Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Questions (60, 62)

Jack Chambers

Question:

60. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the way in which enhanced capability is being provided for the Naval Service in ongoing requirements and contingencies, including the protection of vital sea lanes of communication of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52905/19]

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Bernard Durkan

Question:

62. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the extent to which he remains confident that the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps continue to have sufficient resources available in the event of a major disaster, climate or security related; if surveillance and rescue services continue to be adequately provided for; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52960/19]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Defence)

I ask the Minister of State the way in which enhanced capability is being provided for the Naval Service in ongoing requirements and contingencies, including the protection of vital sea lanes of communication of Ireland, and if he will make a statement on the matter. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of an excellent article by Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy published recently in the Defence Forces Review with the title, Patrolling Below the Horizon; Addressing Ireland's Awareness of our Maritime Geospatial Domain. It is an important strategic document that deserves analysis and a response from the Minister of State.

Is my Question No. 62 grouped with Deputy Chambers's question?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 60 and 62 together.

I apologise, Deputy Durkan. I was not notified of the grouping.

My priority as Minister with responsibility for defence is to ensure that the operational capability of the Defence Forces is maintained to the greatest extent possible to enable the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service to carry out their roles as assigned by Government. The resources available to the Defence Forces to carry out their operational commitments are kept under constant review and future equipment priorities for the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service are considered in the context of the White Paper on Defence as part of the capability development and equipment priorities planning process. The allocation of more than €1 billion for the defence sector for 2020, an increase of €32.3 million on 2019, emphasises the importance attached by the Government to ensuring that the Defence Forces have the resources necessary to deliver on all roles assigned, both at home and overseas.

At national level, representation on the Government task force on emergency planning by both the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces ensures the fullest co-ordination and co-operation in the event of an emergency. In accordance with the framework for major emergency management, primary responsibility for responding to emergencies such as a natural disaster rests with three designated principal response agencies, namely, An Garda Síochána, the relevant local authority and the Health Service Executive. The Defence Forces provide the fullest possible assistance to the appropriate lead Department in the event of a natural disaster or an emergency in its aid to the civil authority role. Major emergency plans have been developed by local and regional authorities and these plans identify the procedures for requesting assistance from the Defence Forces.

With reference to rescue services, the Irish Coast Guard has overall responsibility for the provision of search and rescue services within the Irish search and rescue region. Both the Air Corps and the Naval Service provide support to the Coast Guard on an "as available" basis in accordance with an agreed service level agreement.

With regard to security and surveillance matters, primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, including the protection of the internal security of the State, rests with An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality. One of the roles assigned to the Defence Forces is providing aid to the civil power, which, in practice, means assisting An Garda Síochána when requested to do so.

The conclusion reached in the report to which I refer is stark: "Without systems capable of subsurface detection linked to data analysis systems ashore, the Naval Service remains quite literally, lost in the dark". This was written in the context of the fact that three quarters of transatlantic cables in the northern hemisphere pass through or near Irish waters. Considering the docked naval ships like the LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Orla, the fact that the capacity of the naval Naval Service is collapsing and the massive economic zone adjacent to the coast of Ireland, this is an extremely serious analysis of our geostrategic location in the context of these cables. The point I raised earlier applies now. What if there is a serious terrorist incident? What if a serious event occurs and we do not have the capability to respond? This is a serious strategic risk, not only for Ireland but also for Europe. It seems that we do not have the capability to respond and not much is happening, particularly in view of the fact that two ships which the Minister of State said would be back in service in the autumn are permanently docked.

I call Deputy Durkan. My apologies for earlier.

I am seeking to ascertain whether the Defence Forces have adequate resources in any of the capacities listed in my question to enable them to deal with the emerging situation vis-à-vis the European Union and the UK's exit from it. Might it be advisable to seek assistance from the European Union with a view to establishing an enhanced role for the Defence Forces in the defence and surveillance of the western coast of Europe?

The document addresses the threat of mines and improvised explosive devices which may close ports and sea lanes and demand the protection of privately-owned cables. A key thrust of the argument is the need for the protection zones around cables. These cables are the responsibility of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We have a responsibility in that area as well.

Regarding Naval Service capability, the document suggests that a multi-role vessel will provide the basis for developing subsea vision, although it does not explain how this will prevent anchors from breaking cables or the extraction of information from such cables. This is a key challenge for us going forward. If the Deputy listened earlier on he might have heard me speak about the different challenges we face now. I am not sure whether it was Deputy Jack Chambers or Deputy Durkan who spoke about the challenge of Brexit.

We have to look at the challenges of the situation post Brexit. One issue is the possibility of a hard border. Thankfully, it appears that the latter will not come to pass. That is good news. We have to look at these situations and the challenges we are facing.

The document to which I refer states, "So long as Ireland remains socially and economically married to the vital but delicate network of glass laying just offshore, it is high time we considered protecting it". Does the Minister of State accept that these cables are a soft military target? The analysis demonstrates that they are the digital ecosystem of the globe. For him to deflect responsibility to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is a really worrying development. He should take this document on board, look at the gaps and weaknesses it highlights and enhance the role of the Naval Service to address them. The naval diving section is at a strength of just 33%. How can that service, with docked ships, monitor important lines of communication at sea? To say that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has responsibility in this regard is a worryingly siloed approach to Government. It is not a whole-of-Government approach to Defence Forces capability. This is a serious document which reflects a geopolitical weakness on Ireland's part which could affect global communications. The fact that the Minister of State at the Department of Defence is talking about the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment shows that this is not getting the serious analysis it deserves. It should not take a terrorist incident for us to start getting serious about defence.

Again, I wish to ask whether the Minister of State intends to seek assistance from the European Union directly, particularly as this country is likely to have to undertake an enhanced defence position within the Union.

Deputy Jack Chambers always shifts the discussion. Different Departments have different responsibilities. The Deputy should be able to understand that. The security of the State is the responsibility of An Garda Síochána. Cyber risks are the remit of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. These cables are a major concern. This document in question was published recently . I will be asking my officials to look at it in depth and consider the challenges we will face in the future and the capabilities we will require. This comes down to budget considerations. It is one thing to shout from the Opposition benches that we should spend more money. However, there are other areas in respect of which we have responsibility. That is one of the reasons we have considered a multi-role vessel which will have the capability to do much more than some of our current vessels.

Deputy Durkan asked if we would seek assistance. There are several service level agreements under which Departments work with each other and we seek assistance from other bodies. For us to seek assistance from overseas would be a Government decision. The Government will not be found wanting. We have to consider our key challenges when considering assistance. We have to consider what our capabilities are and what capabilities we will need in the future.