Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Questions (56)

Catherine Murphy

Question:

56. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the details of the lack of controls in place at his Department that allowed the former Naval Service patrol ship, LÉ Aisling, to be sold on to a participant in the civil war in Libya in view of the fact that it is in breach of a UN arms embargo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53373/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

My question relates to the decommissioning and sale of the LÉ Aisling for €100,000. It was subsequently sold for €1.3 million and is now involved in conflict in the Libyan civil war.

The former Naval Service vessel, LÉ Aisling, was the subject of a report by the UN panel of experts on Libya. The report found that the decommissioned vessel, which was sold by public auction on 23 March 2017 and subsequently disposed of to a Libyan military commander, Khalifa Haftar, represents a breach of a UN arms embargo by a company in the United Arab Emirates. There is no lack of controls at the Department regarding the disposal of obsolete equipment that is no longer fit for its intended purpose, including the former Naval Service vessel, LÉ Aisling.

Naval Service vessels are withdrawn from service when they have come to the end of their useful life, which in the normal course is expected to be approximately 20 to 25 years. The decommissioned vessel, LÉ Aisling, was withdrawn from service in 2016 after being in service since 1980, having well exceeded her notional life expectancy. In engineering terms, the equipment on board was obsolete and the reliability and capability of the ship was impacted. In order for the Naval Service to carry out its roles as assigned by the Government, the fleet must be capable, reliable and safe to operate in the often hostile north Atlantic Ocean, where sea conditions during prolonged winter storms are not surpassed anywhere in the world.

Following her decommissioning in 2016, I made the decision to sell the former LÉ Aisling by public auction to the highest bidder to maximise the return to the Exchequer. This was in keeping with the Department's standing policy for the disposal of surplus defensive equipment, and in accordance with the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2015 report, which stated:

[A] competitive sales process or auction should normally be used for the disposal of State assets with a significant market value. Such a process helps to ensure transparency and is more likely to achieve the fair market price.

All weaponry systems, defensive equipment and specialist naval equipment were removed in their entirety from the decommissioned vessel prior to the sale.

It first struck me that it was thought the sum the vessel was sold for was modest, and there was a question at the time as to whether it represented good value for money. The major concern now relates to what it is being used for and how it was subsequently sold for multiples of the earlier price. It was recommissioned and is now part of a conflict. Are there any trailing obligations? How does the Department ensure that when equipment is sold for scrap or whatever, it will not end up being used in a conflict? What safeguards has the Department in place to ensure that does not happen? Has the UN Security Council made contact regarding the breach of the arms embargo? While the Minister of State addressed that to an extent, he might comment further on whether there are challenges for us in that regard.

The approach taken for the sale of the LÉ Aisling was the same as that taken for two other Naval Service vessels sold by public auction, in 2001 and 2013. When we sold the vessel by open auction, it fully satisfied the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Deputy is a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and understands how sales happen. In the same way that if she sold her car tomorrow morning, she could not guarantee that some criminal gang would not use it to rob a bank in three years' time, we sold this vessel and it was re-registered as a pleasure yacht. The ownership changed, as did the registration of the ship after a period. Where it has ended up is regrettable, but we have responded fully to the UN report and to any queries asked of the Department.

The vessel was recommissioned to use it in the disturbing way it is being used. Was it properly decommissioned in advance of the sale? That would have reduced the risk of this happening. It is clear there is an issue in that regard.

Yes, my understanding is that the vessel was decommissioned and re-registered as a pleasure yacht. I reiterate that if the Deputy sold her car tomorrow morning, she could not guarantee that it would not be used in a bank robbery or other criminal activity in a year or two years' time. Similarly, we could not make such a guarantee in respect of the vessel.

We sold this vessel on the open market in a fully transparent manner. We got the best possible price for it, just as we did when we sold vessels previously in 2001 and 2013. As I said in my initial reply, all equipment that might have had any military activity linked to it was decommissioned and removed from the ship. All the correspondence we received from the UN was forwarded to the Department of Defence last week. A comprehensive reply addressing the questions raised about the sale of the LÉ Aisling has been issued to the UN.