I propose to take Questions Nos. 99, 115, 118, 137, 1272, 1273, 1275 and 1282 together.
I refer Deputies to my reply to this House on this very subject on 17 November last. The position remains as I outlined at that time.
The background to the rapid response elements concept, commonly referred to as the "battlegroups", is that at the European Council in Helsinki in 1999, member states set themselves a headline goal, that is, that "by the year 2003, co-operating together and voluntarily, they will be able to deploy rapidly and then sustain forces capable of the full range of Petersburg Tasks as set out in the Amsterdam Treaty"— that is, in short, humanitarian, rescue, peacekeeping and crisis management operations including peacemaking. This included,inter alia, a capability to provide “rapid response elements available and deployable at very high readiness”. The ambition of the EU, to be able to respond rapidly to emerging crises, has and continues to be a key objective of the development of the European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP.
The EU has learned from historical experiences in the Balkans and Africa and wants to be able to react faster when crises develop. This was effectively illustrated last year by the EU's first autonomous military operation, which was conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The operation, undertaken at the request of the United Nations Secretary General, and which deployed in very rapid circumstances, was successful in contributing to the stabilisation of the security environment and the improvement of humanitarian conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During his visit to Dublin in October 2004, UN Secretary General, UNSG, Kofi Annan underlined the extent to which he believes regional organisations, such as the EU, can contribute to the UN's requirements in the crisis management area.
Deputies will also recall, in his address to the forum on Europe on 14 October, that the UNSG specifically welcomed the development of EU capabilities in the context of European Security and Defence Policy and stressed the importance of strengthened EU capacities, in particular rapid deployment capabilities, to the UN. He also highlighted Ireland's pivotal role during our Presidency of the European Union in promoting co-operation between the EU and the United Nations in crisis management and in particular the potential use of EU rapid response elements to support UN peacekeeping operations.
In this context, if we do not seek to establish how best Ireland may make a meaningful contribution to the rapid response elements initiative we would be departing from our traditional policy of full support to the UN.
As I indicated in my reply to the House on 17 November, at the Cabinet meeting of 16 November, the Government agreed that I should advise my EU counterparts of Ireland's preparedness to enter into consultations with partners with a view to potential participation in rapid response elements. A Military Capabilities Commitment Conference was held on 22 November 2004 at which member states committed up to 13 battlegroup formations, which will be available to deploy to crisis situations within a five to ten day period from 2005 onwards. The five to ten day period begins from the date of a decision by the EU Council to launch an operation. However, it is to be expected that a crisis would normally have a longer gestation period during which the UN Security Council would have sufficient opportunity to decide on a UN mandate.
In order to fully assess the implications associated with such participation, I have established an interdepartmental group, which includes representatives of my Department, the Defence Forces, the Taoiseach's Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General's office. This group met in December and has established three sub-groups to address the policy, legislative and operational issues arising. The work of these sub-groups will span some months due to the fact that the rapid response elements concept is still evolving and a complete picture of all other member states' proposed involvement is not yet available. Following completion of the necessary analysis I intend returning to Government with proposals regarding the level of any proposed participation.
One must bear in mind the Defence Forces are currently in Liberia in a UN operation, in Kosovo in a NATO led operation, in Bosnia in a EU led operation and that rapid responsive elements are but one aspect of EU capabilities to assist in crisis management.
The rapid response concept raises many issues not alone for Ireland, but also for other EU member states, such as legal issues; operational, training, deployability, rotation and timeframe issues — multinational RREs will not be operational before 2007 and some as late as 2010; and decision-making issues, in particular how to preserve the integrity of national decision-making.
Once again, I stress that the question of Ireland's participation in rapid response elements will remain subject to the usual requirements of a Government decision, Dáil approval and UN authorisation and I have no plans to change that position.