Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Questions (7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [17458/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met. [17714/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met; and when it will next meet. [21732/19]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met. [21781/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on Cabinet committee F, national security,; and when it last met. [22087/19]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together.

The committee last met on 1 April 2019 and was attended by Ministers and senior officials from the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality, Health, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Housing, Planning and Local Government, and Defence, and officials from An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. The role of Cabinet committee F is "to keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to, threats to national security under review and to provide high-level coordination between relevant Departments and agencies on related matters". Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of the programme of policing reform.

The last time my colleague raised a question of this nature, it related to a proposal of the Taoiseach's regarding a strategic threat assessment centre. I do not know whether there has been any progress on that or whether it has been discussed. Was there discussion about the Defence Forces being below strength and the disillusionment and low morale among its members? Is the weakness of the Defence Forces taken into account when looking at national security? Has the committee looked at last week's leaked proposal of the Public Service Pay Commission to reinstate some of the allowances? I do not know if this leak has been confirmed. The proposal will not go far enough, but it may at least start to address part of the issue. I presume the national security committee relies on the Defence Forces, if representatives are in attendance, and on An Garda Síochána to carry out its work. I know those within both organisations would carry out their work diligently in the event of any national emergency, as they do at all other times. When morale is low and when people are leaving the service, however, I presume it is much more difficult to plan for national security.

The brief visit of President Trump next month appears to have been confirmed this morning.

I have been very clear in my party's attitude to President Trump and his policies. However, the US is a country with which we have strong relations and connections. It is correct for the Taoiseach to meet him should President Trump wish to visit here. I find it ironic that people who have no trouble meeting and defending a dictator, who has suspended parliament and is starving his opponents, believe we should boycott the American President.

That said, Ireland is a free democracy and people must be given the opportunity to protest if they wish. Will the Taoiseach guarantee that reasonable provision will be made for the right of people to protest against the visit? The Taoiseach should raise with the President the fact that Ireland is supportive of and firmly committed to the European Union and that we do not like the current policy of the US President and Government which seems to be undermining the role and status of the European Union. That was evident in his recent embracing of Hungary's Prime Minister, Mr. Orbán, which was a clear snub to the European Commission and the EU generally. That matter should be raised. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the security arrangements are appropriate to our traditions and that we do not accept any unreasonable requests in this regard?

Separately, during the European Parliament election campaign, it has become clear throughout Europe that the effort to undermine free democracy continues. The very close connection between the Putin Government and the extremes of both right and left is more obvious than ever. While it took a long time, the Government eventually stopped opposing our calls for measures to counteract anti-democratic interference in Irish elections. Will the Taoiseach commit to speeding up this work to ensure we reduce the risk of the types of abuse seen elsewhere? At a minimum, will he demand and, if necessary, legislate for complete transparency in online political advertising for which Deputy Lawless has long campaigned?

I put it to the Taoiseach and Deputy Micheál Martin in all seriousness that President Trump is a threat to our national security and global security. Any sane and sensible person would say that is true. He is brazen in his attempts to sabotage efforts to deal with climate change. He is brazen in his campaign to arm brutal dictatorships like the Saudi regime. He is brazen in legitimising the illegal annexation of territory which belongs to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and land that belongs to Syria in the Golan Heights. The list of Israel's crimes goes on. Is it not the case that at every level President Trump is a danger to the world? Is it not simply giving licence and legitimacy to his toxic politics which encourages the growth of the far right across the world? Is the Taoiseach not concerned that elements sympathetic to that far right agenda in Ireland and to President Trump will be emboldened by his visit? If the Taoiseach cannot see that, he is not being honest in looking at the impact of President Trump globally.

I protested outside the Russian embassy when the Russians were engaged in bombing the hell out of Chechnya, and I did not see Deputy Micheál Martin there.

I have condemned the Russian President.

So have I. Please do not have backhanded or dishonest-----

No. The Deputy is wrong.

Similarly, I would be very critical of the measures taken by the regime in Venezuela. That does not mean I think President Trump and the US military are part of any solution-----

What does that have to do with it?

-----to dealing with the problems that exist in Venezuela. It is up to the Venezuelan people to sort out the crisis in Venezuela and not President Trump and the US military.

I wish to make a point. I was not referring to Deputy Boyd Barrett at all.

I thank the Deputy for that clarification.

It was mainly people on the Sinn Féin platform who had a very strong support for Venezuela.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. I was asked about the establishment of the new national security analysis centre. By the end of quarter 2 of this year we anticipate having the following actions done: the appointment of the director of the national security analysis centre, which position has been advertised; identification and securing of premises; procurement of IT systems; staffing of the centre; and the signing of memorandums of understanding with the partner agencies, which are Garda intelligence, Army intelligence and the National Cyber Security Centre. This is very much a co-ordinating role bringing together the work of Garda intelligence, Army intelligence and the National Cyber Security Centre, but not seeking to undermine or control the work they do.

On the Defence Forces, I understand that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has received the Public Service Pay Commission report. The Minister is considering it and intends to bring it to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks. I understand it proposes increases in certain allowances that are unique to the Defence Forces, which may assist us in retaining more people in our Defence Forces - the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps. These will be in addition to pay restoration and pay increases that are already well under way.

The visit of President Trump has been confirmed. Of course free speech, free assembly and the right to protest are essential in any democracy and must be provided for. When we meet in Shannon in early June, it will be an opportunity for us again to discuss some important issues. I can once again explain why Ireland is so much in favour of the European Union and why we are committed to membership of the European Union. I will again try to make the case for a strong European-American partnership in trade, the economy and security. I am sure we will also discuss Brexit. Once again I will try to explain our perspective on Brexit and also our commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

On the electoral process and disinformation, we established an interdepartmental group in December 2017 to consider issues arising from recent experiences in other democracies with regard to the use and misuse of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties. The group's membership included Departments and organisations responsible for the relevant policy areas. Its first report was published in July 2018 and found that the risks to the electoral process in Ireland are relatively low but cannot be discounted. However, the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyberattacks on the electoral system pose more substantial risks. This is in line with the European Commission's findings and recent international experience.

The report included a number of recommendations to close gaps and to offer a way forward. The report was brought to Government where it was noted. It was agreed to follow two next steps: the regulation of transparency of online political advertising and the expediting of the establishment of an electoral commission, which is long overdue. The report recommends that these matters be considered in the first instance by way of a consultation involving relevant stakeholders across industry, academia, political parties, the media and civil society.

A public consultation on the regulation of transparency of online political advertising was launched on 21 September, inviting submissions from all interested stakeholders. The submissions received provided the basis for the open policy forum on the issue held in December. The aim of the forum was to identify policy solutions that respect the right to freedom of expression and relevant EU law while promoting the transparency necessary to open political discourse in a democracy that would protect electoral processes from hidden influences and disinformation, and build trust in a democracy. The forum featured participation by a variety of speakers, including from the media and political spheres, online companies and digital platforms, the advertising industry, academics, civil society and the European Commission. The group, taking into account the discussions of the forum and the submissions received from the public consultation, is considering the next steps that need to be taken on the issue.

On EU level initiatives, the European Commission and the European External Action Service prepared a joint action plan on disinformation which was adopted in December. The action plan focuses on issues associated with disinformation activities and creating an integrated approach among EU institutions and member states. As part of its operational measures, the action plan has called for the formation of rapid alert systems anchored in each member state by a national contact point. This was established on 18 March and has three key functions: a clear system for alerts and notifications on disinformation, the ability to share analysis and trends, and the facilitation and exchange of best practice and lessons learned.