Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
EU Scrutiny Reports: Discussion with Department of Defence
Apologies have been received from Deputy Anne Ferris. The members are welcome to today's meeting, the purpose of which is to receive a briefing from the Department of Defence on the six monthly reports on developments in the EU from January to June 2012 and from July to December 2012, copies of which have been circulated to members. I welcome Mr. Michael Howard, Secretary General at the Department of Defence, and his colleagues, Mr. Ciarán Murphy, assistant secretary, and Ms Teresa Sydenham, principal officer. Mr. Howard will make an opening statement, to be followed by a question and answer session. I ask everybody to turn off mobile phones completely because they interfere with the sound system.
Mr. Michael Howard:
The guidance I received was that I should make an opening statement of approximately five minutes. This is the first time we have appeared before the committee, so I have approximately ten minutes of material to get through. We are genuinely delighted to be here and have the opportunity to brief the committee. I thank members for the invitation to address them today on the Department of Defence’s six monthly reports on developments in the EU during 2012, covering both the Danish and the Cypriot Presidencies.
Since the coming into force of the Lisbon treaty, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, conducts the Union’s common foreign and security policy, assisted by the European external action service, EEAS. The role of the EEAS is to support the High Representative in fulfilling her mandate and to manage the EU's response to crises. The role of the rotating Presidency is to provide additional support in fulfilling the mandates laid down while at the same time progressing its own priorities in consultation with other member states.
The EU’scommon security and defence policy, CSDP, forms an integral part of the Union’s common foreign and security policy, CFSP. CSDP’s primary function is to provide the Union with an operational capacity to undertake peacekeeping and crisis management missions outside the territory of the member states. In addition to military tasks, there is a significant civilian and humanitarian dimension. The EU is now a major player on the world stage with an increasing capacity to influence the international security agenda through a “comprehensive approach” using the instruments at its disposal, including economic, diplomatic, political and military instruments. Further progress was made during 2012 in the areas of EU crisis management operations, EU civilian and military capabilities development, battle groups, partnerships with other organisations and the European Defence Agency.
The most visible example of the impact of CSDP is EU peacekeeping and crisis management operations. A key priority of the High Representative, of the EU and also of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Unionis to ensure the continued success of these missions and preparing for new missions. As an example, recently during Ireland’s Presidency, the EU Council agreed to the establishment of the EU training mission in Mali. Sixteen missions and operations were undertaken during 2012, of which three were military operations and 13 were civilian missions. These took place across three continents, with seven in Africa, four in the western Balkans, one in Asia, three in the Middle East and one in the south Caucasus.
The three military operations in 2012 were Operation ALTHEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia; and the EU training mission, EUTM, in Somalia, which is involved in training Somali security forces in Uganda. Ireland is currently participating in two of these operations – Operation ALTHEA and EUTM Somalia – and we deployed to EUTM Mali in March 2013. EU member states have continually praised the success of the EUTM Somalia mission and, in particular, the work carried out by the mission commander, Colonel Michael Beary. Brigadier General Gerald Aherne, another Irish officer, has recently replaced Colonel Beary as the mission begins its third mandate and is charged with moving training from Uganda to Mogadishu. This mission is now being used as a blueprint for other training missions, particularly in Mali, due to its outstanding success.
As I have mentioned, EUTM Mali has been established during our Presidency. This is intended to improve the military capacity of the Malian armed forces to allow, under civilian authority, the restoration of the country's territorial integrity. It is an integral part of the EU's comprehensive approach to the situation in Mali and the Sahel. It is providing military training as well as training and advice on specific areas such as command and control, human resources, international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights. It is not involved in combat operations and Ireland is contributing eight personnel as part of a joint training contingent with the UK armed forces. Although Ireland and UK forces have worked together in different theatres and operations over many years, this is the first time a joint UK-Irish military contingent has been deployed on any such operation. The provision of the joint UK-Ireland contingent underlines the very positive relationship that now exists between Ireland and the UK.
One of Ireland’s priorities during our current Presidency of the Council of the European Union is the continued development of the EU’s CSDP and the comprehensive approach to crisis management. The Horn of Africa is an excellent example of the EU’s comprehensive approach. The fight against piracy in the region consists of three CSDP missions that are making a major contribution to support the efforts to bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Somali people. These missions are complementary and form a coherent, integrated package that supports the EU's strategic framework for the Horn of Africa. In the Sahel a similar approach has been taken, with the missions forming crucial elements of the EU strategy for security and development in the region. This strategy focuses on Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria and covers political, humanitarian and development dimensions with a strong security component.
I will address the area of civilian and military capability developments. The priority in this area is to provide the Union with an operational capacity, drawing on civilian and military assets, which can be used on missions outside the Union. During 2012 and under the auspices of the European Defence Agency, EDA, work continued on the development of military capabilities, including identifying projects where member states can work together as part of the EDA’s pooling and sharing initiative.
Some of these initiatives are addressing the development of capabilities in the areas of maritime surveillance, network enabled capability and cyber security, just to name a few. In addition, work continued on identifying synergies between civilian and military capability development planning.
In regard to battle groups, the EU has developed the capability to deploy forces at high readiness in the event of a crisis. To date no battle group has been deployed. The reason as to why a battle group has not been deployed since the concept was established in 2007 was the subject of an in-depth analysis carried out by the Crisis Management and Planning Directorate of the European External Action Service during 2012. Battle groups have also been discussed in detail in all defence fora during our Presidency. In consultation with the EEAS and member states we are looking at ways of improving the flexibility, usability and deplorability of battle groups. This is an issue that will remain on the agenda up to and including the European Council on Defence in December 2013.
Let me emphasise that Ireland has always been a strong supporter of the UN and of UN peacekeeping. In 2012, Ireland promoted and championed a new impetus in UN co-operation at EU level which resulted in the EU publishing an action plan to enhance EU support to UN peacekeeping. This action plan has reinvigorated co-operation between the UN and the EU, including the role of the UN-EU steering committee on crisis management, originally established to advance the goals of the 2003 Joint Declaration on EU-UN co-operation in crisis management, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Ireland has placed great emphasis on the issue, both in the recent past and during our Presidency.
Since Ireland currently holds the EU Presidency, I though it might be helpful if I updated the committee on current developments. During our Presidency we have actively engaged with UN representatives and they have welcomed our efforts to promote UN peacekeeping among EU member states. The Under Secretary General for UN peace keeping operations, Mr. Hervé Ladsous, making his first visit to Ireland, attended the informal meeting of EU Ministers of Defence in Dublin Castle in February. Also as part of the Presidency programme, we hosted a seminar in February, which examined how we can foster more effective co-operation and build partnerships both across regional organisations, including the EU, NATO and the African Union and between these organisations and the UN, in order to enhance the effectiveness of UN mandated peacekeeping operations. Representatives from the United Nations, European Union, NATO and the African Union attended and since it took place, the Minister and the Department have received positive feedback from the participants and those who attended.
Efforts have continued between the EU and NATO to improve co-operation between both organisations. The EU and NATO have co-operated closely in regard to the development of capabilities in the areas of Counter-Improvised Explosive Devices, C-IED, medical support and also protection against chemical, biological radiological and nuclear threats, CBRN. Ireland is particularly interested in the C-IED and CBRN elements. We have also engaged with NATO representatives in regard to events during our Presidency. The NATO Secretary General, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, making his first visit to Ireland, attended the informal meeting of EU Ministers of Defence in Dublin Castle in February. Other NATO representatives have also attended the UN seminar and our seminar on Maritime Security in March.
Looking ahead, much of the focus of work in 2013 has concentrated on preparing for the European Council meeting in December 2013 which will include a thematic discussion on common security and defence policy and defence issues. The last such discussion by Heads of State and Government took place five years ago. As such this presents a significant and relatively unique opportunity to place EU defence issues centre stage and to consider the role of CSDP. Since December 2012, member states have been actively addressing this topic through a range of fora. Throughout our Presidency this subject has been a significant priority and will continue to be after our Presidency is completed.
The Irish Presidency is committed to supporting and facilitating preparations for the European Council and we will hold a seminar on the subject in Dublin Castle next week. The Department of Defence will proactively continue to support the Union in its efforts to advance the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy in order to achieve the objective of ensuring a safer and more secure Europe and a safer and more secure world.
I thank the Chairman and members for their attention. I would be pleased to answer questions.
I thank Mr. Howard for his presentation. I attended an interparliamentary seminar in Dublin Castle and it opened my eyes to what is happening in that part of the world and the challenges we are facing. I was struck by the turmoil and the suffering of the people in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and other parts of North Africa. Those engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian rights are facing major challenges.
Deputy Ó Fearghail has some questions.
I thank Mr. Howard for his presentation. It has been very useful. One would not know this was the first time the group has come before us. I pay tribute to Mr. Howard, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, and everybody else involved in the Department's work on the Irish Presidency.
The Minister has prioritised EU-UN relations and has said that the development of the EU-UN relations would be one of the priority areas of his Department's activity in the course of the Presidency. Will Mr. Howard address how the EU and Ireland, in particular, have helped influence the international security agenda during the time of the Presidency and beyond, because we are supposed to be looking at the Cypriot and Danish Presidencies in the course of this discussion?
Mr. Michael Howard:
By way of background I should say that Denmark hosted the Presidency in the first half of 2012 and has an opt out of the military aspects of CSDP, so that naturally would have influenced its disposition towards the management of it. It is important to know that.
Some years ago we produced a Food for Thought paper promoting the idea of a much more integrated EU approach to supporting the UN in peacekeeping. At the risk of using some slightly unparliamentary language, we kept pushing it and pushing it to get people to pay attention. We have canvassed among EU member states an awareness of the fact that the EU has something it can contribute and an awareness of our understanding of the challenges the UN faces in trying to mount peacekeeping operations. We have had a thought and reflection process as to what the European Union and member states can bring to support the UN. As I am sure members are aware, the UN has so much peacekeeping business on hands it is looking to outsource the provision of forces where it can to regional organisations, be it the European Union, NATO or the African Union. There is a very serious issue, not a willingness issue but a capacity issue, in Africa among the countries that might contribute troops to peace support operations. The technical sophistication of EU assets in addition to the financial resources of member states, even in a recession, are so deep that we can obviously bring something to the situation.
In the course of the Irish Presidency, we did two things that are unique one of which was to hold a seminar. We control to a degree the agenda by hosting seminars, as one brings people together and exposes people who would not normally meet each other to an exchange of views in the hope that one will create a momentum for change and a better understanding. Our seminar in February brought together the African Union, the UN, NATO and the European Union. These people do not normally meet. It was a very good seminar. In particular, the representative of the African Union was able to give a very forthright and direct account of the deficiencies and the problems they face.
By way of background, I could mention that the European Union mounted an operation in Chad, which we had the opportunity to visit as part of our troops. Chad is two and a half times the size of France and has 300 km of paved road.
For any force to be mobile in that environment, it requires the depth of technology and air support the European Union can bring. There has been reluctance on the part of European Union countries to put troops into missions. One of the facts which is very stark and with which people who attended the seminar were confronted by the UN was that European states provide 40% of the cash but they only provide 5% of the troops. The hope is that simply putting facts such as that in front of people and keeping on doing so will encourage people to factor it into planning for 2013 and 2014. Some member states will have troops available with the wind-down in Afghanistan that they could make available for peacekeeping. They have been alerted to the need and the requirement has been presented to them. That is something on which we will continue to follow through.
I have another question on the same matter. There is a sense in the country at large that we look to the UN above and beyond every other international agency as the first port of call in terms of solving international conflicts. I seek reassurance in the context of an improvement in EU-UN relations that other agencies are not beginning to challenge the UN on the basis that it has in some way failed to fulfil its responsibilities. Are we getting close to NATO in a way that might not have been the case previously? There is a view that this is the case. It would be helpful to hear the view of the witnesses.
Mr. Michael Howard:
I will take those two issues separately if I may. The UN is no more and no less than the member states. If the member states agree to do something, it gets done. One of the factors that constrains the UN in operation is the Security Council because permanent members have a veto. That is outside of our control but that is the situation.
The second big constraint on the UN is resources. If the United Nations mounts a blue hat operation, the financial cost of it falls on the UN, and its capacity to fund and resource the operations is limited. Therefore, it asks organisations such as the EU and NATO to come in, but always under a UN mandate so the political legitimacy of the missions derives from the United Nations. The difference is that regional organisations such as the EU or NATO pay for the operation and relieve the UN of the financial burden, plus they might bring a depth of capacity and technical ability that the UN would not perhaps get voluntarily.
I welcome the opportunity to bring clarity to the position with NATO. Basically, the relationship we have with NATO is stable. It has not changed. We are a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Since the late 1990s, when the change in peacekeeping took place, and since the UN asked organisations such as NATO to go peacekeeping, we have participated in NATO-led peacekeeping operations, as do all of the other neutral countries. It is a general policy on peacekeeping that even when an organisation such as NATO or the European Union mounts an operation, it is open to third countries if they wish to join in because it is basically a UN operation. However, if one is operating at such a high technical level, one cannot simply show up in the mission area and hope one will be able to operate with other high-tech forces in a seamless way. For that reason, NATO has developed a plethora of standards and when one goes with NATO – to use what might be a frivolous illustration, one cannot show up with two-pin plugs if everyone else has three-pin sockets. There are NATO standards for every type of equipment, for communications and procedures of every kind so that one can operate seamlessly together. The way in which countries such as Ireland that are not members of NATO get access to the standards is through Partnership for Peace. That is its purpose. We have a partnership programme and its focus is to ensure we are interoperable with NATO on peacekeeping missions. That is its purpose and goal.
NATO welcomes the participation of this country because we have such a strong reputation in peacekeeping. Our presence on missions underlines the fact that it is basically a UN peacekeeping operation being performed by NATO and not a NATO mission. Our dialogue with NATO takes place on the basis that we are a partner but not a member. We have no agenda to change the nature of our participation with it. I acknowledge that we have got tremendous technical support and assistance from NATO in achieving full interoperability for peacekeeping missions. I am anxious to correct any belief people have that our relationship with NATO is one that is in some sort of fundamental transit. Both sides fully understand and respect the fact that we are not a member and we are not an applicant but we co-operate with peacekeeping, and in between missions, we do the training and follow the standards that are necessary to go on peace support operations when they arise.
I have one more question and I will be brief as I do not wish to hog the meeting. I was enormously struck by the comments made on the ALTHEA mission in Bosnia by Lord Paddy Ashdown. He described international participation in Bosnia as absolutely disastrous. Does Mr. Howard have a comment in that regard?
We all echo the comments about Colonel Beary and the good wishes to Colonel Aherne. I do not know whether the latter is already in place or if he has still to travel. When will training begin in Mogadishu?
I understand the Danes have an opt-out and are sensitive about the common security policy. In a paper published during the Danish Presidency, there was much talk about the constraints being placed on the establishment of battle groups. We have never seen a battle group called into action. That can be a good thing or it might be a bad thing when one looks at the peace enforcement role we might have in this particular area. Will Mr. Howard comment on the issue?
It struck me that the Department is doing good work and that a partnership approach is taken to the work in hand. To what extent is there engagement between the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Irish Aid, not least having regard to the work the Department is doing in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa?
Mr. Michael Howard:
I do not particularly wish to comment in detail on Lord Ashdown’s comment. The appropriate level of continuing participation in ALTHEA has been the source of discussion at EU fora. The mission has gone through a number of transformations and downsizing. That has been the collective view of European Union members. When the discussions take place, some feel more of an abundance of caution than others. Perhaps Lord Ashdown sits on that side of the fence. It is perhaps a policy question that goes a little bit beyond my role. This country did participate, when it was a much larger mission, with a number of other countries on the downsizing. We were anxious to see the mission as part of a normalisation process transit into more of a support operation for Bosnia Herzegovina rather than a large mission on the ground.
On Somalia, the headquarters of the mission will move to Mogadishu. An indication has been given by the Ugandan authorities that they would like to see an end to training in Uganda and to have it moved back to Somalia. The Somali authorities would also like that to happen. What we are told is that the decision on training is one that will be made based on conditions on the ground. There has been talk of doing it in the relatively near future but we have been told that the decision to move is conditions-based, not timeline-based. A decision is expected. Training in Somalia has not commenced yet, therefore, but it is envisaged in the near future.
Mr. Michael Howard:
We have a very good working relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade across all of our remit in this area. The Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, is an integral part of the common foreign and security policy. We work hand in glove in this country and we are closely co-ordinated in European fora. By the standards of countries generally, there are advantages in being small. This country is seen to run a better joined-up operation in this area than some others between defence, military and civil and foreign affairs.
On the question of tying in with Irish Aid in mission areas, we do talk at a policy level here in Ireland. However, we also have to be mindful that when our troops are part of a multinational force, they are operating under a multinational command system. In some cases, that commander would be an Irish officer and we would be careful to ensure that people operate as part of the multinational team and not to go too far into bilateral co-operation with other agencies from their own country that might create the impression that they are not there as part of a UN mission but as part of a bilateral team. It is something of a constraint in terms of how we operate. Ireland has a very good reputation for being a team player in peacekeeping and peace support. We play on the European team and while we would engage in a certain amount of co-operation with local agencies on a goodwill basis, we are always mindful of preserving the unity of the European team.
I welcome the witnesses to the meeting and thank them for their report. I warmly welcome the first part of that report, particularly the reference to the fact that Ireland is a strong supporter of the United Nations, of UN peace keeping operations and is supporting the UN at a European level. However, I must put on my old hat now and I am sure the Chairman is tired listening to me in this regard but I have concerns when I hear terms like battle groups and statements about the European Union and NATO improving co-operation. I am also concerned by the recent appearance of the Secretary General of NATO in Dublin. I hope that does not herald an undermining of our position on the United Nations. I believe Mr. Howard said that Ireland is not an advocate for NATO and I ask him to clarify that point.
Many of us have serious concerns about maintaining Ireland's traditional peacekeeping role and we do not want a situation to develop whereby we build a relationship with NATO. The report to the committee made NATO sound like a nice, friendly organisation but three weeks ago in Afghanistan NATO planes slaughtered ten Afghan children in a drone attack on a village. Is there any question of an undermining of the United Nations and a promotion of the NATO agenda at an Irish or European level? Is it correct that Ireland will not be an advocate for NATO?
Mr. Michael Howard:
Peace support operations are much broader than peacekeeping operations. The latter implies that there is a "peace in place" and the aim of a peacekeeping operation is to maintain that peace. There can be a mandate for a more robust action, where the conditions of a "peace in place" do not exist and that can become a peace enforcement operation. There is also the much broader concept of security sector reform. The Chad mission, for example, had a peace enforcement mandate, which is one end of the spectrum. On the other hand, the training mission in Uganda, involving the training of Somali troops, is a peace support operation. That operation is about capacity building. We are simply training people outside of the site of the operation. The full range of operations can be encompassed by the term "peace support" operations.
I am not sure what I said exactly what I said about NATO because I was not reading from a prepared script but I believe I said that our relationship with NATO is stable and is not changing. We are not going to become a member of NATO. That is not on NATO's agenda or on ours. On the issue of NATO and the UN, it is important to remember that they have a good relationship and do not see themselves as competitors. The UN is asking NATO to do more in terms of fielding peace support operations generally.
I would like to comprehensively reassure the Deputy that while we have a very good and very friendly relationship with NATO, Ireland, along with other EU member states, would be a very strong advocate for ensuring that at all times the European Union and NATO have completely separate decision making structures. We would be very careful to monitor that. We also are extremely careful to monitor what are sovereign decisions for Ireland. How much money we spend on defence, what we spend it on and when and where we deploy our troops are exclusively sovereign decisions for Ireland at all times. At times, perhaps inadvertently, other countries may raise issues that we feel could be seen to cross those boundaries and we will always make our position very clear in those circumstances. I believe that our position is understood by NATO and the European Union. Indeed, within the European Union, our position is respected. I also think that because we participate in missions, we actually have an opportunity to influence the direction of the collective. Certainly, Ireland's contribution in this policy space has been to encourage people to find ways to support the UN.
Deputies and Senators should understand that the European Union is a very big collective of 27 member states and influencing the collective will of the union takes time. It is something one must be willing to plug away at but we have been pushing this for some time and we are getting traction on it. Certainly, in our Presidency and in the aftermath of the work we have done, we have a sense that we have been getting traction on that issue.
I welcome Mr. Howard's reference to sovereign decisions. That is very important. Does Mr. Howard have any data on the cost to the taxpayer of some of the missions in which we are involved? Does Mr. Howard have any figures relating to the cost of the European Defence Agency annually, across the 27 EU member states? I am only looking for ball park figures.
Mr. Michael Howard:
We do not have figures here but I will write to the Deputy with that information. In terms of our co-operation with the European Defence Agency, one would be talking about hundreds of thousands of euro. The total for the European Union is €30 million. Our gross national income, GNI, contribution to that would be a fraction of one per cent. The cost is in six figures and I will supply the precise figure to the Deputy at a later date. That covers our contribution to the agency. In addition, Dáil Éireann has mandated our participation in a number of the agency's projects and again, our contributions would be in the hundreds of thousands of euro region. I would prefer to write to the Deputy with the precise figures rather than discuss the matter now.
I welcome the Secretary General and his colleagues. Concern has been expressed in recent years about a perceived erosion of Irish neutrality, with our participation in the Partnership for Peace, PfP, operations and the EU battle groups. This was not helped by the comments of the Secretary General of NATO who, on a recent visit here, said that he would like to see Ireland join NATO in the future. The question that many international and Irish peace campaigners are asking is why NATO is still in existence. It is seen as a relic of the Cold War. Why is there not just one United Nations umbrella, unchallenged and with the authority of the international community?
Mr. Michael Howard:
I am very anxious to address all of the Deputy's concerns relating to this issue. It is important to point out that the United Nations does not keep standing military forces of its own. It is completely dependent on countries and organisations to supply forces for its peacekeeping missions. Representatives of the UN would be very open about the fact that it is overstretched because of the number of peacekeepers it has to field in places like Africa. Therefore, the NATO/UN relationship is very much based on the UN asking NATO to field peace support operations. I do not have any brief to speak on behalf of NATO or to make any case for its continued existence but it is a fact that it exists and has become a significant player in supplying assets for peace support operations. The UN wants this and is mandating NATO's operations and is happy for Ireland to contribute to those operations. Those points are a given and are the starting point for our relationship with NATO.
Therefore, when we engage with NATO - this may come as a surprise to the committee - the UN is quite pleased and would be anxious not to discourage us from participating in NATO-UN mandated peace operations.
Whether there is an argument for continuing with these - perhaps there is - is a debate for NATO. Ireland is not a member of NATO, therefore we are not there to make a case for its continuing membership. Given that exists, it may be worth emphasising that in addition to being a military alliance on a de factobasis NATO is, effectively, the International Standards Organisation, ISO, of the military world. The International Standards Organisation produces ISO standards for all kinds of things. In the military world, it is NATO that produces these standards. If one is going to engage at the top end of military operations, NATO standards are used. Neutral Ireland bought our MOWAP armoured personnel carriers from neutral Switzerland but the contract specs are all NATO standards, even though neither Ireland nor Switzerland are members of NATO. As they are the only standards there are, that requires us to be in Partnership for Peace. For example, in the battle group led by Sweden, which is not a member of NATO, Ireland, Finland, Norway and Estonia participate. The great majority of the troops are not NATO but it uses NATO standards because that is all there is. That is our view of NATO, not the Military Alliance view but what I would call the ISO of the military world. Perhaps it is worth keeping that in mind.
That is fine for now. I will move on to the next question. As Mr. Howard is aware, the operation in Mali has a wider context. Many of the European countries have a colonial history, particularly in north Africa but also throughout Africa - we are talking about north Africa for the purposes of this conversation - which is not something to be proud of. There are always concerns about the natural resources and the interests of corporations based in Europe. The most recent conflicts include the uprising in Tunisia where France was seen to have been on the wrong side and continued to support Ben Ali, the dictator, up to the end. In Libya, the African Union strongly criticised the NATO response to the UN Security Council Resolution which was not about regime change but protection of civilians. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl and I had the opportunity to meet the chairman of the African Union, Jean Ping, who actually put those detailed criticisms to us regarding its concerns about what would happen. Those concerns have been vindicated. This has been the recent context for NATO-led operations in Africa, in Libya against the advice and interests of the African Union itself and in Mali where we have deployed eight members of our Defence Forces - we have had a debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas on the Defence Forces because the number has to reach 12.
We know there is considerable criticism of the Malian government and army in terms of human rights abuses from the UN and Human Rights Watch and other human rights NGOs. The question for people who are proud of our neutrality and the potential that neutrality offers in conflict resolution across the world is what are we doing there with a NATO-led operation, under a UN banner, which I accept. It is a NATO state-led operation, and NATO is involved in training an army that is guilty of gross human rights abuses and taking sides. Meanwhile, on the other side we are very proud of our Defence Forces in Lebanon who are in blue helmet operations that are peacekeeping operations. That has been our legacy.
Today we were at church honouring our 1916 heroes and on our right hand side there were those who gave their life for the State, proudly serving our Defence Forces in peacekeeping operations. There are UN Security Council resolutions about Palestine, the settlements in Palestine and the illegal settlements that are ongoing to this day. Ireland has never militarily given support to the Palestinian people or intervened to enforce those UN Security Council resolutions, yet we have chosen to go under a banner and operate in Mali. Why?
Mr. Michael Howard:
As I think the Deputy will understand I am constrained in what I can say. I cannot speculate on the motives of other participants in peace support operations. I understand the Deputy's point of view but perhaps it is somewhat outside of the remit of the Department of Defence in Ireland. The EU training mission in Somalia is a training mission. When we were on the evaluation process in relation to the mission in Somalia, a lot of questions were asked about the people we were going to train, what might happen with the training and there were risks involved. The only way to have no risks is to have no mission. I am not saying this to be tendentious but to understand from our point of view if we wait until conditions are perfect we will never go into a mission.
The Deputy has rightly brought to attention the fact that some people may question the motives of some of the people involved. Whether that is right or wrong I cannot say but what I can say is that there is no question over the motives of countries such as Ireland. It is better that we participate. When we participate we get our flag over the mission headquarters and we get a say in what is done. Whatever other people may think, if Irish troops go on an EU training mission it will train Malian forces to the best way that they can be trained and we have no hidden agenda.
Questions have been raised about the conduct of the forces in the past. While it would not be appropriate for me to get into a debate about that, I acknowledge the fact that questions have been raised. The question for us then is what should we do about it. I would like to think that if a training team with an Irish component gets involved it is far more likely to improve the situation than disimprove it but I have to acknowledge the fact that it is not a perfect situation. What I am saying to the Deputy is that if we wait until it is perfect then they will not need the training.
There is a humanitarian law component in the training that our trainers will give. Irish soldiers, because it is part of their own training as they all have peace support and peacekeeping experience, will be very good mentors and role models for the troops involved in training. They are also having an input with the other trainers. Our relationship with our British colleagues in regard to this training mission is very good. Our personnel, when they went to Britain for the joint training before deployment, found that the UK side was waiting to be given guidance as to what to do, waiting to learn from our experience in Somalia. It is very much the right thing to do to participate, accepting that it will not bring about a perfect world, but I think we definitely have an impact.
In the other areas where we are trying to have an influence, perhaps trying to have a political influence over the policy of the European Union regarding the UN, the fact that we participate in missions gives us a voice that will be heard. People listen if one shows up at the airport when the mission starts. That is another reason we should be positively disposed to participate in missions, accepting the fact that the missions may not be perfect. Whenever one goes into a multinational peace support operation, some of the other countries participating may or may not be the people we would choose. Let us remember we might not be the people they would choose. As long as everybody goes on the mission and fulfils the mandate we are improving the situation. I believe the presence of countries such as Ireland and other like-minded neutral countries is positive in that context, which is why we are supporters of it.
Are there any other comments or questions? I thank Mr. Michael Howard and his colleagues for appearing before the committee. The debate has been very interesting. It is the first such discussion and I would like to see it happening on a more regular basis. We have heard and learned a great deal. I wish Mr. Howard well in his future endeavours and thank him for his courtesy and service over the years.