters of this nature with his colleague in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who is initiating an investigation into the events to which I refer, particularly in the context of what the US military is up to at Shannon Airport?

I do not have the details of the aircraft that landed at the airport in my possession. What I do have in my possession is that which I have already outlined, namely, the dates on which emergency landings were sought and granted. Outside of that, I do not have with me any further details I can supply today.

That is regrettable because that was the matter with which the Minister was originally requested to deal.

No, it was not.

Yes, it was. The Minister was asked about his particular concerns regarding the two emergency landings to which I refer. He has informed the House that he did not bother to obtain any information on that matter and that he has no such information with him. I contest that there were some peculiar circumstances with regard to some of the landings in question. The Minister has an obligation to Defence Forces personnel who are called out to the airport to investigate matters further and he must seek the input of his colleagues, particularly if ministerial responsibility for this matter does not solely rest with him. When replying to the original question, the Minister provided the normal response regarding ATCP duties. Will the Minister clarify whether the Defence Forces personnel who are deployed to Shannon on an almost daily basis are always brought there at the request of An Garda Síochána? Is it the case that when they are at the airport they are answerable to the authority of An Garda Síochána or do they have independent authority and are they responsible for their own actions when there?

I am sure the Deputy probably knows the answers to these questions. When the Defence Forces deploys personnel to assist An Garda Síochána, which has primary responsibility for security, it does so in response to requests for assistance from the force. Such assistance is always provided. When a Defence Forces unit arrives to assist, a lead officer will be in charge and it is his or her responsibility to ensure that the task the unit is requested to perform by An Garda Síochána is duly completed. My understanding is that responsibility for the approach taken by the Defence Forces personnel rests with the lead officer. However, those personnel are deployed in response to requests for assistance from An Garda Síochána. The latter is responsible for making decisions in terms of calling for such assistance in the first instance.

Air Corps Equipment

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


122. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence if he is satisfied that the Air Corps is capable of dealing with unauthorised incursions into Irish airspace by military aircraft from other countries; the action he took on foot of recent developments involving military aircraft from other countries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11698/15]

This question is straightforward. It asks the Minister whether he is satisfied with the capacity of the Air Corps to deal with unauthorised incursions by military aircraft into Irish airspace, whether sovereign or Irish controlled, and the actions that he has taken in the aftermath of the recent two Russian incursions, whereby bombers flew across Irish controlled airspace with their transponders turned off. These incidents gave rise to serious public concern.

The White Paper on Defence published in 2000 sets out the current defence policy framework. The role of the Air Corps as set out in the White Paper is to provide a range of military and non-military air services. The Air Corps has traditionally discharged a mix of functions based on a need to supply a range of services, such as air ambulance, fishery protection and support to An Garda Síochána, in addition to its military roles. The White Paper found that going beyond this capability would require a level of investment in Air Corps personnel, equipment and infrastructure which could not be justified. Accordingly the Air Corps is not tasked with or equipped for monitoring or responding to unauthorised aircraft overflying Irish airspace.

Work is continuing apace on the development of a new White Paper on Defence. A key part of the development of the new White Paper is consideration of the current security environment and challenges that may emerge into the future. Working groups comprising civil and military representatives from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are considering likely future operational demands and the defence capabilities required to meet them. This work will inform recommendations on defence provision.

With regard to the presence of Russian military aircraft in Irish controlled airspace on 28 January and 18 February 2015, it is important to note that these aircraft did not at any time enter Irish sovereign airspace. The aircraft were in an area for which the Irish Aviation Authority has responsibility for provision, operation and management of air navigation services for civil aviation. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport consulted my Department and other Departments in relation to the incident and developed an agreed response to it.

I ask the Minister to tell us what the agreed response was. One would assume there was some engagement by our Government with the representatives of the Russian authorities. The public were certainly concerned about the incursion. A security expert, Dr. Tom Clonan, referred to Ireland's airspace defences as Europe's weakest link and suggested that if terrorists took over an aircraft in Irish space, it would be game over. I fully appreciate the enormous economic and financial constraints under which the Department of Defence must operate but, as we look to the future, what are the Minister's plans to strengthen our air defences or to make the sort of investment that will be necessary for our Air Corps? Is he committed to that and does he have any sort of vision as to how our air defences should be developed?

In regard to the incidents involving Russian aircraft, while the aircraft did not enter Irish sovereign airspace, they were flying in an area for which the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, has responsibility for air traffic control. I understand the IAA co-ordinated closely with its UK counterpart at all stages during the incident to avoid a risk to any civil aircraft. I also understand the two authorities are in discussions on how best to resolve this issue through the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and that contact has been made with the latter. In addition, a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade met the Russian ambassador to convey the Government's serious concerns about the unacceptable safety risk which could be posed by non-notified and uncontrolled flight activity. I understand that the ambassador undertook to bring these concerns to the attention of authorities in Moscow.

In regard to the Deputy's second question, even when there were not expenditure limits in terms of pressure on the Exchequer, there was no decision by previous Governments to build capacity in the Air Corps for air defence because it was perceived as not presenting a sufficiently significant risk to justify such expenditure.

We must examine expenditure in the context of a new White Paper. The White Paper is the reason we carry out this exercise every ten to 15 years. However, I do not envisage the financing of the purchase of fighter jets any time soon. I do not say this flippantly, but the budgetary consequences of doing so would mean we would need multiples of the current capital defence spend.

The capacity or range of our aircraft is between 10% and 20% of that of Russian aeroplanes. If we are to address any challenge, from Russia or anywhere else outside the European Union, we need to consider this issue. Can the Minister commit to some rolling programme to replace the five Cessnas? It is welcome that there has been some engagement with the Russian ambassador on this matter. The issue of public safety is of paramount importance. Some 75% of transatlantic flights cross Irish airspace, or approximately 1,800 flights every 24 hours. Therefore, it is extremely reckless for aeroplanes to come into Irish controlled airspace with their transponders switched off, which constitutes a serious danger to public safety.

I agree with the Deputy that it is unacceptable for large aircraft to travell at high speed through international airspace that is the responsibility of the Irish Aviation Authority without informing it and with their transponders deliberately turned off. The only reason we knew they were there was the United Kingdom had informed us. The focus must be on our capacity to understand and know what is travelling through our airspace. We do not have long range radar capacity to do this along the west coast. This issue is being examined and costed and we are in discussions with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on the matter. This must be the first step towards more effective surveillance in order that we will know at any given point the number of aircraft in our airspace and, if possible, beyond this in international airspace. It is one thing not being able to respond to an aircraft travelling through airspace under the control of the Irish Aviation Authority but it is quite another not knowing it is there. Surveillance is the first step and we are looking at that issue in some detail.

Overseas Missions

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


123. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Defence if he will provide an update of the work of Irish troops who are deployed with a task force to help in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone; the work they are undertaking; when they will finish this tour of duty; and if they will be replaced by a new group of troops when they finish. [11665/15]

I have tabled this question to seek an update on the commendable work of all Irish soldiers serving in Sierra Leone and assisting in tackling Ebola. They volunteered for this difficult and challenging tour and left Ireland earlier this year to fight the worst outbreak yet of Ebola which has claimed over 10,000 lives or more. What work have they been doing? When are they due back and will a further detachment be sent to finish or continue their work?

I thank the Deputy for asking this question as it gives me an opportunity to thank the members of the Permanent Defence Force involved in this important contribution towards the fight against Ebola. To assist in Ireland's response to the Ebola crisis in west Africa, five Defence Forces medical personnel have been deployed to Sierra Leone for a four month period to participate in the wider international response to the crisis. Irish personnel are part of a UK-led joint inter agency task force tackling Ebola in the region. The Irish personnel arrived in Sierra Leone on 17 January following pre-deployment training in the United Kingdom. 

The Defence Forces team is working in conjunction with UK military medical personnel at the Kerrytown Ebola treatment centre, just south of the capital Freetown, and at a medical facility at the international security advisory team camp in Freetown. This facility also provides medical force protection for UK and Irish personnel in Sierra Leone. Irish personnel are not engaged in the direct treatment of Ebola victims but continue to provide a supporting role for front-line workers who are so engaged.

In May 2015 it is planned to rotate the Defence Forces team that is due to return to Ireland at the end of its rotation.

The Defence Forces medical team comprises highly trained personnel who are making a tangible contribution in assisting in the control of the spread of this disease. Participating as part of the larger British military medical effort is an effective means to optimise the contribution of the Defence Forces which is going some way in assisting efforts to fight against the spread of this deadly virus. Under the emergency civilian assistance team, ECAT initiative, Defence Forces personnel have also been deployed to Sierra Leone to assist the Irish embassy in responding to the Ebola virus crisis. Two Defence Forces personnel are primarily providing security and operational management in the embassy and this has been very well received by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This is one question on which we can all agree. Is it intended to increase the detachment even though the UN Ebola virus mission is suggesting that the outbreak may be over by August? The Minister mentioned that the next detachment is going out in May. It may be important to consider increasing the number of personnel, given that there may be other outbreaks in the future. In what way will the Defence Forces benefit from the experiences of the seven personnel who are currently in Sierra Leone to ensure that the Irish Defence Forces have gained the best possible knowledge in the event of them having to work in other outbreaks in the future?

I thank the Deputy for his recognition of the significant work which they volunteered to do. I have huge time for the personnel who have volunteered to be part of the mission. This is a new mission on a number of levels. For example, it is very much part of the UK mission in that this is the first time our medical people have slotted into a UK-managed mission. I was anxious for our Defence Forces to contribute medical, logistics and management expertise to the anti-Ebola virus efforts in West Africa. We could not afford to put a full mission together ourselves because of the cost and the resources required. The obvious way to be of assistance was to slot in with a larger country which had a big footprint on the ground. The UK has medivac capabilities, hospitals and isolation facilities. We do not have any plans to increase the number of personnel even though I think the UK would like us to send more personnel because it has been a very successful project to date and the UK is very happy with the level of training and approach of our Permanent Defence Force. We are somewhat limited in terms of overall resources and human resources, especially in the medical area. We plan to keep the number of personnel at five but there will be a rotation of personnel in May. The Deputy suggests that this problem might be over by August; the increase in the spread of Ebola virus will be over by August but there is a lot of management yet in this crisis before we will be able to say that a country like Sierra Leone is free of the virus.

I understand the limitations in terms of medical personnel but I was suggesting that additional support staff might gain other experiences which may be useful to us in other humanitarian responses in the future. Are the troops in Sierra Leone being given the anti-malaria drug, Lariam? Is it being used across the whole mission or are some people being given the other drug, Malarone instead of Lariam?

Lariam is still used across the Defence Forces, although I am not sure if Defence Forces personnel in Sierra Leone are using that product or other products. The Defence Forces only use drugs that are approved by the Medical Council. As I am not a doctor, I take the advice of doctors as to the appropriate drugs for use as protection against malaria for troops. While the personnel in Sierra Leone are probably using Lariam, it would not surprise me if they were using Malarone, as both drugs are now used to good effect in the Defence Forces. While some people have expressed concern about the use of Lariam and the drug's side effects, in general it is being used to very good effect in the Defence Forces, especially in Africa.