Priority Questions. - Defence Forces Operations.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

62 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if there are plans to amend the Defence Acts to permit the Defence Forces to participate in EU-led operations not specifically authorised by the United Nations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18896/03]

Ireland's commitment to collective security is pursued through the United Nations, which has the primary role in the maintenance of international peace and security. The UN has no standing military forces of its own and relies on the voluntary provision of resources by willing members. At present, according to the Defence Acts, Defence Forces personnel can only serve overseas in an operation established by the UN Security Council or General Assembly. It does not allow for Irish contingents to participate in missions which are clearly endorsed by the Security Council but which have not been established by the UN.

The Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960, which provides for the deployment of troops on overseas missions, was drafted at a time when it was not envisaged that the UN would engage regional organisations on its behalf, rather than directly raise forces of its own. However, there has been a significant rise in the number of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations carried out by regional organisations orad hoc coalitions with the sanction or approval of the UN. This is due not only to the considerable increase in the number of peacekeeping operations but also to the specialised nature of particular operations. An example is the current French-led EU Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This operation was established by UN Resolution 1484 but is initially being implemented by the EU on behalf of the UN.

The circumstances which arose in relation to the participation of the Defence Forces in the first EU peace support operation, currently under way in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, are unlikely to recur. Deputies will recall that while UN Security Council Resolution 1371 of September 2001 noted that the UN "strongly supports" the establishment of a multinational security presence in FYROM, Irish Defence Forces personnel were not able to participate. The Attorney General advised the Government that the UN endorsement did not satisfy the requirement, as laid out in the Defence Acts, that the UN must establish or authorise the establishment of the EU-led force.

However, as I have stated in the past, in a volatile international security environment, I believe that we should keep the matter under review to ensure that we are not found wanting should circumstances arise where the Government would wish to consider Defence Forces participation in a crisis calling for a response from the international community, which conforms to Ireland's proud tradition in contributing to international peace and security.

Will the Minister clarify further his intentions as it appears he is to review the Defence Acts to see what, if any, amendments can be made to facilitate Ireland's participation in EU-led forces that may or may not have the sanction of the UN? I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify his comments of 18 May in Brussels. I am quite certain that from the viewpoint of his Department and the Defence Forces, and given the current evolving situation, what prevailed in the past may not necessarily be sufficient to meet future demands.

As the Deputy knows, the triple lock requirement, as it is referred to – involving the approval of the Dáil if the number exceeds 12, UN establishment and Government approval – has provided fundamental safeguards regarding previous Irish participation in peacekeeping activities. Clearly, I have no intention of interfering with either Dáil or Government approval. The fact that the UN supports missions but does not necessarily establish or authorise its own force created a problem for us in Macedonia. We were anxious to be involved in that expedition but because of our Defence Acts we could not participate. In the changing international situation, I wanted to open a debate and reach cross-party consensus on this matter, if possible, by staying with the UN. The UN is changing the position and, considering the change I am advocating, I will be adhering to what the UN is now doing, as distinct from what it used to do. We should have a cross-party debate as to the best way forward. I have an open mind on the matter and I appreciate the supportive comments of Opposition Members in this regard.

As the Minister is probably aware, the Fine Gael spokesperson on foreign affairs has been supportive of that concept, as has the party's spokesperson on defence, for whom I am deputising today – I apologise for his absence. Will the Minister indicate when it would be advisable to consider reviewing the Defence Acts in anticipation of meeting the kind of situation to which he has referred? Whether such missions are UN-led or otherwise, it appears that some review of the Defence Acts will be necessary. When does the Minister wish to see that take place?

We have opened a debate on the issue and there are fairly strong views that the situation that has developed in Macedoniavis-à-vis the UN may not recur. However, I want to prepare the ground in an open and transparent way in the face of emerging changes and, as I indicated in my earlier reply, to stay with the United Nations as the responsible international organisation leading these matters. It is because of the changes that have been made in the UN that I have presented the position thus.