Priority Questions.

Overseas Missions.

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

1 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on his recent visit to Liberia and the meetings attended while there; and if he has satisfied himself with conditions, including health and safety, under which members of the Irish peacekeeping personnel are operating. [3519/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

54 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Defence if he has satisfied himself that adequate medical and military supplies are available to the Irish troops serving in Liberia; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3529/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 54 together.

I visited Irish troops serving with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, from 21 to 23 January of this year. During my visit, I was accompanied by the Secretary General of the Department of Defence, the Chief of Staff, the PSO to the Chief of Staff, my private secretary and a senior civil servant of the Department of Defence.

The main purpose of my visit to Liberia was to observe at first hand the work of Irish military personnel serving in the area and to convey to them, on behalf of the Government and the people, our deep appreciation for the outstanding manner in which they continue to perform their duties on overseas service. UNMIL is a challenging assignment and the Defence Forces are to be congratulated on the expeditious manner in which they planned and undertook their first deployment to this mission.

During the course of my visit to Liberia, I met Mr. Wesley Johnson, vice-chairman of the national transitional Government, Mr. Jacques Paul Klein, the special representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Major General Owonibi, acting force commander UNMIL, and Brigadier General Robert Fitzgerald, chief of staff, UNMIL.

I had a very positive exchange of views with vice-chairman Johnson. He thanked Ireland for the Defence Forces presence in Liberia and acknowledged the contribution of the 430 Irish personnel to conflict resolution. He said that the transitional Government will be in place in two weeks, ready to begin the process of reform. He admitted that true democracy would only return if the civil war divisions and corruption are eliminated and human rights are guaranteed. He highlighted the importance of getting normal civil society operating again and, in particular, of education. He informed me that one of the great difficulties faced is that the current young generation is less well educated than their parents. For all of us, that is surely a sobering thought.

During my meeting with special representative Klein, he acknowledged the enormous contribution the Irish troops are making to stability in Liberia. He outlined the difficulties facing the chairman of the transitional Government in co-ordinating the three factions — the former Taylor Government, LURD and MODEL — comprising the new transitional Government. Elections are planned for 2005 and Mr. Klein emphasised the importance of preparing for this now. He also outlined the importance of quickly getting in place effective disarmament, demobilisation, reconciliation and reintegration and placing it on a firm and sustainable footing. A UN fact-finding team was in Liberia while I was there, examining and advising on this issue.

I raised with him the Government's concern regarding health facilities for UN troops, particularly level three hospitalisation and the planned pull-out of the Dutch hospital ship, theRotterdam, on 18 February 2004. The Rotterdam is currently the provider of the level three medical cover to Irish personnel.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House

Efforts are being made to secure an extension from the Dutch, while at the same time all other options are being examined. I assure the House that my Department, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs, through Ireland's mission to the UN in New York, has been, and will continue to be, actively engaged with the UN to ensure that the medical cover available to the Irish contingent is at an appropriate level.

On the second day of my visit, I visited the Irish troops at Camp Clara, headquarters of the Irish troops serving with the 90th Infantry Battalion, UNMIL. The camp, which is situated on a site of about 25 acres, had originally been a holiday resort, containing a number of chalets most of which have been looted and destroyed. The camp is a credit to the Irish Army engineers who have rebuilt some of the chalets, cleared the site and erected tents. I also visited the special operations task group, SOTG. I found morale among troops to be very high. I congratulated the Irish personnel on the success of their mission so far and observed the positive effect which their presence is already having in Monrovia and other areas since their arrival. I also sympathised with the troops on the death of their colleague, Sergeant Derek Mooney and the injury of his colleague in a motor accident on 27 November 2003.

During the course of my visit, I also met Major General Owonibi, acting force commander, UNMIL. I also met Irish missionaries who were present in Liberia during the fighting while I was visiting a hospice for HIV/AIDS victims run by the Missionaries of Charity — the Order of Mother Theresa.

I am happy to say that Development Co-operation Ireland has allocated a sum of €15,000 to the current Irish contingent to help support its particular efforts in humanitarian aid in the contingent's area of operations. To assist this work further, I have allocated an additional sum of €10,000 from this year's Defence Vote.

The safety and health of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me. While no absolute guarantees can be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions it is my policy and practice to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are appropriately trained and equipped to carry out their mission.

In regard to the equipment being provided, a wide range of equipment and force protection assets has been deployed with the contingent. This equipment is of the highest quality. Indeed, the Mowag APC's were deployed with the Defence Forces when they served in UNMEE, where they performed very effectively. We have also deployed armoured vehicles and support weapons, heavy machine guns and a mortar platoon. Due to the equipment modernisation programmes that have taken place in the Defence Forces over the past few years, UNMIL will be the best equipped battalion ever to serve overseas.

From a health perspective, I am confident that we have taken every reasonable step to ensure the good health of our personnel on this mission. I am advised by the military authorities that the health of the Irish contingent is excellent and that there have been no serious illnesses to date. I am satisfied that all medical supplies appropriate to level one — contingent level — medical support have been deployed with the Irish troops in Liberia. The level of medical equipment deployed is superior to any previously deployed with any Irish contingent on UN service and is considerably more sophisticated than the UN requirement. I assure the House that the Government will do whatever it can to protect personnel and return them safely to their families.

The camp, located ten kilometres from the main town of Monrovia, is very secure from both an operational and safety point of view. Extensive standard operating procedures have been put in place to ensure the health of personnel, in particular, procedures for personal hygiene, covering up fully at night to avoid insect and mosquito bites, use of repellents, maintaining hydration, etc.

What we hope to bring through our engagement with Africa is openness and understanding and a desire to support and encourage individual and societal growth. By this means, the people of Africa can have the opportunities they deserve and can strive to achieve their full potential so that the nations of Africa can take their place among the developed countries of the world. This is our objective and this is what we strive for. However, for this to happen will require ongoing political, economic and social development and support on a substantial scale from the developed world as a whole. Ireland stands ready to contribute in whatever way it can to support this development, through the provision of political, economic and social support and through its membership of and influence within the EU and the UN.

I welcome the Minister back from his visit to Liberia with no visible signs of ill-effect. I am sure he will concur with what is commonly understood that our Defence Forces are operating in primitive conditions in Liberia. I am sure he will agree he was in Liberia during the dry season and that most of our forces there are either under canvas or in tents. Is the Minister happy with the accommodation provided? That country is heading into the rainy season. Are provisions being made to address that problem? The rains, whether monsoon or otherwise, can be very heavy. What are the arrangements or provisions for that type of season and weather?

I understand that the relatives of the troops have been busy collecting parcels and other requisites to send to their sons, daughters, husbands and so on in Liberia and that one of our naval ships was to leave Cork within the next few days. Is that still the case or has that trip been cancelled? If so, it would be very serious because so much effort went into collecting parcels and other requisites to send.

Have arrangements been made to enable troops to maintain contact with people at home as often as possible? Liberia is almost on the other side of the world and it is the most dangerous peace mission in which our forces have been engaged. Can troops contact people at home? Are there regular mail deliveries? I understand that on such tours of duty, home leave is always arranged. Will troops have the opportunity to come home or will they have to stay there during their few weeks off?

The accommodation the Defence Forces have is excellent. It may well be the case that when tried under different conditions, we will have to examine the matter again and we would then have to consider, in a longer-term commitment to Liberia, the cormex. We would only address that question if it proved necessary. As we understand it, the resistance of the existing accommodation will be well able to cater for whatever is likely to happen in terms of a change in weather conditions over a period of at least two years. If anything changes in the meantime, I will address it.

I heard no complaints from the military — as the Deputy knows, I interviewed a number of them — about the facilities, the telephone arrangements for telephoning home, the free telephone service available once a month for up to ten minutes and the free postage home once a week. There was high morale across all fronts. It is probably the best equipped mission in the world. It was interesting to see the medical facilities there and the equipment which has been arranged. I assure Deputy McGinley we will keep a watchful eye on all these developments. As we see it at the moment, nothing is happening that would raise our fears about the accommodation and so on.

Has the ship been cancelled?

I have no knowledge of that. I will check it immediately following questions.

Search and Rescue Service.

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

2 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence the basis on which he decided to end the Air Corps role in search and rescue operations from Sligo; the cost of hiring and maintaining the private helicopter service that will replace it; if his attention has been drawn to the description of the decision as very regressive by the Irish Fish Producers Organisation; the duties the personnel transferred out of Sligo will now perform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3483/04]

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

4 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to the widespread concerns in the north west arising from his decision to terminate Air Corps participation in search and rescue services; and if he can guarantee that there will be no diminution in the standard of services to coastal and island communities by the new operating company. [3520/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

The Irish Coastguard has overall responsibility for the provision of maritime search and rescue services within the Irish search and rescue region. The Air Corps provides the search and rescue service, SAR, off the north-west coast while CHCI, a private operator, provides the service from Dublin, Shannon and Waterford.

In the period from late September 2003, there was an unusually high incidence of sick leave among the Air Corps rear-crew, that is, winchmen and winch operators. As service continuity within the north-west search and rescue operation could not be guaranteed with the existing rear crews the GOC of the Air Corps posted 13 of the 17 personnel to other duties. The four remaining crew were due to return to duty but three opted to transfer out of search and rescue. As a result, the north west search and rescue operation was limited in that it was unable to provide a winching service. While most other aspects of the search and rescue service continued to be provided, the lack of a winching capability severely eroded the level of service on offer and potentially compromised the safety of mariners.

In view of this, I asked my officials to work with the Air Corps to determine when it might be in a position to return to full search and rescue service. This examination took place against a background where CHCI, the provider of all other search and rescue services in the State, had submitted a proposal to the Irish Coastguard indicating that it could provide a service within a relatively short timeframe.

As I have said in the past, the safety of Air Corps personnel is of paramount importance. Training new winch crews and enabling them to acquire the requisite experience, including experience in theatre, would have meant that the Air Corps would have been unable to return to a 24 hour full search and rescue service until March 2005. In addition, because of the small scale of the Air Corps search and rescue operation, it would continually be at risk from the loss of small numbers of experienced personnel. In view of this, I advised my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of the situation and of my decision to withdraw the Air Corps search and rescue service in the north west.

We can never lose sight of the fact that search and rescue is an emergency life saving service, which seafarers must be able to rely on in all circumstances. In the absence of the Air Corps being able to provide the required level of service, and given the level of ongoing risk of the service not being available because of a lack of trained back-up Air Corps personnel, the reliability of the service offered by the Air Corps would always be in question. The Air Corps will continue to provide its current limited service while the coastguard makes alternative arrangements for the return of a full SAR service in the north-west. It is expected that these arrangements will be in place within weeks.

This was not an easy decision. The Air Corps has a long and distinguished tradition in providing search and rescue services and I know this decision was a real disappointment for it. I am also aware of the significant efforts of Air Corps management and staff to maintain an operational SAR service in the north-west, in particular the dedication and commitment of key personnel in the north-west search and rescue operation. However, the provision of this essential emergency service requires that a full team be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The Air Corps was not in a position to provide this.

The issue of service standards as regards all search and rescue and other maritime emergency operations is a matter for the Irish Coastguard. I understand that CHCI provides a full SAR service to the standard required and demanded by the Irish Coastguard. As such, I see no reason for coastal and island communities to be concerned about the standard of emergency service available from CHCI when it replaces the Air Corps in the north-west. The question of the cost of the new operation is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

With regard to Air Corps personnel still serving in the north-west, they continue to provide a limited SAR service pending the implementation of the new service. The arrangements for winding down the Air Corps service and the introduction of the new service are the subject of discussions between my Department and the Irish Coastguard. Air Corps personnel currently serving in the north-west, who are redeployed from Sligo to Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, will undertake such duties as may be assigned to them by GOC Air Corps. In this regard, it is the objective of the Air Corps to retain and develop the skills of all its personnel in the best interests of the Air Corps and the wider Defence Forces and duties are assigned accordingly.

Does the Minister accept that the withdrawal of the Air Corps search and rescue service from Sligo amounts to an effective privatisation of Air Corps operations? Does he accept that there is widespread concern among members of the Air Corps about its systematic downgrading in regard to search and rescue operations? Will he indicate the role the Air Corps will now play in search and rescue operations?

I do not accept that the circumstances described pertain. I found this decision very difficult and worked hard with management to solve the problem. The circumstances in which it was taken, however, were that the State is obliged to provide a seven day, 24 hour emergency service for seafarers, who must be confident that the service is reliable. Given that I was not in a position to meet that obligation and the Air Corps could not provide such a service for the greater part of a year, I had no choice but to take the action I did, given that an alternative operator was in a position to provide such a service within a couple of weeks.

While I am indebted to the management of the Air Corps and those who fought so hard to solve this problem, one cannot ignore the fact that the winchmen and winch crew took their own decisions and left me partially paralysed, as it were, in terms of maintaining the service. I made the decision with the utmost regret.

Will the Minister indicate the cost of replacing the Air Corps operation with a private firm? Will he confirm that the cost over three years is approximately €16 million, which would be sufficient to buy several helicopters? The organisation representing fishermen in the north west, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, has described the measure as very regressive. Why, when he addressed the issue of outsourcing the Air Corps on 4 December last in the House, did the Minister not inform Deputies of his plans?

I will address the Deputy's final question first. An extraordinary effort was made by the GOC of the Air Corps and senior management to rescue the service and find a solution. It was only when it was determined that we were unable to provide a full-time service for the greater part of the year that I was forced into the position of taking a hard decision. Often in politics one does not have the option of taking one's preferred decisions and when faced with safety issues, one has minimal scope.

As far as cost is concerned, the F61 has been purchased. The Department allocated considerable expenditure in the base in Sligo and training and other arrangements for the full-time service. These funds will continue to be made available for the north-west. Communities in the region can be assured that they will be afforded the facilities necessary to enable a full-time service to be provided. No additional cost will arise, apart from the expenditure incurred from the purchase of a number of utility helicopters, the maintenance of the pilots' training schemes and the operation of a limited search and rescue scheme on the island, which will not extend to mariners.

Everyone, including the Air Corps, agrees that this decision is a terrible blow to the morale of the Air Corps, particularly the personnel who transferred to Sligo from Dublin and Baldonnel with their spouses and families a few years ago and must now, unexpectedly, up their tents and return to Baldonnel or elsewhere. No one is more aware of the excellent service the Air Corps has provided over the past 40 years than I am, coming as I do from a coastal area of County Donegal.

In addition to providing search and rescue services, the Air Corps was permanently at the beck and call of coastal communities, providing flights of mercy and frequently taking people to the islands for funerals and wakes, responding to hospital call-outs and bringing students to and from the mainland. The service was available 24 hours a day without any cost to those who availed of it and the Air Corps was ready and willing to respond to every call.

This service has now been handed over to a private company. Will the Minister guarantee that when someone on Tory Island, Aranmore, Inishboffin or any other coastal community requests a helicopter to take an expectant mother or a person who has suffered a heart attack to hospital, the new company will be as responsive as the Air Corps has been in the past or will we have to pay for every errand and flight of mercy undertaken by the new Canada-based private enterprise? I want such a guarantee.

There is no question or doubt that the Air Corps has a long and distinguished tradition in search and rescue services. A private company has been providing this service in Shannon, Dublin and the south in recent years. The final rung in the ladder, so to speak, in terms of regions within the responsibility of the Department was the north-west. Over three or four years, I allocated a significant sum of €16 million, as Deputy Sherlock noted, to maintain the service and provide for and improve the base in Sligo and new training schemes. Having done this, I was placed in the unenviable position of not being able to provide a 24 hour service.

No complaints have been received concerning the private company providing this service in Dublin, Shannon and the south. I assure Deputy McGinley that the limited service to be provided on land by the Air Corps will be maintained. We will not, however, provide a service for seafarers. All other services will be maintained and the Department will purchase a raft of new helicopters which will place us in an enhanced position.

If an islander has an emergency and calls on the new service, will there be a charge or will it be under the same conditions as applied when the Air Corps provided the service so well for 30 years?

It is impossible to answer the Deputy's question for the simple reason that the Air Corps is not in a position to provide that service on a 24-hour basis at present. The service which will be provided by the private source will be a matter for it, but from what I have heard throughout the country from Shannon to Dublin, it deals with emergency situations with the same competence and tradition as the Air Corps. It is important to realise that we are not in a position to provide that service on a 24-hour basis.

EU Security and Defence Policy.

John Gormley

Ceist:

3 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Defence the agendas for the various meetings of EU Defence Ministers and of EU defence directors during Ireland's EU Presidency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3374/04]

The EU policy area of primary concern to my Department is the development of the military aspects of the European security and defence policy, ESDP. The mandate for the incoming Presidency, which was agreed at the European Council held in Brussels in December, invited the Irish Presidency to continue work on developing the European security and defence policy within the General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC. The Government's priorities in this regard are outlined in the programme of the Irish Presidency of the European Union, which is fully consistent with the multi-annual strategic programme of the EU Council for 2004-2006 and the operational programme for the Council for 2004, which were drawn up jointly by the Irish and Dutch Presidencies.

My Department is progressing work in this regard at EU level using the established practice of meetings up to and including ministerial level. This will include an informal meeting of Defence Ministers of EU member states and accession countries which is scheduled to take place in Brussels on 5 and 6 April 2004, while EU Defence Ministers will also meet in Brussels on 17 May within the framework of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC.

Informal meetings at official level will also be held as and when required. The first such meeting of EU defence policy directors, which was held on 23 January, was a useful forum for senior officials from the defence ministries of the member states and acceding states to discuss the most important priorities of our work programme. Discussions took place on the development of the EU's capabilities to carry out Petersberg Tasks operations, that is, peace support, crisis management and humanitarian operations; progress regarding the creation in the course of 2004 of an intergovernmental agency in the field of defence capabilities development as agreed by the European Council held at Thessaloniki in June 2003; developing and defining a 2010 headline goal; the development of an EU rapid response capability with an emphasis on supporting the United Nations in crisis management; and relations between the EU and NATO with specific regard to the capabilities development and operational planning.

An informal meeting of senior officials with responsibility for capabilities development and armaments procurement will be held in Dublin later this month to discuss more specifically the arrangements for the creation of the intergovernmental agency for defence capabilities development.

Given the developmental nature of the European security and defence policy and in line with established practice, agendas are normally finalised in the weeks leading up to the respective meetings. I will seek to ensure that discussions at ministerial meetings which I chair are focused on the priority issues related to progressing the Irish Presidency's work programme.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I note in his reply that he omitted to mention conferences on conflict prevention which are listed in the detailed calendar as supplied by his Department. Can the Minister confirm that these conferences will take place on 31 March 2004 and 1-4 April 2004? Does he agree with me that the best way to engage in conflict prevention is by supporting an arms trade treaty as put forward by Oxfam and Amnesty International? What is the position of the Minister and his Department on an arms trade treaty? Will representatives of Oxfam, Amnesty International and NATO be invited to those conferences?

I believe there was a meeting of the EU defence directors in Thurles, in the Minister's own neck of the woods.

I received this information from the detailed calendar.

The meeting took place in Dublin.

Will the Minister explain the term "defence director" and inform the House on the identity and role of the Irish defence director? I note the Minister has not mentioned the 36 meetings of the political and security committee which was instituted under Article 1.5 of the Treaty of Nice. He mentioned in his reply the co-operation between the European rapid reaction force and NATO. Will the Minister agree that the PSC is not compatible with Irish neutrality in its terms and co-operation with NATO?

I have rejected this contention from Deputy Gormley on many occasions. It is unfortunate there is not more time to discuss this matter. I have just returned from a visit of a few days to Liberia. If the Deputy is ever under any illusions about the necessity for a rapid reaction force to allow communities with resources to devise a way to intervene and prevent the conflicts and wars, Liberia is one stark example of that necessity. A few weeks after the arrival of the Irish troops the people were out with their little stalls.

I have no problem with that. I supported it.

The Deputy cannot have it both ways. He is trying to convince the public that there is militarisation and another agenda while the Government has emphasised many times that the agenda is peace, the Petersberg Tasks and making efforts to intervene earlier in countries like Liberia.

I am fond of pets, dogs in particular, but there are people in the Deputy's constituency who spend more in a year on their pets than these poor people have altogether. As far as armaments are concerned, the Government has made its position clear. Ireland has been a member of the United Nations for more than 50 years and worked towards these goals. We realise that the countries with a vested interest in selling armaments create significant problems in poor countries.

I specifically asked about the Irish Government's position on the arms trade treaty and the conference on conflict prevention.

We do not have any more time. We must move on to Question No. 5.

I ask the Minister to give just one answer.

A short answer, please.

I have indicated to Deputy Gormley many times that we have no problem with that but the Deputy wants to scare the people into a certain belief that does not stand up. I apologise to the Chair. The Deputy and I provoke one another.

I try not to.

I wish the Deputy would try a little harder.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 2.

Pension Provisions.

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

5 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence if he has plans to review the position of widows of those who lost their lives serving with the United Nations in the Congo in view of the very small sums that they received in compensation and pensions at the time; if he will consider making an ex gratia payment to those involved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3484/04]

No amount of money could compensate for the loss of a husband, father and breadwinner. However, the levels of benefits granted by way of pensions and lump sum to the widows of soldiers who were killed in the early 1960s while serving with the United Nations in the Congo were regarded as appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances prevailing at the time.

A new Army Pensions Act was enacted in 1960 to provide, among other things, enhanced pension benefits for the dependants of military personnel who died in the course of UN service abroad. Furthermore, the Government of the day authorised the introduction of a new scheme of extra-statutory lump sum payments for such dependants. Under the scheme, a lump sum equivalent to €4,444 was payable to the widow of a soldier killed on UN service. This was a relatively substantial sum of money at that time.

Pensions granted at the time have been increased over the years in accordance with the standard method of increasing public service pensions. Additionally, the method of computing the widow's pension under the Army Pensions Acts in the case of personnel killed in the course of duty was specially enhanced from 1975. The benefit of this enhancement was extended to pensions already in payment. All such pensions are now increased in line with increases in pay granted to serving military personnel.

In addition to benefits under legislation and schemes specific to the Defence Forces, the widows of soldiers killed on UN service in the Congo would have been eligible for pensions under the social welfare legislation applicable at the time. All things considered, it is not appropriate to re-open this matter as suggested by the Deputy.

How many members of the Defence Forces lost their lives during the Congo mission of the early 1960s? Does the Minister accept that the people of Ireland were enormously proud of the role played in that country by the troops, who made a huge sacrifice? The amount of compensation provided to the widows of those who lost their lives in the Congo was as little as £3,400. Did the Minister read a recent report inThe Sunday Tribune which suggested that a woman and her child were left destitute when the woman's husband was killed in the Congo? Will the Minister address these questions? Does he think it is appropriate that a more reasonable amount of money should be provided?

The Irish people are immensely proud of the role played by the soldiers who went to the Congo and participated in subsequent missions. Eleven of the soldiers who were killed in the Congo were married. Four of their widows have died and three have remarried. The current value of the lump sum given to the widows at that time is €77,000. The lump sum that is payable in similar circumstances at present is €81,000. I think most of what I have said demonstrates that the schemes are generous. If Deputy Sherlock wishes, I will consider any specific case where there is a need for greater compassion. It seems the overall scheme is reasonably generous and does not need to be reopened, but I am perfectly happy to examine any individual case of obvious hardship.

Does the Minister not think it would be reasonable to provide for a modestex gratia payment? If this was provided for across the board, it would not break the Exchequer.

As I have said, I have no such intention. I have outlined the terms of the scheme, which covers pensions, lump sums etc. I do not intend to reopen the scheme. The best I can offer the Deputy is a re-examination of an individual case on compassionate grounds.

Hearing Impairment Claims.

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

6 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Defence the number of claims for damages for deafness determined in court or settled out of court at the latest date for which figures are available; the amount paid out to date in terms of damages or legal costs; the number of such claims outstanding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3304/04]

Some 16,698 claims had been received by my Department from current and former members of the Defence Forces by 31 January 2004, in respect of hearing loss allegedly caused during military service. Some 328 claims have been determined in court and 14,681 have been disposed of out of court, mainly through settlement. This means that 1,689 claims were outstanding at the end of last month. Some €273.4 million has been paid in respect of hearing loss claims, including €91.3 million in plaintiffs legal costs.

I am sure everyone will agree that the end of this affair will be a good day for the Department of Defence. The failure to provide adequate protective equipment to military personnel, with the consequent damage done to the hearing of many soldiers, was one of the most unfortunate passages in the history of the Defence Forces. Will the Minister indicate when he expects all claims to have been cleared?

It is clear that a much more definitive health and safety regime has been in place in the Defence Forces in recent years. Arrangements in this regard are continually reviewed. I would like to say that we will finish dealing with these claims soon. The back of the process has been broken and we should be almost finished by the end of 2004. The number of claims being received each week has decreased considerably. The claims received since 1 July last are being challenged in court on the basis that this matter has been in the public mind for a considerable period of time. The remaining claims are being dealt with. The matter should be almost off the agenda within a year.

I agree with the Minister and Deputy Sherlock that this was a sad episode in the history of the Defence Forces and it is important that we do not have a repeat of it — I am glad steps are being taken to ensure that it does not happen again. If I understand the Minister correctly, over €90 million has been paid out in legal costs. Is this a separate figure from the total of over €270 million that was paid in compensation? Is the €90 million figure part of the €270 million figure? Does the Minister agree that €270 million is a high price to pay? Has this amount been paid in full by the Exchequer or do those who receive compensation have to contribute? It is obvious that there have been savings in recent times. The level of compensation being paid seems to be decreasing on an annual basis. It seems that the Department and the Exchequer are enjoying considerable savings. Are the savings being subsumed into the Exchequer finances or are they at the disposal of the Department of Defence, for example for the development of equipment and facilities for the Defence Forces?

A Learjet was recently purchased using savings from the hearing claims Vote. The VAT savings came to another couple of million euro. Legal expenses of approximately €90 million are included in the total cost of €273 million. It is a substantial amount nonetheless. A significant proportion of the €90 million figure has been paid to a handful of legal firms. There are no savings when a Department has to pay compensation in this way. The State does its best to provide a significant amount of money to meet the total cost. Although there was a saving last year, we do not consider it, generally speaking, as a saving but as a drain.

Does the Minister of State have a figure for the expected final cost? Have claims been made in respect of hearing damage incurred during the past five years? Is the Minister satisfied that appropriate procedures are in place to protect against damage to the health of members of the Defence Forces and to prevent the State from being exposed again to such a liability?

Some 54 claims were submitted each week at the peak of this process, but an average of four claims are now being received each week. Just one or two claims have been received from members of the Defence Forces who joined the forces since the late 1980s. It is clear that the system which is now in operation should have been in operation much sooner. It is part of the system of maintaining high standards in this regard. As a consequence of the fairly solid base which is developing, it is extremely unlikely that such claims will emerge in the future.

Naval Service.

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

7 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Defence if the Naval Service will be used again for business promotional trips abroad; when this may happen; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3383/04]

My Department is considering proposals submitted by the military authorities for the 2004 programme of courtesy visits abroad to be undertaken by Naval Service vessels. As the proposals are under examination in the context of the service's operational commitments for 2004, I do not intend to give details at this stage. It is hoped, however, that a substantial promotional element will be included. In considering the 2004 proposals, I need to consider the possible increased commitment which may be required from the Naval Service to assist the Defence Forces contingent serving in Liberia, as well as its core operational functions such as fishery protection duties. Over 90% of the Naval Service's effort is devoted to fisheries protection. It is committed to undertaking a minimum number of patrol days on such duties under the terms of the memorandum of understanding agreed between my Department and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The target number of days in 2003 was 1,353, an increase of 10% on the 2002 figures. Discussions on the target number of fishery protection patrol days for 2004 are due to commence shortly. The Naval Service commitment to fishery protection, together with other operational and training demands, may curtail somewhat the scope for courtesy visits in 2004.

The Minister mentioned Liberia. Does he agree that Liberia must take precedence over promotional visits? I hope that goes without saying. While the navy personnel are certainly excellent ambassadors — I saw their public relations skills when I was Lord Mayor — would he agree that this is not a good use of resources? TheLE Róisín recently visited Savannah, in the USA. Did Enterprise Ireland pay the Department for the use of this vessel? What sort of business arrangement was in place?

There have been a number of visits recently. The last major visit was to Savannah, but the previous year it was Hong Kong, China and the Far East. I am not able to provide the exact details, but reciprocal arrangements are made for certain aspects of the cost. We must bear in mind that the bill would be the same whether the vessel was used for fishery protection or an expedition for promoting Ireland. I agree with Deputy Gormley that supporting Liberia is a strong reason for the Naval Service to work outside fishery protection. It should still be possible to make an arrangement with Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, primarily because of the success of these trips and the numbers of business people who have participated from all the countries visited. They were regarded as exceptionally successful as a business opportunity for promoting Ireland and attracting investment.

We also undertake these trips in order to provide experience for members of our Naval Service. Many of them do not have an opportunity for overseas duties, unlike the general Defence Forces, and they welcome these opportunities. Members of the navy are always anxious to be facilitated in this regard. However, I can only do this in the context of other demands. Fishery protection comes first and Liberia comes second, followed by these visits.

Will the Minister provide information about the actual cost of these trips?

I am quite sure that to hire a ship of that sort for three months is quite costly. Will Enterprise Ireland refund the Department?

The additional cost of the trip to Savannah last year — the costs which would not have arisen if there had been no visit to Savannah — was €12,000. I will provide the rest of the information to the Deputy.

Defence Forces Security.

Kathleen Lynch

Ceist:

8 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the progress of the investigation into the circumstances in which a suspected pipe bomb was found inside the perimeter of Gormanston Army Camp; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3298/04]

As I indicated previously to the House, investigations are being conducted by the Military Police and the Garda Síochána into the circumstances surrounding the discovery on 15 April 2003 of an improvised explosive device, IED, inside the perimeter of Gormanston camp. The IED, which was discovered by a member of the Defence Forces based in the camp, was disarmed by a Defence Forces explosive ordnance disposal team. Sections of the IED were taken away for forensic examination by the Garda. The remainder was destroyedin situ in a controlled explosion by the EOD team.

I am advised that the Garda is in the process of finalising its investigation. A report on the investigation has been requested from the Garda authorities and is expected to be forwarded to the Military Police shortly. The Military Police investigation can then be finalised. Once this is completed, any recommendations which arise from its report will be implemented as appropriate. The occurrence of such an event is obviously a matter for concern. However, I am glad to report there has been no further occurrence at Gormanston or any other barracks.

Why is the inquiry into this matter taking so long? It is ridiculous that it is taking so long. Do the military authorities see this as a serious matter?

Matters such as this are always treated with the gravest concern. I have no control over the completion of the investigation by the Garda, but I understand it is imminent. The most important thing is that the investigation is thorough and complete and that it enables the Military Police to complete its own investigation.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.