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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 25 Jun 2015

Vol. 884 No. 2

Other Questions

Defence Forces Expenditure

Clare Daly


6. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence the steps he has taken to ensure that the Irish Defence Forces cease to engage in any arms trade with Israel. [25094/15]

I do not believe that the US is responsible for everything. The state of Israel is responsible for quite a bit, and that is the subject matter of my next question. The Minister is aware that the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign launched a campaign to try to ensure that Ireland would play a role as a neutral country in delivering an arms embargo on Israel. As the Minister is aware, we have bought and received a lot of military hardware from the Israelis. Does the Minister plan to end that, and what position has he advocated in the EU on the matter?

I have previously outlined to the House the position with regard to the procurement of defensive equipment by my Department. I have also explained the scale and type of such equipment that the Department has acquired from Israeli companies in recent years and the purpose of such acquisitions, which is to afford the greatest possible force protection and operational effectiveness to Irish Defence Forces personnel. I can go through what we have bought, most of which is defensive equipment not offensive equipment. The principle of competitive tendering for Government contracts must be used by the Department of Defence for the acquisition of defensive equipment for the Defence Forces under EU law. Central to those procedures is the requirement to allow fair competition between suppliers through the submission of tenders following advertising of the tender competition, usually on the eTenders website, in line with the EU directive on the procurement of defence and security equipment.

The matter of barring Israeli companies from entering tender competitions for the provision of military goods would be akin to Ireland unilaterally placing an embargo on such goods from Israel and this raises, inter alia, serious implications for Irish foreign policy which are outside my remit as Minister for Defence. As the Deputy is aware, trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies and any restriction or ban on imports from any particular country would have to be a concerted EU decision. The manner in which the Department of Defence procures both goods and services remains consistent with international best practice and is in line with EU and UN decisions on trade embargoes.

In June 2013 Ireland signed up to the Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits a state from authorising arms exports where it has knowledge that the weapons will be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and breaches of the Geneva Convention among others. Ireland has bought almost €15 million worth of arms and military components from Israel in the past decade and Irish companies have exported approximately €6 million worth of products. The Israeli regime, as the Minister is aware, has killed more than 9,000 Palestinians, including more than 2,000 children since 2000. It is not about the process of us being involved in trade with the state. It is the fact that we are involved with Israel at all. The Government has participated in embargoes and sanctions against other authorities. The situation is sufficiently serious for such action to be taken. Positive neutrality would ensure a cessation of such trade. It is absolutely appalling that individuals, the state of Israel and arms manufacturers in Ireland profit from the killing of Palestinians. The Minister should really use his position inside the EU and the UN to advocate an embargo throughout the EU, and not just sit back and say it depends on what the EU does. What position does the Minister advocate inside those organisations to deliver that result?

I have been using my position to advocate solutions to what is a very entrenched and difficult relationship and problem between Israel and Palestine. I do not believe that advocating for the introduction of an embargo or sanctions on Israel, or Ireland unilaterally doing so, would help the process. It is not true to say that Ireland unilaterally implements embargoes or trade sanctions on other countries. When we do that, we do it as part of the EU or the UN. Deputy Daly knows that.

People should understand the kind of equipment we are talking about, which is X-ray equipment for explosive ordnance disposal duties, which is hugely important for Irish troops abroad; helmets and personal protection; an artillery fire control system; unmanned aerial vehicles, which again is hugely important in terms of the protection of our troops; surveillance and targeted acquisition suites for four light tactical armoured vehicles, which is the kind of system we are using in our armoured vehicles abroad; and ground surveillance radar systems.

Primarily, we are talking about equipment that helps to protect our troops in the field and we have gone through the proper tender process to acquire it.

It is not about what we are buying, it is about who we are buying it from and who is profiting from it. The reality is that the Minister said sanctions will not help but talking nicely has not helped. He had no problem supporting sanctions against Ukraine, even though a much smaller number of people have been killed there than in Palestine. The reality is that Israel is unlawfully occupying Palestinian land and is breaching its international legal and humanitarian obligations. Ireland should be to the forefront in advocating an end to that process. The double standards are in place again. The Minister cannot impose sanctions against Israel but he can against Ukraine and Russia. All we are looking for is consistency in that regard. It is just not good enough.

I want to support-----

The Deputy has ten seconds. He must understand there is a time limit on each question. If I go over time on questions, it means the Deputy's question will not be reached.

I was going to say-----

This is the reason I asked the Minister and others to recognise the Chair. I am not being awkward. It is just that I have to impose the time limit.

I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle's challenge. Question No. 11 is in my name but I am happy to waive it to speak on this question.

We cannot do that. That is why I want to get to it. That is the whole purpose.

I appreciate that. I will be very brief.

I support 100% the issues raised by Deputy Clare Daly. How long are we going to do business with the military apparatus of the Israeli state, considering that 5% of Palestinian land remains in the hands of the Palestinians? The Oslo court is in tatters. The settlements continue. Jerusalem is-----

It is shameful that this type of apparatus is-----

Will the Deputy please resume his seat?

Get it from somebody else.

I think the Deputy is missing the point, with respect. The point I am making is that if embargoes are to be imposed, it needs to be a decision at EU level. Ireland's position in relation to a two-state solution as regards Israel and Palestine is very clear and has been articulated on many occasions. Whether it is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, or myself, the Taoiseach or others, we are strongly advocating, and Ireland is very much part of the debate around how the European Union can be of more assistance, in terms of getting a lasting peace process and a lasting solution in that part of the world. Our Defence Forces personnel put their lives at risk to try to do it as well. Anybody who suggests that Ireland is not committed to trying to find ways of delivering lasting peace in the Middle East needs to look at the number of Irish troops who, unfortunately, have paid the ultimate price in places such as southern Lebanon trying to do that.

I thank the Minister.

We are committed to trying to get an outcome for people who for far too long have been living in misery in that part of the world. I do not personally think that those efforts will be assisted by the kind of approach that is being proposed.

Army Personnel

Robert Troy


7. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Defence the tangible actions that have been taken for the utilisation of Columb Barracks in Mullingar in County Westmeath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24867/15]

In November 2011, the Minister's predecessor announced the closure of Columb Barracks in Mullingar. What tangible action has been taken by the Government to ensure full utilisation of a fine facility in the town of Mullingar?

It is a fine facility and we are looking at ways for utilisation.

Following the closure of Columb Barracks, my Department invited Departments and other public bodies to express any interest in the property, with a view to its disposal by the Department. No such interest was expressed at that time. As the Deputy is aware, my Department was approached by the Westmeath GAA county board for the use of the barracks as a training centre. The barracks in Mullingar is currently used by the county board under a short-term lease, an extension of which is currently under negotiation. The former barracks is also used by An Garda Síochána and the Customs and Excise service for training purposes and it is intended that these arrangements will remain in place. A number of other local groups, including the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, IUNVA, and the midland youth services have also been allocated units in the barracks. Leases with these and other local community groups are being progressed by the property management branch in my Department.

We are trying to find practical use for the barracks. We are trying to support community groups and arms of the State. We are also trying to support the GAA in order that the facilities in the barracks can be put to good use from a community perspective, but also from a functional perspective in terms of maintenance of the barracks.

I thank the Minister for his update. Were it not for the proactive approach of Westmeath GAA county board, no use would be made of Columb Barracks. I know this because I initiated the contact with the Department of Defence almost three years ago in regard to it taking out a lease. Despite use by Westmeath GAA county board, Customs and Excise, An Garda Síochána, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association and the midland youth services it is totally under-utilised. The Minister acknowledged in his reply that it is a fine facility. It is unbelievable that the Reserve Defence Force in Mullingar pays €30,000 per annum to hire a premises while a huge facility in Columb Barracks lies idle. It is unbelievable that Westmeath Civil Defence is in substandard accommodation while a huge facility lies idle. I was delighted to hear in a previous response, the Minister's strong commitment to the Reserve Defence Force, pending publication of the White Paper. Given the central location of Columb Barracks in Mullingar and the quality and capacity of the accommodation and the current training arrangements in place for the Reserve Defence Force, would he consider making Columb Barracks the headquarters of the Reserve Defence Forces where adequate training could be completed?

The ultimate aim is the disposal of the property as it is no longer part of the Defence Forces infrastructure. I have an open mind on using all the properties we still own as the Department of Defence to ensure they are being used in the most efficient and effective way across all the areas for which I have responsibility, whether it is the Reserve Defence Force supporting Civil Defence, etc. Obviously, the Permanent Defence Force has moved out of that barracks. We also have a broader responsibility to other community groups. That is the reason we have worked well with the GAA in that regard. We have an open mind. I also have a responsibility to ensure that the cost management around former Defence Forces infrastructure is also managed appropriately so that if we take on new tenants, they will look after the property properly. There is a whole series of issues that we need to take on board with barracks that have closed.

I thank the Minister.

If the Deputy or the Reserve Defence Force have suggestions, please come back to me and we will look at them.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is prepared to look at suggestions. What I understand from the Minister today is that his long-term strategic plan is disposal of the barracks. That is the only plan the Department of Defence appears to have. That is regrettable because Westmeath GAA has been an anchor tenant. It has ensured that any community group which wishes to use the facility has been accommodated. The Minister has said his priority is to ensure there is value for money. How can he, as Minister for Defence, stand over a situation where buildings in Columb Barracks in Mullingar are lying idle while the Reserve Defence Forces pays €30,000 a couple of hundred metres down the road? Certainly that is not value for money. If the Reserve Defence Force was allowed carry out its training and work in Columb Barracks in Mullingar, the €30,000 being paid to a private landlord could be better spent in the upkeep and maintenance of what is a fine facility in the town. I will come back to the Minister with concrete proposals.

The Deputy is missing a point. The barracks is a very big facility. Significant maintenance costs come with ownership and management of a facility such as that. In the barracks for which there is no longer a military function, we are looking at disposal in the medium to long term but we are also trying to ensure it is the right disposal for communities who have strong linkages with the various barracks that have been closed.

We have done that in respect of the other barracks very successfully with local authorities, An Garda Síochána, other community groups and so on. There is an ongoing discussion with Kildare County Council. It is not the role of the Department of Defence to be a landlord indefinitely to facilitate multiple groups. We will do that in the interim and if we can put long-term arrangements that make sense in place, we will do that as well. However, I have to consider this in the round.

Defence Forces Expenditure

Mick Wallace


8. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Defence further to Parliamentary Question No. 139 of 26 May 2015, if he will provide a breakdown of the costs involved for the Irish Defence Forces in providing aid to the civil power at Shannon Airport from January 2015 up to 18 June 2015; the role of the Defence Forces in such operations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25100/15]

My question relates to the cost of using the Defence Forces at Shannon Airport, what that money achieves and whether the Minister will consider making better use of that money. Does he not think it is a bit ironic that we are saving lives in the Mediterranean while facilitating the destruction of lives by using our Defence Forces to allow Shannon to be used as a US military airbase?

We have spent €83,000 this year on support for the Garda Síochána at Shannon Airport, which is slightly less than we spent last year. By this time last year, we had spent just over €84,000. Since 2012 the figure has been coming down quite a bit. It was €275,000 in 2012; €221,000 in 2013 and €180,000 last year. That is the full cost of providing aid to the civil power, that is, what we provide to An Garda Síochána, when requested to do so. That has been going on since 2003.

We were told recently by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade that the US was being granted blanket permission for overflights of unarmed military aircraft. Military aircraft are landing in Shannon Airport and the Defence Forces are more or less protecting them from anyone who might want to reveal the truth that they are in breach of international law by carrying munitions through a supposedly neutral country. What would the Minister think of using the Defence Forces to check the planes to make sure that they are not carrying arms? The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed that there were 48 such overflights, aside from the ones that landed in Shannon. We do not even get the details of these. There is an ad hoc arrangement with the US which confirms that the aircraft are not carrying munitions, after the event. Most neutral countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, insist on the information being given in advance.

If the Deputy has a question for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, he should ask him. I am sure he will have no problem answering those questions. I certainly do not need to answer for him.

Our role in the Department of Defence and that of the Defence Forces is to give assistance to An Garda Síochána when it asks for it. That is what we do. We try to do that as efficiently and cost-effectively as we can. I have given the Deputy the figures for the past few years. The relationship we have with the US involves an element of trust. If we are told there are no weapons on planes, our position is that we accept that. If there are planes carrying munitions, there is a requirement to get permission to land in Shannon, which I think comes from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. That relationship has been in place for some time and if the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade wants to change it, that is a decision for him but I think the Government is reasonably happy with the position as it pertains.

I am sure the Minister respects the courts of this land. At the court hearing in Shannon when we were charged with illegal entry, three individuals testified to the fact that they saw arms on military planes, in the cabin and underneath. This testimony was given under oath and the judge accepted it. Does this not concern the Government? The Minister is a member of the Cabinet and there is more to his role than responsibility for the Defence Forces. There has been testimony in a court of this land that there are arms on these planes. Is the Government not going to take any action? We realise the US military use of Shannon and our aiding it to militarise so much of the world has led to the displacement of millions of people. We are fishing for refugees in the Mediterranean but we are helping to kill them by allowing the Yanks use Shannon.

I do not accept that we are helping to kill anybody. I do not accept either that the US is looking to kill any refugees.

What does the Minister think the US troops do in Afghanistan? Eat cakes?

US troops have, by and large, left Afghanistan. The mission there is to build capacity amongst Afghan authorities.

There are 10,000 there still.

Yes, because they cannot leave overnight.

They certainly cannot.

They have been leaving for over a decade.

They did in Vietnam.

The very same people who criticise the US for intervening, criticise it when it does not intervene.

That is the reality when there are conflicts.

We would prefer if they stayed at home.

We are talking about the role of the Department of Defence in Shannon. Unfortunately, in assisting An Garda Síochána in Shannon the role of the Department of Defence is to ensure that people do not illegally enter Shannon Airport seeking to damage planes, as happened in the past.

Is that what they are there for?

They are breaking international law.

Unfortunately, because of the actions of some people, we have to spend money deploying Defence Forces to protect aircraft landing in Shannon.

Is that so they can go on and kill people in the Middle East?

Foreign Conflicts

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Defence if he has had discussions with any of his European counterparts following the European Parliament report advocating possible military action in the Black Sea basin, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25111/15]

I listened with interest to the Minister’s definition of neutrality in the context of the worsening situation in the Black Sea area. The Minister was excusing the Fine Gael MEPs' decision to vote for this motion, which backs possible North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, military build-up in the Black Sea. What is the Government’s position on the NATO military build-up and the motion calling for increased defence spending in Europe specifically to support this initiative?

The Government’s decision is that it does not take part in NATO decisions or operations unless they are peace-keeping operations that have the support and approval of the United Nations, which is the case, for example, in Afghanistan at the moment.

The motion that was passed calls for an increase in defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product, GDP, in the specific context of calling for greater military build-up in the Black Sea area, which is becoming the epicentre of a new cold war and where there is a constant aggressive build-up by the US and NATO. The European Union is now pushing to get involved. Does the Minister not think that our job as a neutral country is to stand up and warn against this, and say we should not be doing this?

Is there a connection between this call to increase spending to 2% of GDP and the fact that the German Government is supporting a debt write-down for Ukraine but the Greek Government, which has called for a reduction in defence spending, is getting very different treatment from the German Government? Is this the sort of geopolitical manoeuvring that is going on and what is our view of it? Should we not be calling foul?

I am not going to start judging other countries for what they choose to spend on defence.

Greece allocates a relatively high proportion of its expenditure to defence. That is a decision for the Greeks, just as we must make decisions on defence expenditure as part of the White Paper process.

My view is that we need to spend a little more on defence in order that we can increase our peacekeeping capacity and ensure we can replace and upgrade equipment to protect members of the Defence Forces when they are in action. Advocating an increase in defence expenditure does not mean I am somehow a warmonger; the opposite is the case. Our role is one of peacekeeping and, in some cases, peace enforcement.

Ireland has taken a position on the suggestion that a set target for defence expenditure, based on a percentage of gross domestic product or gross Government expenditure, should apply across the European Union. The Government has opposed this proposal because we do not believe governments should be tied to certain targets at European level. That is our position and Ireland will continue to make its own decisions on defence expenditure and where and when we participate in defence actions. This is what being militarily neutral is about.

Is the Minister not deeply concerned that the European Parliament has passed a motion calling for increased military expenditure across Europe, specifically to back a military build-up in the Black Sea? This has been done against a background in which the United States assistant secretary of state for eastern European affairs, Victoria Nuland, used the immortal words "Fuck the EU" in an eavesdropped communication. She was involved in manipulating----

Deputy, do not use that language.

I was quoting Ms Nuland's words.

I do not care where you quoted from. You are in Parliament and you should behave as if you are in Parliament. That is outrageous language to use in Parliament.

You are not impressing anybody.

I was simply quoting the US assistant secretary of state for eastern Europe. The Minister stated he trusts the US Government, yet this is its attitude to the European Union. It was manipulating the political process in Ukraine.

The point I made was that Members of the European Parliament will make decisions on the merits of reports, documents and recommendations. I have not read the document in question and I am not sure the Deputy has read it either.

Has he read the whole document?

I have a copy of the motion here.

Having had the benefit of speaking to many Ministers for foreign affairs and defence from other European Union countries, it is clear that many European countries feel threatened by Russia, which is perfectly understandable given their history with Russia. Many populations feel threatened by Russia as a result of what is happening in Ukraine. If one were to study the history of these countries, one might understand the reason people in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and other countries on the eastern borders of the European Union may feel threatened. That is the motivation behind motions such as the one the Deputy read.

Ireland has always advocated the position-----

We are over time.

To finish the point, the position I have advocated is that a resolution of the current tension between the European Union and Russia will not be achieved by military interaction but by politics.

This document is a manifesto for a third world war.

Diplomatic Representation

Clare Daly


10. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence his views regarding the number of defence attachés located here; the countries which have defence attachés located here; and the level of contact between the Irish Defence Forces and each of these attachés. [25091/15]

This question relates to defence attachés in this country. It seeks information on the number of such attachés located here, the nature of our relationship with them and their role given that they are representatives of foreign armies.

There are 38 defence attachés accredited to Ireland, of whom only two are located here. One of these is from the Russian Federation, while the other is from the United States, which is somewhat ironic given the discussion we had on the previous question. The remaining 36 defence attachés are located in the United Kingdom.

There is ongoing contact between the Defence Forces and the defence attachés on a range of issues, including military events, functions, visits and training courses. Defence Forces' contact with the defence attachés depends on the topics of interest and, therefore, varies.

In addition, the Defence Forces conduct collective briefings of the defence attachés. This is an efficient use of resources and ensures the Defence Forces deliver a consistent message. In recent years, briefings have covered topics such as the White Paper on Defence, overseas operations and the work of the Department in the areas of international security and defence policy, specifically peacekeeping missions in which the Defence Forces are involved.

I thank the Minister for his interesting reply. While I was aware that defence attachés from the United States and Russia were located here, I was not aware if there were others. I wonder about the consistency or lack thereof in contacts with the US and Russian attachés. The former, for instance, has stated he is in daily contact with the Defence Forces and considers himself to be the person who can advise the United States Government on how to speak to the Irish Government on defence issues and mutual security. I was a little concerned when he spoke of members of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan working with American forces in that country given that it has not experienced much peace in recent years.

On the basis that we are not supposed to take sides or give favours, are we in daily contact with the Russian defence attaché? What is the nature of our engagement with the Russian attaché? Will the Minister comment on the statement by the US defence attaché that Shannon Airport is not only an important link between Ireland and the US, but also plays an important role in keeping the world safe and secure and creates a vital connection between Ireland and worldwide security issues?

On the one hand, the Deputy argues that we should not take sides, while, on the other, she asks the Government to impose embargoes. We must take sides at different times, on different issues and in different conflicts. Neutrality is all about the ability to take sides without being tied down to military alliances.

We work with the United States on many levels, including politically and in some cases, although not often, on peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions. I used the example of Afghanistan because that mission is now known as a resolute support mission, which is primarily focused on training. In the United Nations, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and I have both committed Ireland to more peacekeeping training, particularly for African countries which may wish to partner with Ireland in training peacekeepers and so forth. This is part of an initiative taken by the United States, through the United Nations, aimed at encouraging countries to do more of this type of training and build partnerships with the African Union. There are many examples of practical, positive things we are trying to do, including ways to improve peace management, if one likes, in different parts of the world. This is difficult and challenging. These are the types of issues we sometimes discuss and military-to-military discussion is also required on the practicalities of how this would work. These are the types of discussions that take place with defence attachés. Discussions have also taken place with the Russian attaché. However, it does not surprise me that more discussions take place with the US defence attaché.

I would be grateful if the Minister were to provide me with information on the level of contact with the Russian and US attachés as it would be useful for comparative purposes.

We are over time.

As I indicated, it would not surprise me if we had more contact with the United States defence attaché.

It would not surprise me either but I would still like the information.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.