Thursday, 13 May 2021

Questions (2)

Gary Gannon

Question:

2. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Defence if he or his official have had discussions on Irish troops participating in the proposed European rapid reaction force. [25148/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

What conversations has the Minister or his officials had with others on the establishment of a European rapid reaction force?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The strategic dialogue phase of what is called the strategic compass is ongoing, with thematic discussions taking place in different fora focusing on specific topics within the four clusters of the compass, which is essentially the debate on the future of defence matters in the European Union. These clusters are crisis management, resilience, capability development and partnerships. The strategic compass is a two-year process that aims to provide strategic reflection on Europe's current and future security and defence needs, the EU's capacity to act as a security provider, its strategic autonomy and its ability to co-operate with partners.

As part of this ongoing dialogue, member states are invited to share their thoughts on how to move the discussion forward through a number of non-papers focusing on the four clusters. Ireland is one of 14 EU member states which, following consultation between the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs, have co-signed a non-paper on crisis management that was presented by France in the context of strategic compass discussions.

This paper explores some of the matters and options for creating a more coherent, flexible and robust EU response capacity for crisis management operations. Among the topics explored is how the strategic compass may contribute to enhancing the EU's ability to deploy a common security and defence policy operation as first responder to a crisis, for example.

These are only proposals and ideas at this stage and they will require significant further analysis, exploration and consideration. By signing up to the "food for thought" paper Ireland is indicating its willingness to explore some of the options in the paper to enhance EU capability and responsiveness in support of international peace and security. The crisis management cluster was a topic for discussion at last week's Foreign Affairs Council meeting with defence ministers but I have not had discussions on Irish troops participating in any European rapid reaction force.

These non-papers will feed the ongoing discussions on the strategic compass and it is expected that by November 2021, a draft of the strategic compass will be presented to ministers for examination in the first half of next year.

I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate that this idea is currently in its infancy but the idea of a European rapid reaction force was also floated in 1999 before being done away with in 2003. Eyebrows will be raised that this conversation is happening and that Ireland is one of 14 nations expressing a willingness to take part in discussions, particularly given the current state of numbers and morale in our Defence Forces.

What type of scenario would precipitate a response from the proposed rapid reaction force? What type of emergency in Europe would require it? Would it be a terrorist incident and the response would be a counterterrorist operation? What is the expectation at this stage for Irish involvement in such an initiative? How many troops would be involved according to the initial proposals? With the 1999 proposal there would have been 800 troops involved. I am against the idea of a rapid reaction force but its very concept seems very far-fetched, given the current state of our military branches.

The Deputy stated "given the current state of our military" and mentioned numbers and morale. If he asked people in the military forces if they want to be involved in collective crisis management with other EU countries, the vast majority of them would say "Yes". People join the Defence Forces because they want to act. They want to use their skill sets to save lives as peacekeepers and people who intervene to prevent conflict. They want to be able to intervene in a humanitarian crisis. The Naval Service wanted to go to the Mediterranean to save lives and it took 16,000 people out of the water. That is why people are flying to southern Lebanon this week for the next rotation of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. They want to be there.

This is why people join the Defence Forces. They do not join the Defence Forces to just train and stay out of trouble. We are currently exploring whether the skill set of the Irish Defence Forces can contribute to a crisis response along with other EU countries.

I represent a constituency, Dublin Central, that has two Army barracks. I have friends from school who have joined the Defence Forces. We understand completely the proud tradition of peacekeeping and putting ourselves in harm's way when required. That is very different, however, to creeping militarisation or getting involved with defence initiatives with a more militarised facet. We fully appreciate that the Defence Forces do not want to stand out of harm's way, as we can see with their behaviour over many decades, but I still highlight low morale and the low level of pay and conditions that contributes to an inability of the force to put itself in further undefined conflict zones or scenarios for such a rapid reaction force in Europe. Its remit should be clearer. I appreciate these conversations happened last week but we must be clearer on the expectations from the off.

I take that point but the Irish Defence Forces are really good at what they do. I am very proud of them. It is why we are constantly exploring how the Defence Forces can contribute more to international affairs through peace building, peacemaking, peace interventions and so on.

I reassure the House that we are not part of a creeping militarisation policy in the European Union. We have never been part of that kind of thinking and we are still not part of it. Before Irish troops are sent anywhere abroad, they need to go through the triple lock system, which people understand.

We are currently contributing to a thought process and asking ourselves a question as to whether the EU, as a collective, has the ability to be able to intervene in crises quickly to save lives. I am interested in that. This is not about the creation of a European army. We already have battle groups, which is an unfortunate name but it is essentially a mechanism where countries train with each other to have the capacity to respond to a crisis should it be required. They have never been deployed, despite the process going back to 2004 or 2005.

I reassure people that we will be cautious in how we approach this question. It will be approached from the perspective of Ireland's traditional contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping.