Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 18 February 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Use of Irish Airspace and Landing Facilities: (Resumed) Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport
Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. I thank the Minister and his officials for attending. This has been a very emotive petition. I was one of the people who went to Shannon and we had a very good briefing there. There is a sense from the petitioners that because of the way the system is set up, it is almost like a political three-card trick.
Technically, we can say we are neutral as a State but activists on the ground who have been watching the flights coming in and out of Shannon, and international observers, seem to think we cannot classify ourselves as neutral because of the nature of the flights coming through Shannon. That is what we are trying to tease out at some of the hearings we have been having, and I welcome the Minister's presentation today.
A number of issues were raised by the petitioner. I know the Minister is not responsible for the military flights that are landing but in terms of the civilian planes landing at a civilian airport next to military aircraft, which we know are carrying ammunition in some cases, as Minister with responsibility for the civilian element, is he concerned that Shannon could be seen as a target because of the military aircraft? Is there a danger to civilians who are unknowingly landing in the airport next to military aircraft? Could this put civilian passengers coming through what they would see as a civilian airport in danger in terms of the dual nature of the airport being used for both purposes?
I appreciate the Minister said he does not wish to comment extensively on neutrality but as a Cabinet member, he has collective responsibility for Government policy. Could he outline for us his understanding of the meaning of neutrality? Some of the petitioners and other people we have heard from believe that, technically, we might be neutral. Yet any independent observer who is seeing military troops coming through an airport, even unarmed soldiers because the guns are not loaded, would see them as a military force coming through an airport in a State we are being told is neutral. That is part of the argument being put forward.
The weapons are unloaded. What checks are done to make sure the weapons are unloaded? How do we know they are unloaded? That is a question that has been raised with us. Also, we know that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks some jurisdictions had a policy of putting agents on aircraft, air police as such, to police some of the flights. If an FBI agent is on a flight from the United States as an air policeman, has he or she got loaded weapons with him or her on those civilian flights?