European Defence Agency Project: Referral to Select Committee

I move:

That the proposal that Dáil Éireann approves Ireland’s participation in a European Defence Agency Project in relation to Military Search Capability Building pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, be referred to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, in accordance with Standing Order 84A(3)(b), which, not later than 19th February, 2019, shall send a message to the Dáil in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 90, and Standing Order 89(2) shall accordingly apply.

In commending the motion, I will briefly outline the function of the European Defence Agency, EDA, and the background to the project that Ireland wishes to participate in. The agency was established by a Joint Action of the Council of the European Union in 2004 "to support the Member States and the Council in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future". On 6 July 2004, the Government approved Ireland's participation in the framework of the EDA. Ireland contributes to the annual costs of running the agency including its annual work programme. The agency is focused on assisting member states in capability development, in obtaining better value for existing spending levels, improving competitiveness and securing greater efficiency, particularly in the area of research, technology and procurement of defence capabilities.

The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 prescribes that participation in EDA projects or programmes is subject to Government and Dáil approval. Capability development projects within the EDA are classified as a category A project where all member states join unless they specifically opt out or a category B project where two or more member states come together to pursue a particular initiative. The proposal put forward by me today is to seek approval for Ireland to participate in a category B project in relation to military search capability building. The Defence Forces engage extensively in specialist military search activities, dealing with unexploded ordnance, improvised explosive devices and ensuring a safe and secure operating environment for military operations. The Defence Forces engineer specialist search and clearance teams are regularly deployed on home and overseas operations.

There are two specialist search teams operating overseas in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and they predominantly conduct route searches and area clearances in advance of vehicle or foot patrols. The Defence Forces have also provided this capability to An Garda Síochána in support of aid-to-civil power operations during high profile visits by foreign VIPs and for searches for bodies and weapons. The Defence Forces corps of engineers does not have search teams at an advanced search capability level. Advanced search personnel are capable of conducting hazardous environment search, working in confined spaces and operating in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments. Participation in this project addresses this capability gap. The aim of the project is to develop common processes, techniques and procedures for military search for contributing member states. The overall cost of the project is €2.8 million over six years and will be funded by the eight participating member states. Funding comprises financial contributions and contributions in kind. Ireland's contribution over the lifetime of the project is €157,500. This comprises €102,500 contributions in kind associated with hosting an international seminar and a number of training events, and a direct financial contribution of €55,000. Costs will be met from within existing resources.

The eight member states planning to join the project are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Ireland. The anticipated benefits of the Defence Forces participation in this project are: it addresses a current deficiency at the advanced level of engineer specialist search and clearance capability; the training to instructor level that will be achieved from this project will ensure that ongoing training requirements can be met in-house into the future; the project provides an efficient and cost effective means of qualifying teams to advanced searcher level and maintaining their currency, which would otherwise be prohibitive if it had to be procured in the market. Additional benefits also arise from interaction with other forces and the sharing of tactics, techniques, procedures and experiences. Ireland's participation in this project affords us the opportunity to keep abreast of best practice and new developments in the defence environment, particularly as it impacts on multinational crisis management operations in a cost effective manner.

Ireland has a proud tradition of peacekeeping and the motion allows us to further develop our role as a nation committed to promoting peace and understanding across Europe and further afield. It is equally important that the men and women of our Defence Forces have access to the very best in training, expertise and modern technology so that they are properly equipped in their duties. Our participation in the EDA is not a new development and we have been participating in and benefitting from programmes under the agency for the past decade. Participation in the EDA allows us an opportunity to develop new peacekeeping skills and to better foster relationships with fellow member states. Ireland's involvement in the EDA dates back to 2009 when the then Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government oversaw the passing of legislation following the Lisbon treaty referendum. The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 underpins our participation in the EDA projects. Crucially the legislation states that any participation in European-wide projects such as the EDA can only be for the purpose of enhancing capabilities for UN sanctioned and mandated missions, which have a stated aim of strengthening security at an international level in accordance with the stated principles of the UN Charter.

Our involvement is also contingent on the UN missions having the stated aim of peacekeeping, crisis management and conflict prevention. The project being debated today, military search capability building, fits under all of these key headings. In addition, it is worth pointing out that any decision we take to participate in the project of the EDA is fully and completely within Ireland's control. We do not have to answer to anyone in this regard. We are in control and there is a democratic mandate from this House. Indeed, this is true in the case of all defence matters within the European Union.

It is also important to point out that participation in EDA exercises is also underpinned by the triple lock mechanism which was introduced and which was reinforced in the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. Members will know that this means approval must be secured from the Government and the Dáil prior to any participation in UN peacekeeping missions. This mechanism further strengthens our right to opt in to and out of any missions as we deem appropriate, worthwhile or beneficial. Furthermore, involvement in this framework does not impose any minimum defence spending requirements on Ireland. All member states retain full control over defence budgets.

Along with all of this, we should consider the benefits of our participation in these peacekeeping operations. As the Minister of State has stated, eight member states intend to participate in this project. These include Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. We should be very proud of our 60 years of peacekeeping tradition and we should not dismiss it in this House when discussing matters of defence. In this sense Ireland is embracing and embodying the active neutrality approach I set out earlier today. Our position as a nation that is serious about playing an active peacekeeping role also provides us with opportunities to benefit ourselves. The EDA plays a key part in this aspect of our peacekeeping. It means we get to keep track of the most up-to-date and best practices in peacekeeping in the 21st century. It also gives us access to research and information on developing and maintaining professional capabilities from which we would not otherwise be able to benefit. All of this is vital in ensuring that the men and women of our Defence Forces are as prepared as they can be when partaking in these peacekeeping operations.

On the specific project being considered today, military search capability building, I am happy that it is another important peacekeeping exercise that can offer a lot of expertise to us and from which we can gain a great amount. Both at home and abroad our Defence Forces are already involved in this type of activity through engineer specialist search and clearance, ESSC, teams. Domestically, these teams are regularly deployed to assist An Garda Síochána during visits from high profile foreign leaders and international dignitaries. There are two teams operating overseas, one on a UN mission in Syria and another on a UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. On these missions they conduct route searches and clearance duties in advance of patrols. These teams are not capable of conducting searches in a variety of settings including in hazardous environments, in confined areas and in chemical, biological or nuclear environments. Participation in this training would equip our Defence Forces with the necessary skills to operate in these challenging environments and would thus address the capability gap. Our involvement in this project would also mean that those who participate in the training would be developed to instructor level, meaning that future training in this area could be managed in-house within the Defence Forces.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting this motion in keeping with Ireland's commitment to peacekeeping as a UN nation.

Our approach to all of the motions related to EU defence that have come before the House since the Lisbon treaty referendum result, which tied Ireland to the EDA, has been to view them with a healthy amount of suspicion given that the purpose of the agency and the intent of most of our EU partners is to achieve an EU army gradually and to increase military spending. The other aims are to increase interoperability, to make national armies indistinct from and dependent on each other and to enhance military capabilities above what is required to defend the EU, even in an armageddon scenario. Every step that further aligns us with the EU military project further erodes our neutrality and further undermines our reputation, built on UN duties which have resulted in the loss of 86 Irish soldiers since 1960.

Nobody is denying that the threat level is greater in today's world and that armies and armed groups around the world are becoming more sophisticated. There is a need to afford the soldiers of the Defence Forces the greatest level of protection possible and a need for their skills to be increasingly honed and their equipment adequate not only to protect themselves, but also those they seek to protect. This can be done without eroding our national interests or our neutrality. The State's neutrality should not be sacrificed on the altar of interoperability and greater efficiencies. It is amazing to see Fine Gael's headlong rush into the EU-led military agenda, with the support of Fianna Fáil and the Independent Alliance, while it still will not pay members of the Defence Forces a decent wage or, in some cases, even a living wage.

We are also no closer to protecting our soldiers abroad or at home from Lariam, despite a Dáil motion instructing the Minister and military to do so. We are also way behind other EU militaries in admitting the failures of the past and the legacy of very sick serving and former members of the Air Corps. None of these issues, however, gets the Government's attention in the same way as EU militarisation. The last two years have witnessed a rapid advance in the militarisation of the EU. In 2017 Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EU Commission, proclaimed:

By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union. We need it. And NATO wants it.

This development is facilitated by the Lisbon treaty. Sinn Féin repeatedly stated that the treaty would lead to a militarisation of the EU and the creation of an EU army. This is what we are now seeing in real time. If this motion passes today our spokesperson on defence, an Teachta Ó Snodaigh, will explain in detail his deep concerns about it and this development directly with the Minister of State in committee.

The motion before us is to refer a motion to committee. I will certainly be supporting that proposal. I will not spend too long speaking on the motion. As I have said in other fora, if an issue has to be referred to committee for greater scrutiny we do not need an in-depth debate on it at the point of referral. We need consistency on these matters irrespective of the topic of the matter for referral. The first Members to discuss matters such as these should be the members of the relevant committee. Be that as it may, I will say a few words on the matter.

Military searches are an essential part of the work of our Defence Forces. It is crucial that every peacekeeper is trained in detecting any form of improvised explosive device that may be in his or her path. The purpose of Ireland's participation in this project is to increase the proficiency of the Defence Forces corps of engineers by bringing its teams to an advanced level of search capability. These teams are required to develop certain skills for overseas missions mandated by the United Nations and this project would assist the Defence Forces in meeting these requirements.

Without advanced search capability, personnel are put at risk because they are not trained to conduct all forms of military searches. There must be consistency across peacekeeping forces because when forces from different nations are working alongside one another they must be confident that every individual is trained to the most advanced level. By not joining this project the Defence Forces corps of engineers would be left out of important training exercises and would struggle to maintain its reputation as an exemplary peacekeeping force. Currently there is a deficiency within the Defence Forces because none of the individuals is trained to the advanced level of ESSC capability. These forces have yet to be trained to conduct searches in hazardous environments, in confined spaces, or in chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear environments. Military search capability building would rectify this problem and bring the force back to a proper standard.

I look forward to this being discussed and teased out further in committee before returning for a wider debate open to all Members in this Chamber at a later date.

I will read a couple of excerpts from an article in The Guardian published in the last couple of days. Under the headline "Yemen: inquiry finds Saudis diverting arms to factions loyal to their cause" the article reads "An investigation into weapons being used in the war in Yemen has shown numerous examples of arms supplied by the UK and the US, among others, ending up in the hands of militias including those linked to al-Qaida and Isis." That says it all. The purpose of the EDA is to develop the European arms industry. We are involving ourselves in the EDA and PESCO, whose specific objective is to monitor closely that all states that are signed up to it are upgrading their military capabilities on a progressive basis.

This means making more and more sophisticated weapons. The Minister of State called the major European states to which we are aligned like-minded states. Are we like-minded with states that sell weapons to the Saudi dictatorship? They sell weapons to a regime that denies all human rights and any right of political dissent, locks up women activists who are fighting for rights for women and anyone who dissents against the autocratic Saudi royal family, and shifts weapons on to ISIS and al-Qaeda in a murderous war in Yemen which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and has put almost 11 million people on the brink of famine. That is the connection. That is what Europe and major European powers are doing. The Minister of State calls them like-minded and says that he wants us to develop closer military co-operation with them and to assist them in upgrading, developing and enhancing the European arms industry. That is where the weapons come from.

The reason I am in politics is that I was in a refugee camp in Palestine in 1987 when the intifada had just started. I was not even involved in politics. A family, two of whose members had been dragged off to jail by the Israelis just because they participated in a protest, showed me tear gas canisters and other leftovers from weapons that were deployed by the Israeli defence forces which were made in the USA. That is where the weapons come from. They come from America, France and Britain and now we want to align ourselves with this machine of making money from producing the means to kill people. These like-minded states sell weapons to the most vile, vicious regimes and innocent people die as a result. Why on earth would we want to be part of that?

I beg the Minister of State not to tell me it is about protecting our soldiers. I got a communication from people who were part of the Irish Defence Forces. A commanding officer in the siege of Jadotville had recommended that a number of the very brave Irish troops who were involved in that siege receive military awards but for some reason they have never got them. If I have not submitted a parliamentary question on the matter I will do so. We do not even show respect for these people. They have made films about the famous siege of Jadotville and the film industry shows some respect for them. They are recommended for military honours and they do not get them.

We have soldiers protesting because their families are dependent on family income supplement, so miserable are their wages. We are buying military assets for the navy but we do not have enough personnel to man the ships because we pay them so pitifully. If the Minister of State really cared about the soldiers, he might give them the medals they deserve and he might pay them properly and treat them with respect so they and their families do not have to come protesting outside the Dáil because of the poverty they are suffering. That would show some real commitment and respect. The Minister of State must not tell me this in any way justifies getting involved with the European Defence Agency, whose sole purpose is to develop an industry of death and to sell weapons to vile and vicious regimes like the Saudi regime and many others.

It feels like hardly a week passes without the Dáil being asked to approve some fresh assault on our neutrality and I am absolutely sick of it. The motion before us might not be the worst of them but certainly the one we debated earlier was among the worst. We cannot see the present motion in isolation. Earlier, we heard that the Government has let the Irish State be bullied into signing up to an EU status of forces agreement, SOFA, for no good reason at all. Basically the Germans told us that we could not play in their battle group in 2020 if we did not sign up to an EU SOFA. Rather than telling them that is grand, we are a neutral country and we do not want to play, the Government came in here to relay the Germans' instructions as if they were commandments carved on a stone tablet. We have a responsibility to say they are not. We no more need to be part of an EU SOFA than we need to take part in a German battle group. We have heard a lot from the Minister of State and he was at it again earlier, talking about interoperability of our Defence Forces and other countries' armies as if that was some sort of a given that nobody could question. It is not. We do not need to be interoperable with German forces if all we take part in are peacekeeping missions. The only reason we would need to be interoperable with the German army or any other army is if one day we plan to go to war alongside them.

Things must be pretty bad in this House, going by the discussion that took place at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence on 24 January. I never thought I would be in the Chamber quoting Deputy Barrett, that is, Seán Barrett and not Richard Boyd Barrett. Deputy Seán Barrett is a former Fine Gael Minister for Defence. At the committee last week, he said:

I ask that we revert back to what we were the best at, namely, peacekeeping. We do not want all of this. Leave it to others, if they want to become part and parcel of battle groups. Battle groups are not peacekeepers. The words "battle groups" mean that they are trained to go into battle. Do we want to be part of the battle groups? Since when do peacekeepers become involved in battle groups? With the greatest respect, we are losing our way here.

I agree 100% with that statement. Something clearly has happened since the 1990s and things have changed in a very big way. There was a turning point around the Iraq war and against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. We saw the use of Shannon Airport on a consistent basis by the US military. That change has accelerated massively in the recent past and we have had a parade of vanity projects, very embarrassing militaristic posturing to the hawks in the EU, whether it is battle groups or our navy shamefully taking part in a military operation against desperate refugees. Nobody has told the Labour Party about that as they seem to think it is something to save them.

I find it hard to believe that anybody who grew up in this country could really be so misguided as to think that the economic benefits of war outweigh the devastation it causes. That was almost the conclusion of the paper the Minister of State cited by his colleague, Mr. Brian Hayes, MEP. What was that other than a kite-flying mission? Fine Gael could not do it itself and did not want to be embarrassed by it but it could throw it out there in the names of a bunch of unknowns of whom no-one ever heard to see how much it was flagged. That was the intent of that paper. That is the direction that those at the top of the present Defence Forces seem to be taking and I think it is toxic. We have to stop this rot and part of that job is to stop the efforts of this Government almost weekly to normalise the gutting of our neutrality. That is what we have here. More than 60,000 troops going through Shannon last year is not normal. It is not normal for Ireland to buy a navy warship. Battle groups are not normal. Going to war at sea against defenceless migrants is not normal. None of it is normal and I think the Irish public agrees with that. We should be standing lock, stock and barrel against any further interaction in European defence policy and should stand up once and for all for Irish neutrality.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions to this very important debate.

Deputies have highlighted the importance of supporting our Defence Forces in capability and development. The primary function of training and education in the Defence Forces is to develop and maintain the capabilities necessary to enable personnel to fulfil the roles laid out by Government. Defence Forces specialist search and clearance teams are regularly deployed, at home and overseas, in different missions. Examples of recent such deployments at home include the Papal visit, the visit of British royalty in 2011 and the visit of the US Vice President more recently. There have also been a number of searches for the bodies of missing persons and more conventional operations against paramilitary groups and criminal organisations.

There are two Defence Forces specialist search and clearance teams operating overseas with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. They predominantly conduct roof searches and area clearances in advance of vehicle or foot patrols. The Government's White Paper on Defence, published in August 2015, states that Ireland will identify opportunities to participate in multi-national capability deployment projects within the framework of the European Defence Agency in support of the Defence Forces' operations capacity and capability. The European Defence Agency is focused on assisting member states on capability development in obtaining better value for existing spending levels, improving competitiveness and securing greater efficiency, particularly in the area of research technology and the procurement of defence capabilities. Ireland's participation in the project is a prime example of how defence forces can further develop their engineering specialist search and clearance capability to an advanced level, and provide a pathway to ensure the sustaining of those skills into the future.

I responded to the Sinn Féin Deputy in a debate earlier this evening on the idea of an EU army. I thought that Deputy Clare Daly would be delighted that I appear in the House every week to debate against her. We have different opinions, and I absolutely respect her opinions; that is what democracy is all about, and what this parliament is here for. However, I refute the comments of my colleague, Deputy Barrett, at last week's committee. Peacekeeping has totally changed. The threat we face today is totally different from the threat we faced in the 1970s and 1980s, when we first began peacekeeping. I assure Deputy Clare Daly that if we went out with the same equipment we used in the Congo in the 1960s we would not last very long.

This is a straw man argument.

I am being honest, upfront and frank with the Deputy.

The Minister of State is not being honest.

We have to move with the times. The threats we face today, whether with UNIFIL, UNDOF or the European Union Training Mission, EUTM, in Mali, or indeed in the Congo, are totally different. That is why it is so important that we work-----

What are the other 20 countries doing?

-----as Deputy Boyd Barrett said, with like-minded states. These like-minded states are participating in peacekeeping duties as well.

They are selling arms to al-Qaeda.

I am very disappointed that Deputy Boyd Barrett did not thank me for wishing him a happy birthday.

For the record, it is not my birthday tomorrow. It says that it is on Wikipedia, and it slightly worries me that the Minister has been on my Wikipedia page.

His page notes that he is 51. I always thought he was 26 or 27, but perhaps that is wrong as well. Ireland's participation in the European Defence Agency affords us the opportunity to keep abreast of best practice and new developments in the defence environment and military capabilities for our Defence Forces which undertake the roles assigned to them by the Government.

I will state again that if anything happened to any member of our Defence Forces, whether overseas or at home, Deputies Boyd Barrett, Wallace and Clare Daly, along with Sinn Féin, would haul me into this House and ask me to account for it. That is why I am proud-----

The Minister of State would be the person who sent them there in the first place.

-----that we give members of our Defence Forces the best equipment, the best capabilities available and, more importantly, the best training. That is why we train with like-minded states, offering us interoperability which allows us to go out and participate in UNIFIL, UNDOF, EUTM in Mali and in the Mediterranean with our Naval Service. We have the experience of being able to participate with other states. There would be something wrong if we did not train and work with like-minded states.

What are the other 20 countries that are not joining it doing?

It is important that we do so, and -----

We functioned fine without being in this kind of arrangement before.

-----I commend this very important motion to the House.

I am proud to do so.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 7 February 2017.