The Minister for Defence began his opening contribution by expressing one sentiment with which I agree and another with which I thoroughly disagree. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that "[m]embers of the Defence Forces are called upon to undertake difficult missions and we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the State, including on overseas peace support operations in support of the United Nations." We should commend our troops on their peacekeeping efforts, civil endeavours, operations in the Mediterranean and risking their lives in dangerous situations. Ireland's military enjoys a good reputation internationally precisely because of the tradition of neutrality which Deputy Paul Murphy and many others in Fine Gael want to jettison. We have a history as a nation which freed itself from colonial and imperial domination. Irish people are respected in the Middle East because we fought empires and we are regarded as a state founded in opposition to empire.
White Paper on Defence: Statements (Resumed)
It was through force but it was in opposition to empires and warmongers, including the biggest warmongers of all who started the First World War. This is why we have credibility.
The Minister also stated:
Security is the bedrock on which a society's cultural, social and economic achievements are built. In a modern state defence is conceived as the ultimate guarantor of freedom.
That assertion is completely incorrect and it flies in the face of our proud traditions. The opposite is the case. Society's cultural, social and economic achievements are the basis for our security, and freedom itself is our best defence. It is not the other way around. An early President of the United States and political theorist, James Madison, made a similar argument that war creates the need for armies, which lead to taxes and more war, and when there is perennial war there is no chance of freedom. This is why I am worried about the leaks I have seen from the White Paper. I heard echoes of the attitude expressed in these leaks in a recent speech by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris, when he discussed the threat of terrorism and cyber terrorism in almost Orwellian language aimed at whipping up fears about terrorist threats to justify military expenditure and closer co-operation with the NATO bloc. The rise of what is called terrorism resulted precisely from the actions of the big military powers, such as the United States, with which we attempt to align. The growth of ISIS and al-Qaeda was the result of the US manipulation of Afghanistan and Iraq. This outcome was predicted by those of us who warned that the Iraq war would lead to disaster in the Middle East. It destabilised the entire region, fuelled the growth of extremism and created a blow back effect on the rest of the world. We should learn that lesson if we do not want to shred our tradition of neutrality. We should not contribute to the rise of global instability by siding with the big military bullies.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and chair of the Irish section of AWEPA, I have come in contact with parliamentarians and human rights groups from Latin America, Africa and Asia who hold Ireland in high regard due in no small part to the fact that we are not an imperial power or an aggressor. We are a neutral State, and we must do all we can to ensure our neutrality is not put at risk. Our neutrality goes back to Wolfe Tone and James Connolly, who was the first president of the Irish Neutrality League. A commonwealth guarantee for neutrality was proposed during the Treaty negotiations. We can see that commitment in public opinion and the tens of thousands of people who came out in 2003 to protest against the pending invasion of Iraq. A Red C poll conducted at that time on behalf of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance found that almost 80% of respondents were in agreement with the protestors, and I do not doubt a similar poll conducted today would have the same result.
It was disappointing, therefore, that when two Private Members' Bills on neutrality were introduced recently, we did not take the opportunity to secure our neutrality. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, described the debates on those Bills as an opportunity to restate our commitment to our longstanding policy of military neutrality and referred to our global island policy of military neutrality as a core element of Irish foreign policy. It is difficult to reconcile those sentiments with his unwillingness to go a further step by enshrining neutrality in our Constitution. He suggested that legislation was unnecessary but if we are committed to neutrality why is it not part of the Constitution? This should have been one of the topics discussed at the Constitutional Convention. In responding to Deputy Wallace's Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Peace and Neutrality) Bill 2014, the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sean Sherlock, suggested that the Hague Convention of 1907 should be regarded as a product of its time. I do not believe neutrality is a product of any particular time. There is no doubt that our neutrality is being undermined by the abuse of Shannon to transport combatants. There is an element of the Faustian pact in this arrangement, leading me to wonder what we are getting for the sale of our soul. I hope the White Paper provides a wide ranging and robust definition of neutrality.
I acknowledge the extent of the consultations that took place on the White Paper. However, defence policy should not be developed in isolation from other policy areas. Our peacekeeping forces are reputable and operate to high standards, in contrast to the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by peacekeeping forces from other countries. However, the efforts of members of the Defence Forces to defend vulnerable people must be supported by policies by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and Irish Aid. Given that Irish Aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are already involved in providing humanitarian aid and dealing with human rights abuses, we need to ensure policy coherence with the Department of Defence.
The Minister referred to the Good Friday Agreement and the stability of the peace process. A group of Members of the Oireachtas regularly visit prisons in the North. We visited Maghaberry Prison two weeks ago to meet so-called dissidents, both loyalist and republican. Human rights abuses and injustices are being perpetrated against these people. Defence alone is not going to solve the problem but active engagement and dialogue will address the issues of injustice. There is little or no dialogue between those prisoners and anybody apart from our group.
I ask the Minister to provide more information on the involvement of the Defence Forces in tackling people smuggling and drug trafficking. I acknowledge what the Naval Service is doing in the Mediterranean but it should play a more proactive role in protecting Irish fishing waters.
I was interested in the employment support scheme for 18 to 24 year olds. From my own teaching days when bringing students to the Higher Options conference, the Defence Forces were a focus for so many young people. There was so much interest in them. That was at a time when there was no recruiting.
I have met many veterans and what strikes me is their sense of pride in the service they gave to their country. Equally, given the number of commemorative events to date, we have seen the way in which the Defence Forces have taken part in them. We are coming up to the 1916 centenary commemoration. The Rising was about two things, anti-imperialism and independence. The way forward for us is to have an independent foreign policy and Defence Forces which are neutral, which feeds into a coherent policy.
I thank the Minister for facilitating me in this regard. At the outset, I wish to be associated with my colleagues in expressing my deepest sympathy to the families of Larry and Martina Hayes, and Lorna Carty. These are horrific and tragic losses of people who were on holiday. It shows the importance of security and protection in the current environment.
I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution on the White Paper on defence. In any White Paper the use of precise language is important, as it provides the fundamental and serious intent of the proposals contained therein. I feel there are some signs of imprecision in the language used. The White Paper is an opportunity to develop new thinking on defence and security, rather than simply updating the White Paper of 2000.
In this context, the document should propose ways in which the sector can improve through co-ordination and better decision-making. Critically, it must propose legislative changes so that the policy is properly approved in the Dáil. The elimination of duplication of process in terms of analysis, research and functions within the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces should be a priority.
The term "defence organisation" is a loose term, as no such organisation has ever been established under statute. The Defence Act clearly outlines the responsibility of key actors to the defence council, but it does not refer to any defence organisation.
Organisations cannot simply be invented by public servants, they must be established through the Dáil. Documents such as policy papers, White Papers and Green Papers are subordinate to legislation that has been passed in the Dáil. These policy documents must at all times adhere to what has been legislated for through the Dáil in terms of defence and security.
The term "security of the State" is used in this context, for example, in the Telecommunications Act 1993. Any subordinate instructions, like policy papers or White Papers, are a drop-down from legislation. The same terminology that has been carefully crafted must be used, rather than introducing other terms that are meaningless in the legislation. National security is a term that is introduced in the draft White Paper, which omits the key word "State". The latter key word includes maritime area, air space and State forces deployed abroad. There is no reason not to use the language employed in the legislation so that the policy derives from a legitimate origin.
The White Paper is an opportunity to address the ambiguity around aid to the civil power. The proper term is "inter-agency support", which covers everything - civil authority, customs and excise, fire services, Revenue, the Department of Justice and Equality, An Garda Síochána, etc. Any relationship challenged between the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána stems partly because of this aid term and its ambiguity. The Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána are two security agencies of the State similar to customs and excise. These agencies work on inter-agency scenarios according to which each agency provides a capability but retains command over such capability.
The White Paper is very weak in terms of the future role of the Reserve Defence Force. The RDF is an opportunity for society to remain connected to the Defence Forces and vice versa. Downgrading and diluting the RDF is bad policy. It is uncertain if that is the political intention but I do not think it is. There should be a recognition of the influence of the RDF within youth, society, training, linkage, presence, visibility and sport. The White Paper submission on the RDF should be examined to see if the draft White Paper fully interprets the place of the RDF in society and whether the White Paper will ultimately lead to the disappearance of this structure.
Unlike other elements of the public service, the Defence Forces do not have an occupational injury scheme. The current approach is adversarial. This is not conducive to an environment where the realities of military service increase the risk of such injuries. The White Paper should copperfasten such a scheme. Due to the nature of military service, no insurance company will provide cover for serving Defence Forces personnel. The proposed sick leave time does not adequately provide reasonable time in which a serving soldier can transition to a civilian occupation without compromising a personal or family home. Any HR review proposals arising from the White Paper must include consultation and negotiation with the two defence organisations, RACO and PDFORRA. The rights of both are legislatively based, so this requirement must be focused upon.
It would be remiss of me not to address the closure of Columb Barracks in Mullingar. That decision was foolhardy, disgraceful and had no economic basis. It was driven by a Minister who was subsumed with arrogance and who listened to nobody. I do not like saying "I told you so", but everything I said about it has proven to be true. However, if one is omnipotent, autocratic, knows everything and listens to nobody, one will make the wrong decisions. That is what happened in this case.
There is still time and, in fairness, the current Minister is a person who listens. I do not think the bureaucrats will listen. However, a politician's job is to make decisions and a civil servant's job is to implement decisions, not the other way around.
The reorganisation of the Army element of the Defence Forces in 2012 resulted in most elements of the RDF being twinned with a pairing regular army unit. While some independent reserve units remained, the majority were twinned with regular units. This places responsibility for the training and administrative oversight of the twinned reserve unit on the commanding officer of the regular Army unit. This integration leading to a greater ambition of inter-operability between the regular Defence Forces and the RDF is an attempt to import from other states a concept that has previously been tried and failed in Ireland.
The countries where this model works effectively are where there is a genuine state commitment to a reserve concept where its effectiveness is guaranteed by employment legislation, whereby continuation of civilian employment is mandatory on the employer when the reserve is mobilised for training or deployment. Mandatory attendance at training is also at the core of this concept. In Ireland there has never been, nor is there likely to be, such a twin legislative commitment.
Columb Barracks in Mullingar should be designated as a national headquarters of the Army reserve where all initial and continuing annual training of the reserve would take place. All specialist and integration training would take place in the twinned units. Independent reserve units would also do their annual training in Columb Barracks, Mullingar. This would give a critical and pivotal national role for the barracks, while establishing and maintaining its identity and ring-fenced purpose.
Designating Columb Barracks as a national centre for such annual training guarantees a continuing throughput of personnel, which in addition to its primary role guarantees its ongoing occupation, along with the sports bodies. There are 27 acres there with accommodation for 500 people, including new buildings. It is located at the heart of Ireland.
The number of reserve personnel to be rotated through Columb Barracks in annual tranches would number up to 5,000 with a downstream benefit to trades and businesses in Mullingar and its hinterland. A permanent cadre of staff of some 20 regular Army personnel would be required to oversee the barracks and administer troops and reservists under the regular training staff of the twinned units.
For many years, Columb Barracks was part of the Western Brigade where brigade troops concentrated before duty overseas for pre-deployment training and administration. With the reduction in the number of permanent occupied barracks due to closures in the past decade, the concentration of such troops for pre-deployment overseas is now an accommodation and administrative challenge for the reduced number of occupied barracks remaining.
It is overdue for the Defence Forces to designate a single barracks for all overseas pre-deployment concentrations. The Minister should examine this mater. Columb Barracks should be such a designated barracks as it has the accommodation and infrastructure to cater for this. In addition, it is ideally placed for the transportation of troops to depart, either from Baldonnel or Dublin Airport.
The Defence Forces require a barracks within striking distance of the Border with Northern Ireland for concentrating on marshalling troops for Border operations, raising security or other operations. I travelled to all those places in 2001 when I was the Labour Party's spokesman on security matters. I saw gardaí, troops, customs officers and everybody else operating along with the Army.
Columb Barracks suits that role admirably. The gap along the Border between the permanent post at Finner Camp and Dundalk is unsustainably wide. In essence, Columb Barracks should have four distinct and overlapping roles. These include the headquarters barracks of the Army reserve and a designated barracks for all reserve units' annual training; the location of the directorate of Defence Forces training, which now incorporates oversight of the reserve; the designated barracks for the concentration of all Defence Forces units proceeding overseas for pre-deployment training and administration; and a staging and consultation barracks from which multi-purpose operations along the Border with Northern Ireland can be mounted.
All of these roles would not impede the continuing use of Columb Barracks by the Westmeath County Board, which must be complimented in this regard. I must say that the Minister is also very much to the forefront of that move. The Westmeath County Board is based there, along with other sports organisations including the Lakeland Wheelers. It is also the headquarters for the UN Veterans and many other organisations. It would not impede them one whit, however, because there is adequate space there. This proposal is practical, necessary and deliverable in the interests of the State, the Defence Forces, and the RDF in particular, as well as Columb Barracks and Mullingar.
Its realisation will result in a significant morale boost to the town and its hinterland and will guarantee a continuous economic benefit to traders and businesses. Of course there will be resistance from the Department of Defence, elements of the Defence Forces and probably the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, but plenty of money is wasted and if they cannot find €1 million, I do not know what to say. Put this in place, Minister. Many people will attempt prevarication and will try to deflect the proposal by the formation of a study group which will have an indeterminate end and the inevitable negative outcome. I am sick of those things. This should be a done deal for immediate implementation. Minister, grasp the nettle and we will salute you.
I thank all the Deputies who have contributed. I do not agree with some of the comments but I accept that people are making contributions in a spirit of trying to impact on what the outcome of the White Paper will look like. I will do what I can to take on board as many suggestions as possible that we have heard.
I will not go through each suggestion because if I did that I would only get through two or three. We have written down some the individual comments and we will try to look at them in the context of the overall paper. I will, however, make a few general comments because I suspect some Defence Forces personnel may be watching this debate. I regard being an Irish soldier as one of the most significant forms of patriotism that is left in terms of serving the State. This is a White Paper of which Defence Forces personnel, whether reservists or Permanent Defence Force personnel, should be proud and in which they should see a future for themselves and their careers as members of the Defence Forces in Ireland. They should view with pride the contribution they will make to their country, its security and that of its people. The Defence Forces are a hugely important part of our national infrastructure. They would be the last line of defence if things were to take a significant unexpected negative turn, which may happen at some stage in the future and which we cannot predict. My role is to put in place a White Paper that tries to anticipate all future risks, within reason, and to try to put together an infrastructure involving human resources, equipment, knowledge, training and the skillsets that can respond to the list of threats that change every year. A lot of the commentary in the debate has referred to how quickly some of the threats are changing.
To all Permanent Defence Force personnel, I say that we want you to be proud of who you are and the career you have chosen. I hope that you will see, like so many others in the public sector, the rewards for the sacrifices you have made in recent years in response to a financial crisis in this country as we see improved working conditions and pay. I also thank those personnel for their commitment and loyalty for staying in the Defence Forces through that period and for facilitating the reform which was not simply a cost-saving measure but a reconfiguration of the Defence Forces to ensure we get the maximum effect in terms of output for the country from a strength of 9,500 personnel.
I want to explore some new opportunities in this White Paper. I want to create a platform for international education and understanding of peacekeeping and conflict resolution and I want us to give leadership in areas such as gender-based violence, in which Ireland has some credibility, and other skillsets in which we have proven our worth in international peacekeeping operations, particularly in places like the Middle East and Africa. We have the capacity to build an international piece of infrastructure of real value to the United Nations and to our European partners. I also think we can do more in terms of corporate social responsibility to reach out to young people who have been failed by the State and who may be entering a permanent state of disadvantage in their lives. The Defence Forces may be able to transform a life by reaching out to such people. We have looked at international best practice to learn what might work in Ireland and I look forward to exploring that concept with others in this House when we publish the White Paper.
There must be a sense of value, recognition, pride and self-esteem from being a member of the Defence Forces when a person leaves, as well as when he or she is there. For this reason there are some very strong statements in the White Paper around veterans' policy. It is totally unacceptable that a person who is injured severely in the line of duty may have to go to court to secure a significant compensation package. We are looking at putting new structures in place which are far less adversarial and which recognise the respect we should have for the Defence Forces, for the work they do and the risks they take.
All this will require a budget which will necessitate an incremental increase over time, and we are committing to a ten-year period for this. I recognise the constraints my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and his Department are under at the moment and we are realists about this, but we also want to ensure defence is part of the medium and long-term financial planning of the country.
The security and defence of the State is not just about soldiers and defence. It is also about planning and management across Departments, involving foreign affairs, justice, transportation and the Office of the Taoiseach, in order that we can have a defence and security policy for Ireland in the future that is fit for purpose in the modern world. I thank everyone for their contributions and we will do our best to accommodate the contributions that were helpful.
Government policy on neutrality is settled and this is reflected in the recent policy document that came from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We do not propose to change that but will reinforce it in the White Paper by the maintenance of the triple lock in our approach towards neutrality. This does not mean staying out of trouble all the time. It means Ireland is independent to choose what we do and what we do not do in terms of international peacekeeping and peace support. That is what we will continue to do with the triple of lock.
I thank those working in the House for facilitating us in staying here for an extra 20 minutes.