Other Questions

Defence Forces Equipment

Gino Kenny

Question:

6. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to stop the purchase of Israeli-made drones by the Defence Forces. [20430/18]

Gino Kenny

Question:

8. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the details of contracts with Israel for the purchase of arms to be used by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20432/18]

Gino Kenny

Question:

36. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the details of purchase of Israeli-made drones to be used by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20431/18]

I would like the Minister of State to comment on the continuing purchase of Israeli drones by the Irish Defence Forces.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 8 and 36 together.

The primary focus regarding the procurement of defensive equipment by the Department of Defence is to maintain the capability of the Irish Defence Forces to fulfil the roles assigned to them by Government. The latter include undertaking overseas peace support operations and, in that context, the aim is to afford the greatest possible force protection to Irish troops while on missions.

The principle of competitive tendering for Government contracts is used by the Department of Defence for the acquisition of defensive equipment for the Defence Forces. Central to those procedures is the requirement to allow fair competition between suppliers through the submission of tenders following advertising of the tender competition on the e-Tenders website and on the Official Journal of the European Union, where appropriate, in line with the EU procurement directives, including the directive on the procurement of defence and security equipment.

Such tender competitions are open to any company or country in accordance with the terms of all UN, OSCE and EU arms embargoes or restrictions. In this regard there are no such restrictions or embargoes in place on Israeli companies. Trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies and any restriction or ban on imports from any particular country would have to be concerted at EU level. 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.

I am advised that my Department has not purchased any weapons from Israel. However, other defensive equipment has been acquired from Israeli companies by way of competitive tendering, primarily unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the Defence Forces and ground surveillance radar equipment. Unmanned aerial vehicles currently operated by the Defence Forces are commonly referred to as UAVs.

Following a competitive tender process, four UAV systems were procured between 2007 and 2009 from Aeronautics Defence Systems Limited based in Israel, at a combined cost of €2.375 million exclusive of VAT. An upgrade of the Defence Forces UAV systems was carried out by the original equipment manufacturer in 2016 at a cost of €1.9 million exclusive of VAT. This involved the upgrade of four UAV systems with airframes in each system.

These UAVs are, in effect, an information-gathering asset which have no offensive capability. They do not carry weapons. The UAV systems were acquired to enhance the capability of the Defence Forces to carry out surveillance, intelligence gathering and target acquisition for peace support operations and provide a low-cost, low-risk means to increase capabilities and enhance force protection by performing missions which do not demand the use of manned aircraft.

UAVs have a wide range of civilian and military applications, particularly in the area of surveillance over land and sea. They have the ability to perform tasks that manned systems cannot perform, either for safety or economic reasons. UAVs can effectively complement existing manned aircraft or satellite infrastructure used in environmental protection, maritime surveillance, natural disasters, crisis management, border control etc.

Does the Minister of State not find it abhorrent that this State buys any sort of military equipment from Israel? This is a state that has killed 50 unarmed protesters, including journalists and children, on the Israeli-Gaza border over the past eight weeks. They were shot dead, some of them in the back. Israel also routinely jails children under military court. This is not a normal state. People will be sickened to their stomachs that the State buys any sort of military equipment from the state of Israel.

The company in question from which the UAVs were purchased, Aeronautics Defence Systems Limited, states on its website that it sells battle-trained and battle-hardened drones which have been trained in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure the drones have also been used in the occupied territories of Palestine. There is blood on the hands of the Minister of State. He is complicit with the Israeli Government when buying any sort of military equipment. The vehicles are not benign; rather, they are meant to carry out surveillance and to destroy.

I do not accept the Deputy's assertion that there is blood on my hands.

There is, unfortunately.

My number one priority is that we have the best equipment for our personnel when they go overseas and that our equipment matches the best equipment that is out there. I hope Irish personnel are never injured or killed overseas because of a lack of equipment. If we sent members of the Irish Defence Forces overseas without the very best equipment available, I can assure the Deputy that he would be breaking down the doors to tell me that we let our Defence Force members go overseas with equipment which was not the very best that is out there. The Deputy would say I had blood on my hands if that happened. My number one priority is to get the best equipment available for our personnel while still operating within the processes and parameters which have been set out. I outlined those parameters in my original reply.

There is blood on the hands of the Minister of State. There are pictures of what is happening on the Israeli-Gaza border. The Israeli army is using drones to drop gas canisters on protesters, resulting in people having respiratory problems, inflammation and bleeding. As I said, 50 people have been killed. The Minister does not get it. Israel is not a normal state. It is a racist and apartheid state and this State is buying arms from it which are being used against Palestinians and ordinary people across the world.

The Department of Defence defended the cost of UAVs last year. What about the cost of Palestinians? The Department did not think about that. Does the Minister of State think that Israel, which has killed 50 innocent people, is a normal state? Did he think apartheid South Africa was a normal state? Does he think it is acceptable that this State buys any sort of military equipment from a state which has killed thousands of Palestinians? If the Minister of State can give me a good answer to that question he will not have blood on his hands.

I have asked about the purchase of drones on numerous occasions. I have never received an answer I have been happy with from the Minister of State. I recently received an answer from the Secretary General in a committee. The answer has been that the best kit for colleagues is what is purchased. Even in military purchasing, there has to be some type of ethics and morals.

The Minister of State has also argued that barring Israeli companies from entering tendering processes for the provision of military goods would be akin to Ireland unilaterally placing an embargo on such goods from Israel. I believe in that embargo, but the weapons system, which is what UAVs are used for by the Israel army, is live tested on civilians in Palestine. We have seen the horrific consequences of that in recent times.

As I already outlined in my reply, trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies and any restriction or ban on imports from any particular country would have to be decided at EU level. I am happy that the Department of Defence has abided by all guidelines through this process. The Government has consistently been opposed to proposals for trade, diplomatic, cultural, academic, sporting or other boycotts of Israel in the absence of a general trade embargo of Israel.

The Department of Defence cannot unilaterally preclude Israeli companies from participating in tender competitions for military or any other type of goods. I repeat that my number one priority is that we stick to the guidelines and I am happy to confirm that my Department has done so. We cannot preclude any Israeli companies from any of the tendering process.

Why not? Will the Minister of State tell me why?

The other priority is that we get the best available equipment out there for members of the Irish Defence Forces when they go overseas. I have been reassured by the Chief of Staff that members of the Irish Defence Forces have the best equipment while participating in any of the peacekeeping duties overseas.

The Minister of State has not answered the question.

Has the Minister of State ever considered a need with military purchasing to have an ethical and moral position rather than just the best price possible?

I have outlined that this is European Union tendering and the Department of Defence has not set the guidelines. The Deputy knows about EU guidelines as well as I do. We must go through EU procurement guidelines when more than a specific amount of money is being spent.

State Claims Agency

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

7. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if the Chemical Exposure Report 1994-2005 will be released in order to provide former members of the Air Corps who are now chronically ill with information relating to the level of exposure they suffered in view of his recent call for candour and transparency in cases regarding the health of persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20216/18]

This relates to a matter that has been ongoing for a while. Given the current controversy around the checks for cervical cancer, there is a need for transparency in publishing reports that will help people suffering health consequences so they can manage future health needs.

The Deputy will be aware that the State Claims Agency is currently managing seven claims taken against the Minister for Defence for personal injuries alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substance while working in the Air Corps in the period 1991 to 2006. The management of such claims lodged against the Minister for Defence is delegated to the State Claims Agency. As I outlined to the Deputy in my replies to his parliamentary questions on 26 September 2017 and 12 December 2017, the report referenced was undertaken in the context of legal proceedings. As the report was requested by and provided to the State Claims Agency in the context of a claim, it is legally and professionally privileged. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to release it.

The Minister of State has previously stated, and he has done so now again, that it is not appropriate to publish the report. This is even when an independent reviewer was looking at the whistleblower's claims. The Minister of State did not even supply him with the report in question, the Chemical Exposure Report 1994-2005. This is potentially catastrophic for some of those making claims and also for some who are not making claims. Not everybody exposed to chemicals in that period is making a claim against the State but they are seeking information on what they were exposed to and what damage it could do to their health.

The State Claims Agency, which is involved with the current scandal in the media, has fought these men tooth and nail. It has fought to the level of the High Court the production of a list of chemicals used in Baldonnel in that period. That list alone could save lives. Given the current debacle with cervical smear tests, I ask the Minister of State to think again about the withholding of information that can affect people's lives and future health. This is wrong and it should be stopped.

The Deputy is trying to link two very distinct matters. The allegations referred to by the Deputy are historic and this is further complicated as causation has not been established as of yet. I have been very proactive in this matter. When the protected disclosures were submitted to the Department of Defence - there were two in 2015 and one in 2016 - I was briefed on the matter in June 2016. I set up an independent inquiry and met some of the people who made the disclosures. I received the report and I got the views of the people who made the protected disclosures. I sent the report for legal advice and I received that in the past number of days. Before making any further decision on the course of action, a number of legal issues must be finalised. I expect that following the report I will act as soon as possible.

We visited the Baldonnel aerodrome recently and I can see the huge progress in comparison with photographs I have seen of workshops in the past. Why is the default position of the State always to close ranks and withhold information? The longer one withholds information, the worse some of the health complications could get. Whether they are related to exposure is up to medics, but they cannot find this out if the information is not there and they cannot do the required checks for the chemicals to which I have been told that people have been exposed. Major dangers and cancers can result from those and I appeal to the Minister of State to ask the State Claims Agency to look properly and more openly at this and not to fight it tooth and nail. There is an urgency involved given that we are talking about the lives of men and women being at risk.

The health and well-being of any member of the Defence Forces is a priority of mine and of military management. I am glad the Deputy recognises the progress in the Air Corps at Baldonnel. It is one of the reasons I instructed the General Officer Commanding, Sean Clancy, to host a visit for Members of the Oireachtas committee so they could see for themselves the progress out there.

I am also reassured current practices have been subject to Health and Safety Authority oversight. There has been considerable progress and subject to completion of an improved plan, it will close its investigation. I am considering the findings of the investigation report that I got and I will make a decision on this. I understand where the Deputy is coming from but I have a duty as well. The Deputy is trying to link two very distinct and different matters in cervical cancer and the issue we are discussing now.

Question No. 8 answered with Question No. 6.

Defence Forces Medicinal Products

Clare Daly

Question:

10. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence further to the fact that the Attorney General is examining the possibility of settling pending cervical smear claims following the successful legal action of a person (details supplied), if a similar approach is being taken regarding outstanding Lariam cases in view of the successful legal action in the first Lariam case before the courts in 2017. [20410/18]

The Minister of State is aware that in December last year the State settled the first case for Lariam damage brought by a member of the Defence Forces. No witnesses were called and there was no evidence to defend the case. The man was attacked and it took him four long years before he got the settlement. In light of the decision of the Taoiseach to request the Attorney General to consider withdrawing from the legal actions in the cervical cancer cases, has the Minister of State requested a similar intervention with the Lariam cases, given the successful case taken by the first Defence Forces member? If he has not, why has he not done so?

The Deputy will be aware that the State Claims Agency manages personal injury claims on behalf of the Department of Defence. The Lariam case referred to by the Deputy was settled on 30 November 2017 without admission of liability. The plaintiff withdrew any part of his claim relating to the choice by the defendants of Lariam as a chemoprophylactic. All other matters are settled and the case was struck out. The Deputy will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to discuss legal strategy in respect of ongoing litigation.

I assure the Deputy that the health, safety and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces are key priorities for me and military management. Three anti-malarial drugs, namely, Lariam, Malarone and doxycycline, continue to be used by the Defence Forces. The selection by a medical officer of the most appropriate drug for use is complex and depends on several factors. All of these anti-malaria drugs have contraindications and side effects. Significant precautions are taken by the Defence Forces medical officers in accessing the medical suitability of the members of the Defence Forces to take any anti-malarial medications. It is the policy of the Defence Forces that personnel are individually screened for fitness for service overseas and medical suitability.

A range of support services, including medical and non-medical, are available to all Defence Forces personnel who may require them for whatever reason. These include access to Defence Forces medical officers, psychological and social work services and psychiatry. In addition, the Defence Forces personnel support services provide a confidential information, education, support and referral service designed to give Defence Forces personnel and their families access to information and services from within the military community and outside it.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

A 24-hour confidential helpline is also available.

A working group was re-convened to review developments arising with regard to malaria chemoprophylaxis and the use of Lariam, especially in the context of the current and potential litigation. The working group has produced its second report, which has been provided to me. It has made a total of 12 recommendations, many of which focus on areas including planning, training and education or information sharing as well as the establishment of a new medical advisory group. This will formalise the provision of ongoing expert medical advice, including external expert medical advice, to the Defence Forces on a range of medical matters, including chemoprophylaxis. Preliminary work has commenced in this regard.

That has to rank as one of the most pathetic answers I have ever come across in this House, and it is up against some pretty stiff competition. The reality is that the State settled the case before the courts in December. It is a fact that many more Defence Forces personnel who have been similarly affected are lined up. It is a fact that this House passed a motion urging the Defence Forces to stop prescribing Lariam in line with best practice. That decision has been brazenly ignored by the Defence Forces, presumably on the basis of legal advice. If the Defence Forces stopped prescribing it, in effect they would be admitting liability.

We can drag this out and cause these people further injury and damage by fighting their claims or we can deal with the matter responsibly, as suggested in the cervical cancer situation. We should possibly consider a redress scenario.

The Minister of State knows that Roche has withdrawn Lariam from sale in Ireland. I presume the Defence Forces have a stockpile that they are trying to get through first. Is that the case? The company has made the decision for the Government. Will the Minister of State get the Defence Forces to cop on, grow up and deal with the reality that exists now? The Defence Forces should take responsibility for their actions.

As I have outlined to the Deputy previously, Roche withdrew from Ireland for commercial reasons. They were the reasons the company withdrew from Ireland. The case to which the Deputy refers was settled without any admission of liability. I am not going any further into the circumstances of any one case.

As I have stated previously in the House to the Deputy and to many others, the decision for the prescribing of medication is a matter for the medical professionals in the Defence Forces and for any other medical professional. I do not imagine many people in this House are qualified to prescribe any form of medication. We have been told that Lariam is one of a range of medications available. It is on the register for the World Health Organization. It is the medicine prescribed by medical professionals within the Defence Forces. That is the advice I have been given. For as long as they are happy to prescribe it on medical advice, I will accept it.

The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, would not be the first Minister of State to flounder on advice given to him by officials. I will put it to the Minister of State again. In light of the withdrawal by Roche of the drug from sale, the Cole case, the ending in 2016 by the UK Government of the use of Lariam in the armed forces except in restricted cases and its status as a drug of last resort in Britain, USA, Australia and Canada because of the damage it does and the evidence of the harmful side effects, will the Minister of State not now go to the Attorney General with regard to the multiple cases outstanding and request that we address this responsibility in some different way?

The Defence Forces should stop prescribing Lariam now. The decision to continue is only adding to the numbers who will be taking cases in future. The Defence Forces should also deal with the cases in the pipeline. Rather than aggressively contesting court cases, the Defence Forces should sit down and possibly address some form of redress. That would be the right thing to do for the people the Minister of State has said he wishes to defend, that is to say, the members of the Defence Forces.

Why is it the default position of the State, in particular, the State Claims Agency, to close ranks? Will the Minister of State ask the State Claims Agency to cease its prevarication and delay in the cases before the courts?

If Roche has withdrawn Lariam from sale in Ireland, then where do the Defence Forces source Lariam tablets now? Does it happen on the black market? The information I have is that in most European countries, if not all, Lariam is no longer available or not for sale by Roche anymore.

I will come back to Deputy Ó Snodaigh on from where we get the Lariam medication.

I know that Roche pulled out of Ireland in 2015 or 2016 for commercial reasons and for no other reasons. I wish to repeat to Deputy Clare Daly, as I have already indicated, that the use of anti-malarial drugs is a medical matter and should be decided by a medical officer. I am not given the advice by any official. I have been given this advice by a medical officer based in the Defence Forces. The medical officer has informed me that Lariam is the most suitable drug available. I am not going into any of the legal cases that are before the legal system at the moment. I hope the Deputy understands why I cannot go into any of the legal cases.

Overseas Missions

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

9. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence to outline his views on whether the threat level against Irish troops serving on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon has increased since a person (details supplied) attended a major Israeli military and state public propaganda event on 18 April 2018, an event that coincided with the anniversary of the 1996 Qana massacre (details supplied) and at a time when Israeli soldiers are regularly targeting and firing at Palestinian civilians and wounding or killing them. [20215/18]

I asked the Minister of State at a joint committee meeting recently whether he believed it was appropriate for Major General Michael Beary, who is the head of mission of the UN in Lebanon, to attend an Israeli celebration at Mount Herzl and whether that attendance had put the lives of Irish troops at risk.

The current head of mission and force commander of UNIFIL is Major General Michael Beary of Ireland. Major General Beary was appointed to the post in July 2016. The appointment, which was for an initial period of one year, was extended at the request of the United Nations for a further one-year term up to 15 July 2018.

Major General Beary's appointment to the important post is a tribute to the fine reputation of Irish peacekeepers going back almost six decades and to the skills and attributes that he brings to the job. His track record as a leader in the Defence Forces and now as a leader of a multinational force of over 10,000 speaks for itself.

Major General Beary is on secondment from the Defence Forces to the United Nations and operates under the strategic direction and authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. As head of mission and force commander of UNIFIL Major General Beary is required to attend events in Lebanon and Israel in the performance of his duties as the United Nations impartial representative. In attending the event in question on 18 April 2018, Major General Beary was carrying out his role as mandated by the United Nations.

There has been no change in the threat assessment and no indication that the threat level against Irish troops serving on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon has increased.

At the United Nations Security Council meeting on UNIFIL last March, the UN Secretary General commended Major General Beary on his leadership of the UNIFIL mission. Strong support for the work being done by Major General Beary was also expressed to me during my recent visit to Lebanon and at my many meetings with Lebanese ministers and officials.

Major General Beary is a distinguished Defence Forces officer with significant previous operational command experience of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations. This experience includes previous service with UNIFIL as an operational commander and an EU training mission in Somalia.

I received a full briefing from Major General Beary in the course of my recent visit to Lebanon on all aspects of the UNIFIL operation. I have full confidence in the capacity of Major General Beary to discharge the office of UNIFIL force commander and head of mission. He has brought with him the knowledge and experience gained by the Defence Forces from nearly 40 years of deployment with UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and in the wider region.

The Defence Forces continually monitor the security situation in Lebanon and I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of the Defence Forces personnel serving with UNIFIL.

Events last night must have overtaken the answer the Minister of State just read out. The threat level in the region escalated hugely last night. I am not sure if the Minister of State is fully aware of the events in question. Rockets flying overhead endanger not only civilians living in the area but also any troops serving on a UNIFIL mission. I refer to the Israelis targeting Syrian outposts.

I will address why I asked the original question. Major General Beary has had a distinguished career, as the Minister of State has said. The general did not decide off his own bat to attend a military display also attended by Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Israeli Defence Force. It was, however, his own decision to tweet at the time that it was a great display. We must bear in mind that this was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. It fell on the same day as a commemoration of the Qana massacre - an event it might have been more appropriate for Major General Beary to attend - when Israeli troops targeted a UN compound, killed 106 civilians under the protection of the UN mission and injured four Fijian troops. Given Major General Beary's attendance at the display and last night's events, can a new threat assessment be made of the situation in the occupied Golan Heights?

I echo those points in respect of the questions that need to be asked. Our relationship with Israel has reached a much greater sensitivity in light of last night's activities. I refer to the illegal bombings by Israel of Iranian troops in the illegally occupied Golan Heights in Syria. We have to be incredibly sensitive. This region is becoming seriously dangerous, particularly in light of Donald Trump's withdrawal of the US from the Iranian nuclear agreement. Will the Minister of State be making a statement to the House to reassess the security level of and the threat to Irish troops in the region in light of those activities? Will he also be condemning the Israeli authorities and making it known to the Israeli ambassador that this type of activity is unacceptable?

The mission referred to last night in the Golan Heights is the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, not UNIFIL. I want to state clearly, however, that I spoke to the Chief of Staff twice this morning regarding the live firing last night at 00:30 hours over the Golan Heights. All members of the 57th Infantry Group were in their bunkers for some hours last night. The head of the Irish personnel informed Defence Forces headquarters of the incidents last night. No rounds landed in the vicinity of the Irish troops. They are based in Camp Ziouani. All Irish personnel were accounted for and are safe and well, as they were during the entire situation. They are carrying on with normal duties this morning with an air of caution. That is the norm.

To return to Major General Beary, he is on secondment from the Defence Forces to the United Nations. He operates under the strategic direction and authority of the United Nations Security Council.

I have still not received an answer to the question of whether the Minister of State thinks it is appropriate that the head of UNIFIL - who happens to be a major general in the Irish Defence Forces - attended a military celebration of the founding of the State of Israel on the same date as the anniversary of an Israeli attack on a UN compound in the region where Irish troops are located. Has that escalated the level of danger for Irish and UNIFIL troops? Has it contributed to an escalation of tensions in the area?

I reiterate that I am not responsible for Major General Beary. He operates under the UN and he does not have to answer to me. He is on secondment to the UN as head of mission with UNIFIL. He does not - and I do not expect him to - answer to me. When I have visited Lebanon in the two years since my appointment, I have received full briefings from Major General Beary. I have the greatest of admiration for him. He has carried out his job and he is very well respected. I received briefs from both sides when I was in Israel and Lebanon. Both sides very much respect Major General Beary and the work that he has done in the two years since his appointment. He has brought the tripartite meetings - involving the Israelis, the Lebanese and himself - back together. Those meetings happen on a weekly or fortnightly basis. That is a huge achievement on the part of the man who is head of mission for UNIFIL. I commend him and wish him the best of luck as he continues the mission.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Foreign Naval Vessels

Clare Daly

Question:

12. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the purpose of the presence of three Royal Navy patrol and training ships in Haulbowline on 27 and 28 March 2018. [20411/18]

This question relates to the presence of three British Royal Navy patrol and training ships in Haulbowline in March. It is part of a thread of visits involving vessels from foreign navies, including NATO warships. We had a visit from HMS Illustrious, an Invincible class aircraft carrier which was involved in the Iraq war, and, in 2016, a flotilla of NATO warships was present during the centenary celebration for the 1916 Rising, which was quite ironic. Why are we allowing Irish ports to be used by NATO warships as somewhere to rest and recuperate after their war games and for our Naval Service to extend them a warm welcome?

The three Royal Navy university training boats, named HMS Charger, HMS Biter and HMS Pursuer, were in Ireland as part of a routine visit.  During the course of their visit, Naval Service cadets and members of the Naval Service Reserve participated in cross-service training in navigation and seamanship. I am also advised that, while in Haulbowline, members of the crews of the three vessels paid a courtesy visit to the Flag Officer Commanding of the Naval Service, FOCNS, Commodore Mick Malone.

The Ireland-UK memorandum of understanding on defence and security co-operation provides for bilateral engagement on exercises, training and military education.

Visits from foreign naval vessels are a long-standing and common practice not only in Ireland but worldwide.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.