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Thursday, 20 Sep 2012

Other Questions

Overseas Missions

Questions (6, 30)

Éamon Ó Cuív


6. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Defence the progress of the 106th battalion's mission with UNIFIL, in view of on-going violence in Syria; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39467/12]

View answer

Thomas P. Broughan


30. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Defence if there has been any impact on the current Irish peacekeeping mission in South Lebanon in view of the current crisis in neighbouring Syria; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39491/12]

View answer

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 30 together.

I addressed most of the issues in regard to the role of our contingent in UNIFIL in answering a priority parliamentary question on the matter earlier.

In the area in which the Irish-Finnish battalion operates, the security situation remains calm but tense. The battalion implements force protection measures appropriate to the prevailing operational and security developments in the region. As Deputies will appreciate, the area of tension in regard to Syria lies on the Syria-Lebanon border and in the city of Tripoli. This is some distance from where our troops are located. While the spread of such tension across Lebanon cannot be ruled out, the violence to date in Syria has not impacted on the current Irish peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. That said, the security situation in Lebanon will continue to be kept under review by the Defence Forces and force protection measures will be adjusted should that be required.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Some of my points were made earlier by Deputy Finian McGrath. We are all enormously proud of the role of our troops for over a quarter of a century in Lebanon. No doubt, they will continue to distinguish themselves in the region. In light of the Arab spring, the significant instability and uncertainty that exists and the background of Syrian strikes against forces within Lebanon, this Parliament needs assurances that our troops deployed in the area will be prepared and have all the necessary resources to ensure their safety and that they can carry out their mission effectively. What additional steps have been taken by the Department and military authorities to ensure the success of the mission of the 106th battalion?

I assured the Deputy that this is kept under review daily by military personnel in Lebanon. As I stated, most of the Syrian strikes are in the north of Lebanon. The Irish 106th battalion is in south Lebanon on the blue line. The violence in Syria has not yet had an impact on the Irish peacekeeping mission. The Irish-Finnish battalion's mandate is specific to South Lebanon. The battalion maintains situational awareness of all developments of note in the Middle East. It implements force protection measures appropriate to the prevailing operational security environment in the region, and the Irish and Finnish personnel are briefed regularly on developments. I assure the Deputy that this matter is a priority for the Irish Defence Forces and that what is happening along the Syrian border will be kept under review. Since the Irish Defence Forces are in the south of Lebanon, the occurrences in north Lebanon are not as pertinent as they would otherwise be.

With a view to maximising and maintaining the security of the Irish troops in Lebanon, we would best serve them by ensuring we retain a neutral position on events in Syria. I would not for a second try to defend Mr. Assad and I have no sympathy whatsoever for his organisation; neither would I take sides with the rebels, who are being armed by Saudi Arabia. There is a civil war in the region at present and it is really important that we retain a neutral stance. Very often, as in Libya, sometimes the side one wants to remove is replaced by a crowd that is not much better. One does not know what one is going to get much of the time. The rebels in Syria, who I imagine will eventually win the civil war, will be problematic and Ireland would be best advised to ensure it retains a neutral position. This would maximise the safety of our troops in the country close by.

I fully understand where Deputy Wallace is coming from and I take his views on board. However, the Irish troops are engaged in peacekeeping measures and are neutral in any such work. The conflict at the blue line is not as great as in north Lebanon along the Syrian border. I will pass on the Deputy's views to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter.

I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. He mentioned Ireland's peacekeeping role. Does he agree that a part of that work is to stop conflict and save civilians' lives? The violence of the Syrian civil war of recent months has been horrific as regards civilians. Many people are concerned that the situation is being left adrift and lacks strong international support for a peace process. What is the Minister of State's opinion of the peace process proposed by President Chávez of Venezuela, which involves inclusive negotiations and a cessation of violence and is based on our peace process?

Ireland's position as outlined by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is that we remain unpersuaded that military intervention or the arming of opposition factions would be likely to bring an end to the fighting or create the conditions for harmony. It is undeniable that there is little appetite, if any, among the international partners for external interventions, not least due to the complexities of the Syrian situation.

The Defence Forces will continue their peacekeeping duties on the Blue Line in southern Lebanon as planned. No Deputy wants a conflict. The situation is being kept under review by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Defence Forces and personnel serving in Lebanon.

I disagree with Deputy Wallace on the need to be neutral in the Syrian situation. We are seeing genocide and the slaughter of women and children in that country.

On both sides.

No one more than our Defence Forces would want to see the Irish Government stand up, as it has done in the form of the Tánaiste. I pay tribute to him on his role in the Friends of Syria group's condemnation of the actions of everyone involved in slaughtering innocent people. We need to make that point.

I also condemn the violence on both sides. I take the Minister of State's point about the Irish being on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, but when I mentioned staying neutral, I was referring to the need for Irish personnel in Europe to maintain Ireland's wonderful neutral position when commenting on the situation. Our position has been well known for years and should be preserved.

I acknowledge the Deputies' opinions, but I will not get caught in their crossfire. The deepening crisis in Syria could destabilise Lebanon, given the former's long history with and deep involvement in Lebanese politics. The situation should not be underestimated. The Lebanese Government and society are fearful that should the violence in Syria devolve into open sectarian warfare, it could easily spread into Lebanon where many of the same fault lines between minorities can be found. I do not want any Deputy to leave the House with the wrong impression - this issue is being kept under review by the Irish authorities. If there is a danger to Irish troops, it will be addressed.

Defence Forces Equipment

Questions (7)

Michael McGrath


7. Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Defence the capital purchases of military equipment made to date in 2012 and planned for the remainder of this year; the total cost of those purchases; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39483/12]

View answer

Oral answers (3 contributions) (Question to Defence)

Investment in new equipment and the upgrading of existing equipment for the Defence Forces is provided for under various subheads of the Defence Vote relating to defensive equipment, transport, aircraft, Naval Service ships and stores, and information and communications technology. I am advised that the 2012 provision for the purchase of defensive equipment and ammunition is €27.5 million. This allows for the acquisition of a range of priority defensive equipment and munitions, such as force protection equipment, chemical agent detection equipment, protective visors, body armour and the implementation of the rifle enhancement programme for the Steyr rifle, which has been in service for nearly 25 years. The rifle upgrade programme is a multi-annual programme and represents one of the most significant investments the Government is making in terms of the impact it will have on Defence Forces personnel at the coal face. The project is the subject of a number of tender competitions, the results of which will dictate the value of the programme.

The provision also allows for the commencement of an upgrade and refurbishment programme of the explosive ordnance disposal HOBO robots. Given the increased levels of call-outs for these services in recent years, the Minister is of the view that this will be one of the most important programmes to be carried out in the defence organisation in the coming years.

The 2012 provision also allows for the acquisition of the ammunition types necessary to maintain stocks in light of training and overseas requirements throughout the year. The 2012 allocation stands at €16 million for the placement of new and existing contracts. A focus is maintained on ensuring that modern and effective equipment is available for overseas peace support operations. In this regard, the personal equipment that the individual soldier has at his or her disposal in Lebanon is second to none and compares favourably with the equipment in use by other countries.

As many Deputies will be aware, the Department, with the Naval Service, is overseeing the acquisition of two new offshore patrol vessels. The contract price for their provision to the Naval Service is €99 million exclusive of VAT and subject to contract terms and final agreed costs. In addition, the cost of providing a weapons system for the ships, similar to the systems on LE Róisín and LE Niamh, will be €7.8 million exclusive of VAT. The contract for the two new ships was placed with Babcock Marine Services, UK, in October 2010. Payments on the contract are scheduled over a period of eight years - 2010 to 2017 - and are being funded from within the annual defence budget. The first ship is scheduled for delivery in early 2014 and the second will follow one year later.

Regarding the Air Corps, there are no plans for the acquisition of new aircraft, but this situation must be seen in the context of significant expenditure on the Air Corps in recent years.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The acquisition of new equipment for the Defence Forces remains a focus for the Minister for Defence. However, it is imperative that the Department and the Defence Forces, similar to all Departments, look to whatever efficiencies we can make. The Department must take into account the current difficult economic environment. This will determine the overall financial envelope available to the Department for the acquisition of new military equipment and for upgrade and refurbishment programmes during the coming years. The budgetary situation will continue to dictate the level of funding available for new equipment and upgrades in that period. Decisions will be made on a strictly prioritised basis with a view to maintaining the capability of all roles assigned by the Government to the Defence Forces.

I understand that the Minister is satisfied that the equipment, Naval Service assets, aircraft and technologies available to the Defence Forces are of the highest standards and are capable of meeting the demands placed on Defence Forces personnel on a day-to-day basis. The Deputy will appreciate that, for operational and security reasons, it would not be appropriate to specify in any further detail what is intended to be purchased in the coming months.

I thank the Minister of State for his positive response. There has been considerable investment in infrastructure and equipment to bring our military into the modern era in terms of its capacity to respond to situations at home and abroad. Will we be able to provide the necessary equipment to support our participation in the EU battle group and our ongoing responsibilities with UNIFIL? Will the proceeds of the sales of barracks in Mullingar, Clonmel and Cavan be used in part or in total to assist with the ongoing procurement of equipment and the upgrading of facilities at the State's remaining barracks, as was the case with previous sales?

I presume that the proceeds will go into the Defence Forces envelope of annual expenditure but I will revert to the Deputy with a more specific answer. I am satisfied that the level of resources available to the Defence Forces, including equipment and training resources, enables them to carry out their roles at home and overseas in a professional manner. Particular focus has been maintained on ensuring that modern and effective equipment is available for overseas peacekeeping support operations. In this regard, the personal equipment at the disposal of individual soldiers in Lebanon and elsewhere is second to none and compares favourably with equipment used by other countries.

When I visited Lebanon earlier this year, I received a presentation on all of the equipment in use there. I assure the Deputy that it is of a professional level. The equipment available to the Defence Forces in carrying out the peacekeeping operations that arise in Lebanon is good and effective.

I assure the Deputy that there must be equipment to protect the professional personnel and facilitate training exercises so they can be ready for any operational duty.

Defence Forces Medicinal Products

Questions (8, 26)

Seán Fleming


8. Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Defence his response to concerns over the Larium anti malarial drug; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39469/12]

View answer

Jonathan O'Brien


26. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Defence the number of legal proceedings that have been initiated against his Department concerning the prescription of Lariam to members or former members of the Defence Forces. [39496/12]

View answer

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 26 together.

Malaria is a serious disease which can cause serious complications and death. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that approximately 1 million people die every year from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa alone. It has long been recognised as being a serious threat to any military force operating in a malarious area.

Lariam is a malaria chemo-prophylactic agent first authorised for use in 1989 by the Irish Medicines Board, IMB, which is the statutory regulatory body charged with regulating the use of medicines to ensure the quality, safety and efficacy of medicines available in Ireland. Research has indicated that it is one of the most effective medications for protection against the type of malaria prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas certain risks associated with the use of the drug were highlighted in drug safety newsletters in 1996 and 2003, the IMB remained of the view that the benefit-risk profile for the product remained acceptable. The IMB continues to review the safety of this and all medicines on an ongoing basis and updates the product information as appropriate.

Lariam remains the medication of choice for the Defence Forces for missions to sub-Saharan Africa and continues to be certified by the IMB. In accordance with best international practice in prescribing lariam and taking account of the contra-indications, warnings and side-effects highlighted by the IMB, the Defence Forces screen all personnel for medical suitability. The screening system rules out personnel from overseas service with certain conditions, such as depression, anxiety and other disorders which, as has been indicated by the IMB and other regulatory bodies worldwide, are more likely to precipitate serious adverse reactions to lariam.

In the case of overseas missions to malarious areas, the medical screening involves a one-on-one assessment of the individual’s suitability to be prescribed the selected anti-malarial agent in line with current IMB guidelines. This typically involves a review of the individual’s previous experience, if any, with the medication. The individual’s medical history is also screened for those conditions which have been identified as precipitating serious side-effects in association with the medication. In addition, blood tests are carried out to ensure the liver is healthy, as liver disease is an accepted contra-indication to the use of lariam.

It is the policy of the Defence Forces medical corps that personnel found suitable for lariam should commence their medication three to four weeks in advance of their travel. This precaution allows a slow build up of the medication in the bloodstream and it also permits assessment by the person of the individual reaction to the medication while still in Ireland. Personnel are screened both before and after deployments and all necessary actions are taken to ensure those with contra-indications to lariam use are not prescribed the medication.

To date, legal proceedings have been served against the Minister for Defence in five cases concerning the prescription of lariam. These claims are being managed by the State Claims Agency in conjunction with the Chief State Solicitor's office. Given that legal proceedings have been served, the Deputy will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to comment further on individual cases.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. There is ongoing international controversy, not least in the United States, about the impact of this particular drug. I welcome the Minister of State's assurances that the position within the Defence Forces is being carefully monitored. One cannot but be a little amused at the idea that anxiety is one of the symptoms doctors check in soldiers going overseas on peacekeeping missions. It would be unlikely to find many who would not be a bit anxious at the prospect of going to Chad, Syria or Lebanon.

I took lariam in the mid-1990s before a trip to Africa and suffered no ill-effects. The Minister of State has indicated there are five legal cases concerning the administration of the drug. My understanding is that three personnel presented with some serious side-effects and they received treatment and were improving. Whatever about the five indicated cases, is the Minister of State or others in the Department aware of other pending cases? Has there been a significant number of inquiries to the Department about possible claims in this regard?

If it is the case that some Defence Forces personnel are determined to be unsuited to the use of this particular drugs, with possible substitute drugs that have no concerns surrounding them, why is it that the Defence Forces do not administer the alternative product to all personnel rather than continuing to use lariam? As I noted, use of the drug seems to be causing concern internationally.

I have explained that, to date, legal proceedings have been served against the Minister for Defence in five cases concerning prescription of lariam. These claims are being managed by the State Claims Agency in conjunction with the Chief State Solicitor. Given the legal proceedings served, I will not comment further on any individual cases. I am personally unaware of any other potential cases.

The Deputy asked why the US forces have stopped using lariam.

No, I merely mentioned that there are issues with the use of the drug.

My understanding is that the US forces have stopped using the medication due to concerns about inadvertent prescription of the drug to soldiers who should not take it. In this regard, I am advised that the US authorities undertook mass administration of lariam to soldiers serving in areas subject to malaria without individual screening of personnel. The Defence Forces do not mass prescribe the drug but rather follow the instructions issued by the IMB, fully screening personnel who may potentially have an adverse reaction to the medication.

We are advised by the IMB and the World Health Organization that lariam is the most effective drug to be prescribed to any member serving in malaria-stricken areas. We are following the medical advice received. The drug's use was first authorised in 1989 by the IMB and it continues to be authorised as a very effective drug.

Proceedings have been served by four plaintiffs-----

There are five plaintiffs.

I knew one had been issued but was unaware it had been served. Does the Minister of State know of any other proceedings that may follow and has an assessment been done of the potential outlay to be borne by the State if the cases are successful?

I am unaware of any other cases. I have been told five cases have been referred to the Chief State Solicitor, who will deal with the issue. If I become aware of any other cases I will pass the information to the Deputy. There is a lariam action group which was set up to deal specifically with this issue, and the Minister has met its representatives twice, in May 2011 and February 2012.

He expects to meet them again after he receives the final report from the working group on malaria. I have no doubt this will happen shortly. If I become aware of information, I can pass it on to the Deputies.

What about the State's liability?

My question is on the risk-benefit profile. From my reading of this, there is great disparity in the suggested risks from one in 10,000 to other experts stating it could be as high as one in 140. Were this latter figure to be the case, the potential risk to our Defence Force members is enormous. Has the Irish Medicines Board, in consultation with the Department of Defence, investigated alternative preparations that might be provided to deal with the risk of malaria?

The claims are being managed by the State Claims Agency in conjunction with the Office of the Chief State Solicitor and these are the five cases involving the Defence Forces. I hope the Deputy appreciates I cannot comment on any individual case. The Minister has met the support group on two occasions. As soon as the final report is published, he will meet them again.

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl asked whether other anti-malarial drugs have been approved for use. Three other anti-malarial medications are available. However, there are specific reasons for each of these products not being suitable for use by the Defence Forces in sub-Saharan Africa. Chloroquine is no longer in use because of the development of widespread resistance. Doxycycline must be taken in the absence of dairy products. It also produces some sensitivity to sun and sun rashes in some individuals. This is particularly significant when used in very sunny climates and for this reason it is not recommended for first line use by the Defence Forces in sub-Saharan Africa. Malarone is unsuitable for use as it is licensed by the Irish Medicines Board to be used for no more than 28 continuous days. In this context, the prophylactic agent is suitable only for use where overseas deployment does not exceed 28 days. These are some of the reasons lariam remains the anti-malarial agent of choice where malaria is virulent. Advice has been sought from the Medicines Board and the World Health Organization.

Defence Forces Reorganisation

Written Answers follow Adjournment.

Questions (9, 22)

Denis Naughten


9. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Defence if he will postpone his plans for the restructuring of the Defence Forces until the White Paper on Defence is published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39493/12]

View answer

Thomas P. Broughan


22. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on his recent proposals for the reorganisation of the Defence Forces including the Southern, Eastern and Western Brigades; his plans to implement a personnel ceiling of 9,500 members of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39490/12]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

To speed matters up can we take the reply as read because it is the same as a previous reply?

That is agreed.

Information not given on the floor of the House

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 22 together.

Arising from the comprehensive review of expenditure which reported at end 2011, the Defence Forces must operate within a significantly reduced resource envelope. The Minister for Defence secured the agreement of the Government to stabilise the strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 9,500 personnel. However, at this strength ceiling, the organisational structures that had been in place for a strength ceiling of 11,500 personnel were no longer viable. Accordingly, the Minister initiated a major reorganisation of the Defence Forces.

A Green Paper on Defence is being prepared and is scheduled for completion at the end of this year. When published, the Green Paper will initiate and inform a broad consultative process as part of the development of a new White Paper on defence. The new White Paper on defence is scheduled for completion at the end of 2013 and will address defence policy and inform long-term capability requirements for implementation over and beyond the next decade. In the context of the immediate financial realities and in order to maintain the operational capabilities of the Permanent Defence Force to the greatest extent possible, it was neither prudent nor practical to delay the reorganisation of the Defence Forces until completion of the Green and White Paper process.

The Secretary General of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Staff brought forward reorganisation proposals and the Minister announced the details of the reorganisation in July of this year. This encompasses a reduction in the number of Army brigades from three to two larger brigades, a reduction in the number of headquarters, redeployment of personnel to operational units, the consolidation of under-strength units and the disestablishment of certain units. The re-organisation proposals were framed in the context of the most recent defence and security environment assessment, which was published earlier this year, in the Department of Defence and Defence Forces Strategy Statement 2011-2014.

The implementation of the re-organisation has commenced. All personnel in the Permanent Defence Force have now been briefed on the reorganisation proposals. They will receive further briefings and advice on the many options available to them as implementation of the reorganisation progresses. The Minister is committed to maintaining the capacity of the Permanent Defence Force to meet their operational requirements and the current reorganisation is part of that process. The reorganisation is being implemented in a manner which best addresses organisational needs and capability requirements.

I thank the Minister of State. The argument is being made that because of the reduction in the security threats along the Border we should consider reconfiguration of the Defence Forces. In his earlier contribution the Minister of State made the point that we do not have the cash to maintain the existing structure. The Border has not gone away. In 2011, some 57 alleged victims of human trafficking, including 13 children, were reported to the Garda. I have no doubt some of them were transferred across the Border or potentially could have been. We have had recent reports that the Real IRA has developed an alliance with three other dissident factions with a combined active membership of between 250 and 300. These are two significant threats along our Border and the Athlone brigade headquarters at Custume barracks has traditionally been a vital cog in policing the Border. This is why the PricewaterhouseCoopers report at the time recommended a structure remain in place that would facilitate the retention of the status of Custume barracks. In light of these new threats, will the Minister review his decision to downgrade Custume barracks?

The Deputy stated the security threat on the Border has not gone away and we have seen this in recent weeks, specifically during the week before last in Dublin. The PricewaterhouseCoopers review of the Defence Forces was completed in 1994. It set out a range of options the organisation of the Permanent Defence Force at varying strength levels. This did not include an option for a strength of 9,500 personnel. The Chief of Staff and the Secretary General of the Department of Defence were tasked to bring forward detailed proposals for the Minister's consideration. The Minister has relied on this work to inform decisions regarding the re-organisation and not the 1994 PricewaterhouseCoopers review.

The Department and the Defence Forces are very much aware of Border threats and will continue to monitor and review what is happening on it.

For the record, the Minister of State took Question No. 22, which was in my name, with Question No. 9.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.
The Dáil adjourned at 5.50 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 September 2012.