Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Questions (46, 50, 73, 78, 83)

Patrick Costello


46. Deputy Patrick Costello asked the Minister for Defence if the commission on the future of the Defence Forces will examine the impact of climate change on the role of the Defence Forces to provide aid to the civilian power in particular the ability to provide rapid response to the increased frequency and severity of adverse weather events and increased frequency and severity of flooding events that climate change will bring. [36578/20]

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Catherine Connolly


50. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Defence when the independent commission on the Defence Forces, pursuant to the programme for Government, will be established; the membership and expertise of the commission; the terms of reference of the commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36694/20]

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Dara Calleary


73. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Defence the status of the commission on defence. [36632/20]

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Sorca Clarke


78. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Defence the efforts he will make regarding the composition of any board convened on the future of the Defence Forces to ensure membership, governance and accountability are of the highest standards. [36727/20]

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Paul McAuliffe


83. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Defence the progress made regarding the establishment of a commission on the future of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36734/20]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Defence)

A key role of the Defence Forces is to provide aid to the civilian power. We see that frequently in cases of severe flooding and in response to adverse weather events that the Defence Forces are often very quick to put themselves in harm's way to protect the rest of us. With climate change already increasing flooding and likely to further increase it and adverse weather events, will it form part of the terms of reference for the commission on the future of the Defence Forces? Will the Defence Forces' ability to face these challenges be part of the commission's terms of reference?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 46, 50, 73, 78 and 83 together.

As outlined already in my earlier response on the commission, the position is that establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces is an important commitment made in the programme for Government. The programme for Government states that the commission will be tasked with undertaking a comprehensive review, which will include the following matters: arrangements for the effective defence of the State at land, air and sea; structures for governance, joint command, and control structures; the brigade structure; pay and allowances and composition of the Defence Forces; recruitment, retention and career progression; and the contribution of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, including its legislation and Defence Forces regulations governing it, and whether specialists from the RDF should be able to serve overseas.

The programme for Government also provides that the commission is be established before the end of the year, with a mandate to report within 12 months, and as I indicated earlier, I am working with officials in my Department in order to ensure we are well ahead of the timeline.

My immediate priority concerns the commission's terms of reference. In accordance with a commitment made in the programme for Government, I have consulted widely on the terms of reference and analysis of all of the various submissions received is still ongoing.

In this regard, I expect to finalise draft terms of reference for the commission shortly and to bring proposals to Government for approval in the coming weeks.

Regarding membership of the commission, the programme for Government states that the commission will contain a wide variety of expertise such as management, human resources, academia, law and public service, as well as members with external military experience from countries similar in size to Ireland and also from states which, like Ireland, are non-aligned militarily. While consideration of these criteria is under way and various names are in discussion, no decisions have yet been made on membership of the commission. Ultimately, this and the commission's terms of reference will both be matters for decision by Government shortly.

The impact of climate change will of course be of relevance to the work of the commission. In this regard one of the roles assigned to the Defence Forces by Government, in the White Paper on defence, is to contribute to national resilience through the provision of aid to the civil authority supports to lead agencies in response to major emergencies and in the maintenance of essential services. The White Paper also provides that, under the framework for major emergency management, the Defence Forces have a support role to the lead agency in major national and local emergencies. In a major emergency, such as a severe weather event, all the available resources and capabilities of the Defence Forces are made available to the national co-ordination group for the purpose of providing assistance. Unfortunately, that is becoming a more frequent experience now.

Regarding future investment, the White Paper update, which was approved by Government last December, recognises that demands on future capability will need to take account of climate change objectives. The update notes that the effects of climate change are continuing to lead to changes in weather patterns and an increased probability that severe weather events such as flooding could become more commonplace in Ireland.

Climate change and issues arising from it for the Defence Forces are already clearly signposted in existing key Government policy documents on defence. I will ensure that the commission gives due regard in its deliberations to the impacts of climate change for the Defence Forces.

There are essentially two issues. First, are we planning properly for the missions our Defence Forces are likely to face? Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of flooding and adverse weather events. In 2017 in Inishowen the Defence Forces came in to erect a temporary bridge to reconnect communities when a road collapsed. We will not get the structure of the Defence Forces right if we do not factor in the missions they are likely to face.

Second, are we giving the Defence Forces what they need to complete those missions? We have had many discussions here on meeting our overseas mission requirements and our naval operations. Do we have enough Bailey bridges to be able to provide that flooding support? Do we have enough logistic support bridges? Do we have enough personnel to be able to erect them? If we only have a handful of Bailey bridges and they are needed in three or four parts of the country at the same time, we just will not have them. The questions the commission is looking to answer fundamentally depend on the missions we envisage. We should certainly be considering support to the civilian power in the face of runaway climate change.

The Minister hopes to finalise the composition of the commission by the end of the month. We need this to be effective and the Defence Forces need it to be effective. For it to be effective, it needs to have a genuinely independent chair and a multidisciplinary board made up of people who have skills, but also people who have access to skills to make this exercise the best it could possibly be. We need that knowledge and expertise to deliver the change for the Defence Forces.

In addition, it needs to set very clear and achievable goals for the delivery of recommendations and realistic timelines for their implementation. Another key aspect is that the commission must take a more holistic view and undertake its work in an open, transparent and constructive manner and not one that is railroaded into very limited views of what are the Defence Forces.

The commission will follow through on the commitments we have made in the programme for Government. I believe the people we are approaching to be on the commission are first class. I am very confident they will be able to do a very good job, but we need to get them approved by Government first and so on. That process is under way.

I take Deputy Costello's point that we need to plan properly for a response to adaptation as well as mitigation when it comes to climate change. Part of the adaptation challenge is to put the emergency-response capacity in place to protect people and protect ecosystems and resources from more extreme weather patterns, which are already taking place. We are not talking about the future anymore; we are also talking about the present. We have seen the involvement of the Defence Forces in a much more structured and efficient way in recent years. Local authorities are now much more willing to reach out and seek assistance from the Defence Forces at a much earlier stage when they are put under pressure. That will be part of the commission's work, but it has many other elements of work.

Questions Nos. 47 and 48 answered with Question No. 42.