Seán Ó FearghaílQuestion:
48. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence the status of the disposal of lands at Magee Barracks in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3005/16]
Vol. 904 No. 1
48. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence the status of the disposal of lands at Magee Barracks in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3005/16]
I begin by welcoming a group of students from Enniskillen in the Visitors Gallery, the only group of second level students in the Six Counties who are studying the Irish political system. I am sure all Members join me in welcoming them to the House.
My question relates to Magee Barracks in Kildare, a matter we have discussed on a number of occasions in the past. This is probably the last occasion on which we will have an opportunity to engage on matters relating to the Minister's brief, but the "For Sale" signs have gone up so I seek an update from the Minister.
I also welcome our guests from Enniskillen. We are delighted to have them here. Hopefully, they will be part of the Irish political system in the not too distant future, and certainly in their lifetimes.
I am aware of the Deputy's interest in this issue. Given the times we are living in, I understand why he is seeking an update, so I will outline my understanding of what is happening. Arrangements have been made to dispose of the remaining approximately 50 acres of the Magee Barracks site by public auction on 11 February this year. An auctioneer has been appointed to manage this disposal on behalf of the Department. Given the strategic location of the barracks site, the sale and development of the site is very important to the long-term development and prosperity of Kildare town. Part of the original site has already been redeveloped to provide a new school for the community and I understand that local development plans for the site have made provision for a wide-ranging use of the site, including substantial community amenities, thereby ensuring that the local community will benefit directly from the sale.
Deputy Martin Heydon and I met a number of people in the town who were concerned about the future of the site. We had a long discussion about its disposal. I understand that there was an idea that we would give a segment of the land for community use, but there was no real plan or understanding as to who would manage that and pay for it and as to why one would separate out ten acres and then sell the rest. The best use of the site involves ensuring it is sold as an entire lot in the context of a local development plan as agreed by the local authority in order that we get a co-ordinated and balanced development in the heart of Kildare town which adds to it. Given the dereliction of the site in recent years, it is now time to move on to ensure there is a positive new chapter for Kildare in terms of the use of these 50 acres. I am glad we are able to help to move that process forward.
I agree with the Minister that it is certainly time to move on. We want to see the site developed to the benefit of the local community. That needs to be emphasised. While I am enthusiastic about the development of the site, I have one simple question to put to the Minister. Will he honour the commitment that was given by successive predecessors of his since 1998 that ten acres or the value thereof would be given to the local community? That was a written commitment made at the time of closure by the then Minister, Michael Smith. It was supported by successive Ministers until the Minister's immediate predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, took over. During the term of this Government, the Department of Defence has refused to concede the commitment that was made in writing to the community of ten acres or the value thereof. I ask the Minister one last time to please honour the commitment the State made to the community in Kildare.
With respect, the Deputy is rewriting history. We went way beyond the offer of ten acres. We offered the entire site to Kildare County Council free of charge to do with it whatever it wished for the community as well as a housing project. I would ask the Deputy who is looking for ten acres in terms of taking ownership, paying for the running of it and ensuring the development of a proper amenity area or parkland or whatever the community may want. Surely the sensible approach is to ensure any developer who wants to develop the site pays for that. That is the whole point of having a local area plan. Where one has a local area plan for the 50 acre site. setting aside ten acres and having a different management and financing structure for them will lead to a very unco-ordinated development of the site. I have thought about this. We are not looking to make a lot of money. We are looking to ensure this is developed in a way that is consistent with what the community wants, which is determined by the local area plan of Kildare County Council. Nobody has come to me in recent times looking for anything different, apart from a political ask of "Give us ten acres", or offering a context for or proposal around the request.
The reality is that this was never an ask. It was an offer made by the Department of Defence and included in all the documentation that existed around the development of the site until the Minister's Government took over. It was an offer. If we are talking about being disingenuous, it is disingenuous to say the site was offered in its entirety to the local authority.
It was only offered in its entirety provided that the local authority could undertake a social housing development on the site, which was not the appropriate development for the entirety of the site. Nor was it something that the local authority had the money to do. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that the purchaser of the site should give ten acres to the community as well as meet all the other requirements that would be placed on the developer under the local area plan, when it was the Department of Defence, on behalf of the State, that made the offer in the first instance.
It is necessary to read the facts into the record again. On 1 July 2003, the then Government decided that the former Magee Barracks in Kildare town would be among the State lands released to Kildare County Council for inclusion in the Sustaining Progress affordable housing initiative. On foot of this Government decision, Kildare County Council prepared a local area plan for the site that encompassed a range of uses, including community use. Following discussions between the Department, the council and the then Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and in accordance with the terms of the housing initiative, it was agreed that the entire site would be transferred to the council. A final contract for transfer was issued to Kildare County Council in January 2009. However, the council advised the Department that it no longer wished to take possession of the property. In September 2011, the Department, in response to a request from the council seeking submissions for the proposed local area plan for Kildare town, advised the council of the intention to sell the site. The Department sought to hand over the entire site lock, stock and barrel.
Subject to conditions with which the council could not comply.
Please. We are out of time.
The council decided, for understandable reasons, that it could not afford to take on that project.
Kildare County Council has agreed a local area plan for the site. We will put it out to tender and invite developers to develop the plan for the 50 acres.
Thank you, Minister.
No one has come to me looking for ten acres.
I must move on to the next question, because we have spent a long time on this matter. I join in the welcome to our visitors in the Visitors Gallery. I hope they enjoy the proceedings.
I would like to do the same. Fáilte.
49. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Defence if he will send a naval vessel to the Mediterranean to replace the LE Samuel Beckett, which returned home on 17 December 2015. [2950/16]
Three Naval Service ships - LE Eithne, LE Niamh and LE Samuel Beckett - rescued 8,631 refugees from the Mediterranean last year. They have been rightly praised by all sides of the House. I reiterate our gratitude to those brave men and women.
While fewer people may be trying to cross the Mediterranean at this time of year, the sea is more dangerous and naval ships are needed on patrol. A total of 113 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean since 1 January. Is Ireland going to send another ship to the Mediterranean and, if so, when?
The answer is "Yes". If I am the Minister for Defence in a few weeks' time after the election, I intend to put it to the Government that we should send a vessel to the Mediterranean for another rotation. The vessels were on eight or nine-week rotations last year. To be honest, when we decided last May to send a ship, it raised many eyebrows. People wondered whether we had the capacity to do it. The Naval Service was given three weeks in which to prepare the LE Eithne to go to the Mediterranean. During the three rotations, the three ships did a phenomenal job and rescued more than 8,600 people, many of whom would not be alive today were it not for the Naval Service, supported by the Defence Forces as a whole.
As the Minister for Defence, I am proud of the professionalism and compassion of our Defence Forces, be they on peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Golan or elsewhere. However, last year was a real test for the Naval Service in particular, which had never before been asked to perform a mission that was anything like as complex as this one. Not only did the service perform extraordinarily well, but there is a strong demand for it to return. I expect that we will do so. Obviously, there are knock-on consequences in terms of managing patrolling hours and so on in our own jurisdiction.
I anticipate that, following the election, one of the first decisions of the new Government will be to send one of the Irish vessels back to the Mediterranean to pick up where they left off in December, working on a bilateral basis with Italy.
I welcome the Minister's reply. There was some expectation that the number travelling across the sea would drop off. Certainly, there has been a drop but people are still in desperate circumstances trying to cross to what they believe to be the safety of Europe. Some European countries are bickering and fighting and some right-wing politicians are stoking up racism and sectarian hatred. One EU country is talking in terms of a public auction of refugees' valuables seized by police, and there are moves by the European Union to seal its borders. One hundred and thirteen people have died in the Mediterranean since January. On Friday alone, 45 people, including 17 children, died after a boat sank near two Greek islands. We have a moral responsibility to go to the region.
We know that between 3,000 and 4,000 people are still arriving daily at Greek islands from Turkey. Has there been a request for assistance from the Greek Government or, in particular, the Italian Government, which we are working alongside in providing naval service support?
I spoke to my counterpart in Italy at the last Council of Ministers meeting, which was before Christmas - in December, I believe, although I stand to be corrected. I asked her very directly about this. We made a decision after the rotation of LE Samuel Beckett that we would take a break, assess the effectiveness of the mission and determine how we could improve. That was the prudent approach because it was the first time we had ever been involved in such a mission. We went way beyond what we believed we would have to do when we made the commitment in May. I said we should take a break and assess the complexity of what we had been doing so that if we went back, we could do better. The advice was that this was a good time to take a break because the numbers attempting to cross the Mediterranean are certainly lower now than in the spring or summer. That has proven to be the case although it has not stopped the tragedy in terms of the number of people drowning, although many of the drownings have taken place off Greek Islands as opposed to between Libya and Italy. The direct answer to the Deputy's question is that I believe Italy would welcome an Irish vessel to work in partnership with it again. There was no direct request for that but there was certainly an indication that the Italian authorities would like to see that happen and would appreciate it. We intend to follow through on that, as I said.
The European Union needs to show solidarity with Greece and Italy. They are completely overwhelmed. The statistics I have suggest 35,000 people made the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece this month alone, which represents a 20-fold increase over this time last year. Ireland needs to show solidarity by supporting the rescue missions and relocating refugees fleeing the war zone. The idea of shutting down borders will not stop the problem.
We are looking for leadership. I welcome the fact that this is a priority for the Government, including the Minister. Members right across this House share the view that we need to have a naval presence in the region. It is a question of solidarity and saving lives. The reality of the mission was that it was saving lives. The absence of such a mission will mean more and more people will die.
It is important to put this into context. Various Deputies have raised these issues, and they are right to raise them. There are much bigger political decisions that need to be made in order to find medium and long-term solutions to mass migration from north Africa and the Middle East towards what migrants perceive to be the safety of the European Union. That is understandable considering where many of the refugees are coming from.
Approximately 800,000 people, equivalent to almost the entire population of Munster, are waiting on the shores of the Mediterranean to cross from Libya into Europe. The figure is somewhat lower than last year but it is still substantial. The problem is not going away and Europe collectively needs to show more solidarity and place a greater focus on finding solutions to the mass movement of people. We simply cannot accommodate indefinitely all of those who are entering the European Union. We must show solidarity with countries at the coalface of the migration problem, as they are dealing with the trauma, misery and human rights consequences of what is taking place. In the meantime, rescue capacity is required. The Naval Service engaged effectively in rescue operations last year and I would like those operations to continue this year while we seek wider political solutions.
50. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence if he will review the deployment of Irish troops to the Golan Heights, given that Israel has indicated that it intends to claim oil found in the Golan Heights as its own, in contravention of international law, and the ongoing failure of the United National Disengagement Observer Force mission to achieve the goals laid out in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. [2951/16]
I am disappointed to note that the Minister believes he will get his job back, because I had my eye on it. I also know Deputy Wallace is pretty hopeful of getting the justice portfolio - one never knows.
This is an important question, which asks the Minister to review the deployment of Defence Forces personnel to the Golan Heights. Given the failure of the United Nations Disengagement Observe Force, UNDOF, mission, which is more than 40 years old, and the virtual annexation of Syrian territory by the Israelis, it is not appropriate to deploy Irish peacekeeping personnel on this mission, as they could do much better work in other areas.
It will not surprise the Deputy to hear that I do not agree with her view. I have been to occupied Golan twice to meet our troops, who have been involved in a highly complex and important mission in recent years. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was a very stable mission until a few years ago. I take my lead from what the United Nations is seeking collectively in Golan, as opposed to what individuals may be seeking.
The UNDOF mission was established in 1974 by the United Nations Security Council following the agreed disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights in May 1974. UNDOF was established to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria, supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and supervise the areas of separation and limitation, as provided for in the May 1974 agreement on disengagement. Since 1974, the mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months, most recently in June 2015 when it was renewed until 30 June 2016 under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2257.
A contingent of the Permanent Defence Force, comprising 131 personnel, has been deployed to UNDOF on the Golan Heights since 2013, while eight other Defence Forces personnel are deployed in UNDOF headquarters, including the Deputy Force Commander, Brigadier General Anthony Hanlon, who is doing a very good job on the mission.
On the broader issue, UNDOF should not be used by anyone to make a political point. Its purpose is to keep two countries apart and it has been successful in achieving this objective. The mission faces serious challenges arising from the extremely complex civil war in Syria. The fighting can be observed from a number of the outposts manned by UNDOF personnel. The United Nations would be seriously concerned if the Irish contingent were to pull out of UNDOF because it is an effective and core part of the mission. Our troops are doing worthwhile work of which we should be proud. We should support them, as opposed to undermining what they are trying to do.
If the two sides wanted to attack each other, the Irish troops in the middle would not put a stop to the fighting.
They play a supervisory role.
As some good Israeli journalists have pointed out, the presence of United Nations forces in Golan is helping to perpetuate Israeli occupation of the area and has made the world accustomed to the diplomatic status quo. Not only have the Israelis annexed the Golan Heights, but they have also authorised multinational corporations, including some that are sponsored by Dick Cheney, to drill for oil.
They have made it clear that their intention is to keep the proceeds of that. There have been multiple news reports in the Israeli press recently. They have taken the view that Israel is not returning the Golan Heights to Syria and that since the neighbouring war continues to rage, they can make that a reality for everyone else. Basically, they are using the crisis in Syria to further economic and illegal settlement interests there, while we are allowing it to happen.
In the most recent report on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, the UN Secretary General stated that the continued presence of UNDOF in the area remains essential. Moreover, Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic have stated their continued commitment to the disengagement of forces agreement and to the presence of UNDOF. UNDOF is implementing its mandate and continues to engage with the parties on practical arrangements to allow the force to continue to maintain the ceasefire from the Israeli occupied side of the Golan Heights. In other words, our troops are there as a stabilising influence. I suspect Deputy Daly has been to the Middle East because she is interested in these things. She will be aware that this region is on fire at the moment.
We are there to try to bring some calm and international observation to a region that has an extraordinarily difficult conflict to overcome. The idea that removing the UNDOF mission from the stabilising role it is playing in the Golan Heights does not make sense. The area is no longer a flashpoint between Israel and Syria, for the moment anyway. The idea that we would reduce or remove that stabilising factor for some political reason or to make a statement would be highly irresponsible and we are not going to do it.
As the Minister has said, the region is on fire. The reality is that the role the troops are playing there is not one of a stabilising influence. In fact, as Ed Horgan put it in a good article in the press recently, they are being used as human shields to protect the Israeli illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. It is as simple as that.
There are other points around the world where they could play an active peacekeeping role. That is not the role they are playing in that region at the moment. The Minister has acknowledged the fact it is not an area of conflict between the two powers in that territory.
The Israelis have invested vast sums of money in illegal settlements in the area. I imagine the Minister is aware that last year Mr. Netanyahu tried to get the American Administration to think differently with regard to the annexation and to recognise that territory formally as Israel. Even the Americans could not do it at this stage. Anyway, that is the intention and that is what is going on there.
Our troops are there when they could be in Darfur, Congo or South Sudan, for example. Let us remember that this UNDOF mission has been in place for 40 years. We could hardly call it a success. Its intention was to get a withdrawal from that area and not to annexe territory, which is what is going on there now.
That was not it. Its intention was to ensure that hostilities did not begin again between Syria and Israel, and it has been successful.
It was for a negotiated settlement.
This was about recognising and enforcing a disengagement agreement and treaty.
It was also about a negotiated settlement.
No, it was about enforcing a disengagement agreement. It was a relatively stable mission until some years ago. The success of the mission has been to keep two warring parties apart, and it has worked. What has made it a far more complex mission in recent years has been the civil war in Syria.
I am sorry but Deputy Daly's accusations about human shields simply do not stand up given what happened the summer before last, when UN troops were kidnapped and shot at. The judgment or decision is whether we listen to the United Nations Secretary General, who is asking us to stay and continue to be a stabilising factor in the region, listen to the countries on either side, both of which want UNDOF to stay in place as a stabilising factor, or listen to Deputy Daly. I know where I will take my lead from.
I ask Members please to watch the clock when they are asking questions.
51. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence the status of the development of a new institute for peace support and leadership training at the Curragh in County Kildare. [3006/16]
The proposal to establish an institute for peace support and leadership training at the Curragh campus is one of a number of very positive proposals included in the Minister's White Paper on Defence. This question seeks to give the Minister the opportunity to indicate to the House to what extent that proposal is being moved forward and the type of timescales that exist for the delivery of this important new piece of infrastructure.
I thank all Deputies for welcoming this initiative. I do not think there has been any criticism of the idea. The idea is essentially based on trying to build on Ireland's international reputation as a very effective peacekeeping nation that can offer and share training capacity to help in the broad efforts around making peacekeeping, peace enforcement and peace management more effective. It is not solely about a military response; it is also about diplomatic responses, education and understanding international humanitarian law and its consequences for conflict management, post-conflict management and so on.
It also involves things like gender-based violence, where Ireland can develop niche capacity internationally and help others to build capacity. Out of all of the recommendations in the White Paper, I am probably more excited about the establishment of a peace and leadership institute than anything else. We will spend a lot of money on the project, and have already committed about €10 million to it in the capital programme. I would like very significant donations, from various sources, for the project, something on which we are already making good progress.
I do not want to rush the project in order to try to launch something before an election or whatever. The Department has almost finalised a very detailed report on the next steps for the peace and leadership institute. We will set up an implementation working group, comprising some very experienced people that are balanced between national and international in their outlook. This will not be a western institution working on its own. It will, I hope, ensure that we have inputs from different parts of the world, whether Christian, Islamic, European, African or Middle Eastern, so that there is genuine input in terms of an international peace and leadership training institute in Ireland on neutral ground, if one wants to call it that.
So far, the engagement has involved universities at home and abroad. We have spoken to university presidents and leaders in terms of getting universities to be part of the overall project. It is progressing well. It will be very exciting for Kildare.
I share the enthusiasm of the Minister. That is why we included a proposal such as this in our White Paper submission some years ago. We should perhaps acknowledge the role His Highness, the Aga Khan, has played in inspiring a number of people to support this type of initiative. When the Minister came to the Curragh last year to launch the consultation process on the development of the racecourse, I was struck by the fact that His Highness had been involved in that particular initiative as well.
The equine and military developments could complement each other. As we see those two positive developments move forward, it highlights the need to see some sort of management structure or management agency put in place to examine the needs of the Curragh plains in a holistic manner. The institute for peace is a wonderful initiative. I commend the Minister on what he is doing. I hope whoever is in his seat after the election moves forward with the project.
My intention is to make sure that this happens before I leave so it is in a process of delivery, as opposed to a decision having to be made about it after the election. Any future Minister can make any decisions he or she wants to.
The Deputy mentioned His Highness, the Aga Khan. I travelled to Paris recently to talk to him about this project. To say he was very interested would be an understatement. In terms of playing a supportive role, obviously this is a project for Ireland and the Irish Government to take forward, and he understands that. He was very supportive of the concept, found it intriguing and wanted to be supportive in any way he could be.
He has many contacts, particularly in the Islamic and Muslim world and, from a university perspective, this could offer real insight into ensuring it is a genuinely international institute as opposed to just being Irish.
On the Curragh as a whole, as the Deputy knows, we are setting up a forum on the management of the Curragh plains. This area in Kildare will see some very exciting changes in the coming years. We will see a €60 million or €70 million redevelopment of the Curragh racecourse. We will see a significant peace and leadership institute, which will be a big landmark in the Curragh as well as being a very successful institute. We will see more co-ordination in the management of the Curragh plains.
In respect of the institute itself, when one considers from a training point of view that at any given time the UN deploys approximately 100,000 personnel throughout the world, it gives an indication of the demand that can exist for the type of training that can be provided in a centre of excellence such as that which we need to see developed in this location. I agree with the Minister that it is by ensuring the participation of international agencies and experts, and by ensuring that the qualifications that emerge from such a centre have widespread acceptance, recognition and certification from the appropriate third level institutions, that we can guarantee the success of the initiative. It would be very good for Ireland's reputation and would build on our success in international diplomacy and peacekeeping. It can be entirely good for the local and national economy.
The idea is that the Defence Forces would provide a platform, similar to a university campus, which would be safe and secure and would allow people to stay for relatively short-term courses, to be provided by universities from various parts of the world which have real expertise in various areas. Whether one is a diplomat, working for an NGO or an officer in a defence force somewhere, one could come to Ireland to the peace and leadership institute and get a certificate from a top university in some part of Africa, the US, Europe or the Middle East. What is important is to get the model right and have the right universities engaging early so that they are part of the design of the institute. This is not simply about training soldiers for better peacekeeping, although that will be part of it; it is also about going far beyond the military to look at more effective approaches politically, and supporting peace processes to make them more effective.
52. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Defence further to Parliamentary Question No. 69 of 24 November 2015, if he is concerned that Lariam is a third-line drug for the US military in sub-Saharan Africa and is only issued for personnel who are unable to receive either of the other anti-malarial regimens; that its issue is accompanied by a wallet card containing current safety information from that country's Food and Drug Administration indicating the possibility that the neurological side effects may persist or become permanent; and, given this, why, as noted in his reply to Parliamentary Question No. 12 of 14 January 2015, the malaria chemoprophylactic agent of choice of the Irish Defence Forces for use in sub-Saharan Africa continues to be Lariam. [2952/16]
This follows on from a number of parliamentary questions from Deputies and the Minister's meeting with individuals in the campaign for action on Lariam. It is in light of the fact that the rest of the world is moving and rowing back on the use of Lariam. We know it has been completely abandoned in the UK, and in the United States it is only used in the defence forces as the third choice and only if the other options are not suitable - it is very much a last resort. Why, against all international best practice, does the Minister state that it is still the policy of the Irish Defence Forces to prescribe Lariam as the first drug of choice?
We do not prescribe Lariam as the first drug of choice. We look at a region and we take the best possible medical advice on the most appropriate drug for the region, depending on how long people will stay and the strain of malaria in the region. It is also not true to say that the UK and the US have abandoned Lariam. They have not.
I did not say that.
They do use Lariam, but only in certain circumstances. They have screening processes and information processing to ensure they do everything they can to manage the risk regarding the use of Lariam. We are trying to do the same. I had a very good meeting with the group advocating for a change in policy on the use of Lariam. As the Deputy would expect, it was a very emotive meeting as well as a very blunt one. The group has sent me in writing a series of questions.
I am having my Department and the Defence Forces look at those questions in detail to try to get responses to them. I have a working group, which is made up of international and Irish experts, to make recommendations to me as to the best course of action on Lariam. It would be irresponsible of me to make decisions in advance of getting that up-to-date report, which we had hoped to get by the end of January. The group has asked for more time and we will give them that, but - I have said this to the Deputy before and I hope she will take me at my word on it - I have an open mind about trying to do what is best. I am not going to make decisions about Lariam on the basis of court cases or anything like that. My only issue here is to do what is best for Irish soldiers who are serving in areas where malaria is a problem. There are, effectively, three malaria drugs, as far as I am aware. The medical advice that is available to me and to the Defence Forces will determine what drug is prescribed for the Defence Forces personnel going to different regions. If the expert group-----
I will come back to the Minister. I have to go back to Deputy Daly.
If the expert group recommends that we change policy, I will be first to make it happen.
I call Deputy Daly.
The problem is that best national and international practice - the Minister never quoted the source for his advice - would tell the Minister that Lariam should be a last resort. I did not say the Americans did not use it: I specifically said it was a last resort after the other two.
No, the Deputy said they had abandoned it.
I talked about Britain. We are talking about sub-Saharan Africa. That is where we are talking about. The Irish Defence Forces' policy is to prefer Lariam. I am only talking about sub-Saharan Africa. The United States army does not have that policy and it is not the case that Lariam is the most suitable drug for that area. That is the Minister's stated policy and it is against best practice. The people who met the Minister want to know why that is the policy, given that the manufacturers of Lariam themselves say that it should only be taken after very serious analysis of a person's predisposition or with a very clear warning. That is the only circumstance in which it is allowed in the rare examples in America. Why do we have a different view of that process in Ireland? We are exposing people to danger because it is not just about whether people have a predisposition or prior problems. The Minister cannot say with certainty that there has been an individual assessment of every member of the Defence Forces who was given Lariam and that is the only basis upon which the manufacturer says it should be given because of the undisputed dangers linked with that problem. I hear what the Minister is saying, that he does not have a fixed view, but we have been hearing that and meanwhile Lariam continues to be prescribed, albeit in smaller doses. I will come back to the Minister with a question on that.
We do not have large numbers of Defence Forces personnel in sub-Saharan Africa at the moment, but that is not the point. The point is that if the recommendation is that Lariam is the most appropriate drug for a region to which we are sending Defence Forces personnel, then of course there is a screening process. I have had long and detailed meetings with the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence on this issue to get an understanding of those screening processes in terms of ensuring that people are suitable for taking Lariam to protect themselves against malaria. That is as it is at the moment. If the expert working group we have asked to report to us on this comes back and makes suggestions, we will listen to them.
The so-called international best practice Deputy Daly is talking about does not reflect medical best practice on the basis of what we are currently making decisions on, given the advice I have and the Irish Defence Forces policy on the use of anti-malarial medication, which is in line with the current Health Products Regulatory Authority approved summary of product characteristics. That is basically a technical way of saying it is consistent with the medical advice related to those products. We will continue to try to do what is in the best interests of our Defence Forces personnel.
If the working group recommends something different, I will be the first to make the change immediately. However, I must wait until I get that report rather than making a change on the basis of what some other country somewhere else is doing.
I must call Deputy Clare Daly. I will come back to the Minister.
The reason we have a working group is to be able to make detailed recommendations on which we can act.
The Minister has acknowledged that the working group has not issued its findings and there has not been a change in policy. He might explain to me then how, in one of two parliamentary questions that I put to him recently, he told me that the overwhelming majority of personnel in sub-Saharan Africa were prescribed Lariam between 2010 and 2015 but when I asked the question specifically about 2015, I was told that 25% of Defence Forces personnel were not prescribed Lariam. That is clearly a differential. It means fewer personnel are being prescribed Lariam now than were in recent years in that region which I welcome. If the policy is unchanged, will the Minister explain the discrepancies in the number of personnel who were being prescribed the drug?
The Minister failed to answer how there can be an assurance that every personnel member had an individual assessment when the evidence that has been given to him in some instances would state the opposite, that their files were not assessed, they were not asked the appropriate questions and they were not given the proper warnings.
I can only answer from the evidence that I have seen, which is that the current screening process is a robust one and that individual soldiers, before they go, must fill out individual forms in relation to Lariam.
It was quite a different situation when we had many more troops in sub-Saharan Africa because we had troops on rotation, perhaps every six months. In recent years, we may well be sending troops for a shorter period. The numbers are much lower. For example, when I visited Mali last year and took anti-malarial medication, I was only there for two days and Lariam was not the appropriate drug. I had been to sub-Saharan Africa for a longer period and I took Lariam. Depending on how long a person stays, some drugs are taken daily while some are taken weekly. Therefore, one manages risk differently.
I will repeat this because of the meeting I had with families who feel that they have been seriously affected by Lariam. I take this issue most seriously and I have a lot of sympathy for those who are struggling.
I must go now to the next question. We are way over time. I call Deputy Troy for the next question.
We will make changes, but on the basis of expert advice.