Other Questions. - Overseas Missions.

John Gormley

Ceist:

67 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Defence the reason, following his attendance at an EU defence meeting in Brussels on 20 May 2003, he indicated that the Defence Acts may now have to be amended to lift the restrictions on Irish forces serving abroad without a UN mandate; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18865/03]

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

75 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Defence further to his reported comments in Brussels on 19 May 2003, the changes he is seeking to have made in the Defence Acts to allow Irish troops to participate in peacekeeping operations not specifically authorised by the United Nations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18767/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 67 and 75 together.

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 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 regarding 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 the 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 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 participation of the Defence Forces 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.

The Minister sounds bored when he reads these replies but perhaps he can clarify one thing.

For one day in the year—

I am not going to give the Minister any breaks, I am sorry. Will he explain how, in reply to a priority question on 15 May 2003, he gave no indication that he intended to amend the Defence Acts, while on 20 May 2003 he gave a newspaper interview in which he said we should consider amending the Defence Acts? Does this not show a certain amount of contempt for the House? He says one thing in the House and quite another outside it.

Does the Minister accept that the problem here is that with the new European constitution, as with previous treaties which had military aspects, there is no requirement for a UN mandate? In a sense we are out of sync with other countries which do not have a so-called neutral status. Does the Minister agree that the only neutrality we have left is dependent on this UN requirement? Will he state clearly if he is considering amending the Defence Acts? Does he accept that the section of the Defence Act, to which I refer, does not state that service outside the State by Defence Forces' contingents can only be with a UN force? It stipulates that service with a UN force can only be pursuant to a resolution of the Dáil and therein lies a loophole. The Minister and the Government said they were committed to the European Union Bill 2001 which sought to deal with that loophole. It would enshrine the idea of a UN mandate in the legislation, but the Minister is now indicating that he wants to get rid of the requirement for a UN mandate.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I remind the House that supplementary questions are limited to one minute, as are replies by the Minister.

Is it the Minister's intention, as has been stated by Deputy Gormley, to seek to change the law so that peacekeeping operations do not specifically have to be authorised by the United Nations? Is he seeking to involve Irish forces in peace enforcement rather than peacekeeping?

I am happy to come into the House to answer questions. Deputy Gormley may dislike the way I do so, but I cannot change the way I am. The Deputy has found me incapable, in so many ways, of doing my job and I cannot convince him otherwise, so we will leave that aside.

We trust the Minister.

I have opened the debate on this issue. I have no plans to change the Defence Acts until I have considered every aspect of this issue and have listened to other opinions and to my colleagues in this House. The Deputy has a point in regard to something being said a few days later being entirely different. We must have the capacity to change our minds and to do things a little differently from time to time depending on the question one is asked. I was asked a question which I answered as honestly as I could. It arose from the problems which developed in FYROM. The advice from the Attorney General was that under the strictures of the Defence Acts, we could not participate in the first EU-led mission, even though it was strongly supported by the UN. What I am doing is opening up that debate. There may be times in the future when we could be restricted if we do not do that. I am not doing any more than that at the moment.

Will Irish forces be involved in peacekeeping activities which are unauthorised by the UN?

We have no legal powers here nor have I, as Minister for Defence, to recommend to the Government or this House to participate in any such mission other than one established by the UN and approved by the Government and, if there are more than 12 members it must have the approval of this House. That is the triple lock.

The Minister is confusing me and I am not easily confused. A few moments ago during priority questions, he seemed to indicate that he is generating a debate with which we, on this side of the House, agree. He indicated in Brussels on 19 May last that this country should consider reviewing the Defence Acts if it wishes to participate. I accept the bona fides of what he said. More recently, he seems to have resiled from that concept. Are we having this debate? Did the Minister make those remarks which he is quoted as having made in Brussels? Is he now saying, "Let the debate take place"?

The answer to both questions is "Yes".

I asked three questions.

The answer to all three questions is "Yes".

In the reply to which I referred originally, the Minister was quite up front with Deputy McGinley when he said that the further one goes from requiring a UN mandate, the less important the UN becomes. Is he still of that view? If he is of that view, does he accept that if there is no requirement for a UN mandate, we are moving away from the UN—

—and, therefore, the UN becomes less important, to use the Minister's words.

The Deputy should not try to misinterpret what I said. Up to now, we have talked, and will continue to talk, about a UN mandate and a UN established force for peacekeeping purposes. That is provided for in the Defence Acts, as constituted. I have opened a debate arising from what happened in Macedonia. I have a positive approach to staff and, as I said earlier, I will listen to advice from this House and other sources in connection with this matter.

What is the Government's view?

I have given my view. I am anxious for consensus on this issue, if we can reach one. However, the Deputy should not misinterpret this as moving away from the UN. The UN has made the changes which I want to embrace, namely, supporting and endorsing rather than mandating.

Let us have clarity. The Minister said he has given his view.

What is his view on this issue?

I have given my view on a number of occasions. I am obliged to give consideration to all of the other views, both in Government and in this House.

What is the Minister's view?

I will answer the question the way I want. I will not be dedicated to; I am going to listen. I am opening a debate and when we have concluded it and if we can reach a consensus, then we will move forward.

The Minister should have been called the Minister for the fence, because he is sitting on it, particularly on this issue.