Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Shannon Airport Landings: Discussion (Resumed)
We now move on to the formal part of the meeting. Given the pressure the Minister is under, we will conclude at 5 p.m. sharp, which gives us 50 minutes. The matter is the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in facilitating foreign aircraft in Irish airspace and availing of landing facilities in Ireland. May I remind all present to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the communications system?
We are pleased to welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who will make a presentation on the role of his Department in issuing diplomatic notes to allow foreign aircraft to enter Irish airspace and avail of landing facilities. The invitation to address the committee arose as a result of ongoing investigations by the committee in respect of public petition No. P00072/12 from Dr. Edward Horgan and others concerning the US military and CIA use of Shannon Airport and Irish airspace.
The Minister is accompanied by Ms Sarah Kavanagh, special adviser, Mr. Barry Robinson, political director, Mr. John McCullagh, director of the international security policy section and Ms Caroline Phelan, deputy director of the international security policy section. I welcome all the witnesses and thank them for forwarding their briefing, which has been circulated to the members.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to make his presentation.
I acknowledge the Chairman's words of condolence, sympathy and support at this very difficult time for this country, but in particular for those families bereaved and affected by the tragedy in Berkeley, California. We would be happy to keep the Chairman and committee fully updated and informed on this issue. I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the matter of requests to permit landings by foreign military aircraft at Irish airports and their passage through Irish airspace.
As a former member of the Committee, I am a strong supporter of its role and believe it has the capacity to make an important positive contribution to our democratic process. It is with some alarm that I note that my replacement is only going before the committee today, which means that I have been marked absent from committee meetings over the past 12 months. In terms of a league table of committee attendance, parliamentary appearances or otherwise, I certainly would not like to have a very poor attendance rate at this committee. I am sure the Chairman would use his good offices to assure the appropriate clerk that I have not been active participant, nor indeed, I think, a member of the committee since May of last year. I wish Deputy Anthony Lawlor every success as my replacement. This is an important committee and, if I may say so, I feel my membership of, attendance at and contribution to it over the past years illustrated the high regard in which I held it and the Chairman's role.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been happy to co-operate fully with the committee’s consideration of this petition. In response to queries raised by the committee, written replies issued from my Department in December 2013 and May 2014. The Department's Secretary General, Niall Burgess, met with the committee last December and subsequently sent a written response to a number of follow-up queries. I trust that this intensive level of engagement has proven useful to the committee's deliberations. It may be helpful if I offer some opening remarks, to set the scene and to touch on a few points which I understand are of particular interest to the committee. Then we can open up the discussion, if that is in order.
As the committee members will be aware, responsibility concerning the regulation of aircraft is shared between a number of Departments. My Department has the lead role in respect of foreign military aircraft. In administering this role, it consults with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Department of Defence; and the Department of Justice and Equality. Lead responsibility for the regulation of civil aircraft lies with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, which consults as appropriate with other Departments, including mine, on applications concerning the carriage of munitions of war.
My Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, discussed the regulation of civil aircraft when he met with the committee on 18 February. I shall therefore focus my remarks on the regulation of foreign military aircraft. As members are aware from previous discussions, landings and overflights by foreign military aircraft are governed by strict conditions, including that aircraft must be unarmed and must carry no arms, ammunition or explosives.
The total numbers of requests for permission for landings by foreign military aircraft at Irish airports has not varied hugely over time. Over the period 2010 to 2014, the average annual number of requests was 721. This is broadly in line with the figure for 2004, over ten years ago. The majority of requests originate from the US, with US aircraft accounting for an average of 85% of requests over the past five years. Some 1,321 requests and notifications in respect of overflights by foreign military aircraft were made last year. This represents a substantial reduction on the 2013 figure of 1,762. Data for the first quarter of 2015 suggest a continuing downward trend. Again, the majority of overflights concern US aircraft.
It is not surprising that the majority of flights arise in respect of US aircraft. As the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, remarked when he addressed the committee in February, this is more a function of geography than policy. I am aware that in the meeting with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, a number of members raised the issue of military neutrality and I understand that this may be among the issues that the committee wishes to discuss this afternoon. The Government is committed to the long-standing policy of military neutrality, which is characterised by non-participation in military alliances. This commitment was publicly reaffirmed in the major statement of foreign policy priorities that we published in January of this year, entitled “The Global Island: Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World”, which states that “our policy of military neutrality remains a core element of Irish foreign policy".
This policy document sets out values which guide our foreign policy. They are drawn from Article 29 of the Constitution which refers to principles including the ideals of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations and the pacific settlement of international disputes. They are drawn also from the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The policy highlights the importance of international peace and stability for Ireland, stating that “supporting greater peace, security and development is also in our interest as a small country with an open economy in an ever more interconnected and uncertain world". Accordingly, we prioritise activities in support of these objectives, including our unbroken commitment over five decades to UN peacekeeping; promoting and protecting human rights; and our long-standing commitment to working through the Irish Aid programme for the eradication of poverty and hunger.
Our policy of military neutrality, accordingly, forms part and parcel of an outward-looking and proactive engagement in the international community. The long-standing practice of permitting US and other foreign military aircraft to overfly Ireland and to land at Irish airports has been considered by successive Governments to be consistent with the policy of military neutrality. We have never withdrawn or suspended the use of facilities at Shannon at any stage in the more than 50 years since arrangements were first put in place. Ireland has not entered into a military alliance with the US or with any other country or organisation.
The long-standing arrangements relating to Shannon should also be seen in the context of our strong co-operative relationship with the US. We make Shannon available to the US and to other nations with which we have friendly relations. Our relationship with the US has evolved from and been strengthened by the personal ties that bind our citizens. Our Governments co-operate closely on many fronts. We should not confuse the concept of military neutrality with political neutrality. The US has been a major positive influence over many years in bringing about and sustaining peace in Northern Ireland. We have engaged constructively with the US administration on interim measures to address the needs of the undocumented in the US. The strong economic relations between the two countries in investment and trade represent a major driver for jobs and economic growth in Ireland.
Before I conclude, I again acknowledge the value and importance of the committee's consideration of the issues raised by the petition. The system of regulation for foreign military aircraft was put in place many years ago and the order under which I am assigned primary responsibility dates from 1952. My Department keeps arrangements under ongoing review and has revised policy and procedures incrementally in response to specific changes over time. It is important to ensure that our approach keeps pace with changing circumstances and technology and to ensure that we have in place a system which can be further adapted to take account of future change. In this context, the committee's work is timely and will be particularly helpful in identifying issues to be addressed. I will be happy to ensure that all due account is taken of the committee's conclusions and recommendations.
I welcome the Minister back, albeit on the other side of the fence in this case. It is a very interesting petition that called on us to visit Shannon Airport. The petitioners appeared before us and the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport also appeared before us to discuss the different elements of this. We seem to be focusing on neutrality, which is the major question. A number of issues were initially raised by the petitioner. The petition asked to investigate the fact that we are allowing aircraft that carry military personnel and hardware, albeit sometimes in the hold of the aircraft, to land in Irish airports. This points to the question around neutrality and goes back to the old adage if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck despite the fact that the Government says that our neutrality is not affected. The petition argues that if one asked an independent observer from outside to look at the fact that we are allowing military aircraft to land in a civilian airport like Shannon, they would decide that it makes us complicit in whatever actions are being undertaken by those armies or the troops travelling through the airport.
The Minister said that there is a difference between political neutrality and military neutrality. Could he tell us the legal definition of neutrality this Government stands by? Neutrality is a word that is bandied around quite a lot on these types of issues so we need to be very specific because the nub of the issue is what the Government regards as neutrality. Where is it defined in international law? Are we bound by international treaties in respect of that definition? I believe the Government said previously that we basically depend on the word of those Governments that the planes that are landing are doing what is said on the tin and that if they say there are no arms on board, we take their word for that. The petitioner raised the question as to how we would ever know that if we never board those aircraft and never check this out. One could argue that if I was stopped at a road traffic checkpoint and somebody asked me whether I had contraband or drugs in my car, the Garda certainly would not take my word for it if I said I did not have anything. There would be a check of some sort. What is the basis in international law for not checking these planes when they come to Shannon?
The nub of the argument is a distinction between a policy of military neutrality as opposed to one of political neutrality. In the strict sense of international law and practice, the question of neutrality does not really arise during peacetime but only arises during a state of war or conflict when the neutrality of the state would be embodied in any attitude of impartiality or otherwise towards a belligerent or a nation involved in conflict. Ireland is one of a number of states that pursues a policy of neutrality or non-alignment in peacetime. It is a matter for each of these states to determine the nature and characteristics of such a policy. Our traditional policy of military neutrality, which has been pursued by successive governments, is perhaps characterised more than anything else by non-participation in any military alliance. We do not engage actively or positively in conflict. The Government reaffirmed its continued commitment in the policy statement earlier this year to which I referred in the context of my opening statement.
I want to refer to political neutrality. Political neutrality in international affairs has never been part of Ireland's foreign policy tradition. Ireland's approach to international security is characterised by our commitment to achieving collective security, principally through our membership of the UN, our contribution to conflict resolution and peace building, our work for human rights and development and our efforts to promote disarmament and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. These values continue to underpin and motivate our long and distinguished record of support for and participation in military operations that are sanctioned only by the UN Security Council in the cause of international security and peace. Our non-membership of military alliances strengthens our credibility in areas that are experiencing conflict.
In respect of whether the use of Shannon Airport by the US military increases the risk that the airport might at some stage be considered a target, I am aware, as are the members, of media reports referring to a possible targeting of Shannon Airport. I do not wish to comment on that nor do I wish to fuel any speculation or heighten any anxieties. As the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport stated when he appeared before this committee earlier this year, he has primary responsibility for the security arrangements at Shannon and all Irish airports. These arrangements are kept under constant review. Issues relating to national security are a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality but I can safely say that any threat levels are kept under constant review and surveillance.
The appropriate measures are taken from time to time. I have no evidence to suggest that Shannon Airport is at risk or that it is being targeted by anybody wishing to engage in any acts of aggression against our country.
I am aware that the matter of inspections has exercised the joint committee. It is an issue of great importance. Senator Ó Clochartaigh used the analogy of having his car stopped and being asked whether there is any contraband on board. He said he would not be surprised if his answer was not taken at face value. The answer would be considered by the questioners in the context of their suspicion or otherwise. I would see no reason for him not to be waved on if there were no suspicious circumstances, if he had made a forthright statement that he did not have anything to declare and if he was not engaging in any activity of a suspect or illegal nature. I suggest that the Senator's analogy might work against him, as much as he tries to illustrate it as a comparison.
I reiterate that permission for military aircraft to overfly or land in the State is granted at all times subject to certain conditions. These strict stipulations provide that the aircraft must be unarmed, must carry no arms, ammunition or explosives and must not engage in intelligence-gathering. The flights in question must not form part of any military operation or exercise. In accordance with international practice, foreign military aircraft passing through Ireland with the permission of the Government are not subject to routine searches or inspections. The principle of sovereign immunity applies automatically to foreign state or military aircraft in the same that it applies to Irish State or military aircraft abroad. For many years, Ireland accepted the generally recognised principles of international law as rules of conduct in its relations with other states.
Bilateral relations between friendly nations are founded on an element of mutual trust. Both parties have an interest in maintaining that trust and not undermining it. Details supplied to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by diplomatic missions are therefore accepted in good faith as being accurate. Information provided to other states by Irish diplomatic missions seeking diplomatic clearance for flights undertaken by the Air Corps is similarly accepted by those countries as being at all times accurate. That is the position in respect of military aircraft. It is very important in the context of all these discussions and deliberations that we identify clearly the distinction between military and civil aircraft. There is often an element of confusion in the public press and in many debates regarding the clearly defined distinction between a military aircraft on the one hand and a civil aircraft on the other hand.
I assure the committee that civil aircraft are subject to the normal inspection regime, which provides for the inspection of aircraft in the interests of security and the safety of persons, among other reasons. This is where I consider the car analogy used by Senator Ó Clochartaigh to be quite appropriate. If there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence has been committed, An Garda Síochána has statutory powers of entry, search and arrest available to it. In the circumstances set out by the Senator, we take the assurances in good faith. We have done so in the past and we will continue to do so into the future unless we have clear grounds for believing otherwise. We do not have such grounds at present.
I do not want to hog the available speaking time, as many other people are waiting to come in. I suggest the people who made the petition would say they have provided a great deal of evidence of people who were tracked on flights that went through Shannon Airport and ended up fighting on behalf of foreign armies in war situations. Many people, possibly outside this country, might see that as a form of aiding and abetting. The Minister has said that Ireland is not actively engaged as a State in any war, but it is possible that people outside this country - the Minister has previously referred to them as "belligerents" - would see our willingness to allow airplanes to refuel and land here as aiding and abetting attacks on their compatriots. That would be one of the things I would mention in that context.
We have been told that there are arms and explosives on some airplanes, albeit in the holds of civilian aircraft. The details of that are logged and set out on the manifests for the flights in question. It is not correct to say there are no arms or explosives on airplanes going through the airport. Certain people, particularly the petitioners, would feel that the pure volume of soldiers on the flights that have come through the airport would make our neutrality questionable. That is certainly the view of some people outside Ireland. What is the benefit to us of allowing these airplanes to land? If we want to copperfasten our reputation and make sure we are seen in the international arena as totally neutral, surely we could ask these airplanes not to land in Shannon Airport. We were told in Shannon Airport that this is not a money issue as the amount of money involved is not huge. One of the questions to be raised concerned whether the airport is making a fortune out of these airplanes landing there. Why not let them land in other airports, such as military airports? There are concerns about security issues, especially given that an 80 year old woman was able to breach the perimeter of the aircraft and get onto the runway. As we know, questions have been raised about security in Shannon Airport. If an outside grouping sought to threaten seriously the airport, or any of the people on the flights coming through the airport, it might well be able to do so. I do not imagine that any of those groupings would ever indicate in advance that they intended to act in such a manner. This issue needs to be considered.
I want to make two points, the first of which is a reiteration of a point I made earlier. I ask committee members to appreciate the clear distinction between civil and military aircraft. In his earlier contribution, Senator Ó Clochartaigh spoke about military aircraft. When he referred in his supplementary contribution to certain arms on board airplanes, he was speaking specifically about civil aircraft, which are prohibited from carrying weapons or munitions through Irish airspace unless an exemption has been obtained in advance from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. When the Department is considering requests for exemptions made by commercial carriers, it seeks the advice of other Departments. As a matter of policy, the Department recommends against the carriage of items such as cluster munitions, anti-personnel landmines and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The Department generally recommends against the carriage of missiles, bombs and rockets. Often it does not object to the carriage of items such as unloaded personal weapons, small arms and ammunition.
The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport would be fully aware of these arrangements as they occur from time to time. The second point I would like to make is in response to the Senator's comments about the benefits to Shannon Airport of this activity. I am casting aside for the moment the very important difference between the exercise of our military neutrality and the exercise of what can be described by the Government as political neutrality.
In that regard, let me say that in terms of our political neutrality or our politics, I accept there are members around this table with whom I will not reach agreement on this issue and I believe the Senator is one of them. We have a different concept of our relations, for example, with the United States in terms of our political engagement and our important relationship. I make no apologies for that. It is very important having regard to the special relationship which exists between our respective jurisdictions over a long number of years, indeed over centuries.
There are aspects of this relationship on which some people would have a different view. However, leaving those political considerations aside, and I am not underestimating their importance, I want to mention briefly the benefits in terms of the use of Shannon Airport. It is important that we recognise that there has been a significant downturn in the numbers of troops transiting Shannon. Nonetheless, the transit of military or civilian personnel contributes to the overall sustainability of the airport. Last year, 70,000 troops passed through Shannon. My Department has supported the efforts of the Shannon Group to increase the traffic and the revenue at the airport. However, it has been made clear that the transit of any foreign military aircraft must be, and always is, in accordance with the strictest of conditions, which I mentioned in my opening remarks. The Shannon Group employs almost 300 people and it is estimated that a further 1,600 people are employed by 40 aviation-related companies in the Shannon region. There are benefits to Shannon and the region by the transit, as mentioned by the Senator.
I thank the Minister for attending. I have a few brief questions. He mentioned briefly in his response the number of requests for overflights and notifications. There clearly has been a significant reduction over the past year or two, from 2013 to date, with the trend showing the reduction being maintained. On the background explanation for that reduction, can the Minister advise us as to why that might be so? The other question I was going to ask concerns the permission to land at Shannon. Is there a formal separate request arrangement for that as distinct from a request for an overflight facility?
I thank the Deputy for his remarks. Again, it is important that we retain a clear distinction between military overflights and landings, on the one hand, and civilian landings that may have military personnel, on the other hand. In terms of the military overflights, which was the exact question, the numbers are falling. The number of requests in 2013 was 50% below the total for ten years ago and there was a further reduction of 25% last year over the figures for 2013. Approximately two thirds of notifications and requests for overflights received in 2014 related directly to flights and aircraft of the United States. Some 12 requests to overfly Irish territory were refused in 2014 on the basis they did not meet the strict conditions that the aircraft was unarmed or carrying no arms or ammunition, as I stated earlier.
Annual numbers of landing requests fluctuate. It would be unwise of me to speculate as to the reasons. We deal with the numbers as they occur. The average number of landing requests by military aircraft in the past four years, between 2010 and 2014, was something more than 700. Of those 700, an estimated 85% of those related to aircraft of the United States of America. From the latest figures we have, comparing the first quarters of 2015 and 2014, the total number of requests and notifications is down one third whereas the number of US overflights have more than halved over the same period. The trend is certainly downwards and we deal with matters on the basis of our notifications in respect of landings.
I thank the Minister. I have a couple of questions before I let in Deputy Mulherin. We have held a number of hearings at this stage. We visited Shannon Airport and met the management of the airport and the senior members of An Garda Síochána responsible for the security of the airport. They were helpful in clarifying matters. In terms of the civil and military aircraft, the point is that approximately 1.2 million US troops came through Shannon on mostly civil aircraft in recent years. Some were going to Iraq and some were on their way to Afghanistan, no doubt to theatres of war. In terms of the war in Iraq, that did not have UN sanction, which is something on which we would place heavy import in our deliberations. The Minister mentioned political neutrality. The difficulty with these 1.2 million troops, and some of them going to a theatre of war that was not facilitated or supported by the UN or a UN Security Council resolution, is that they all would have been carrying sidearms, perhaps not on their person but certainly on the plane, and all of them would have had at least a rifle. That is millions of weapons which came through the airport. Will the Minister say how he thinks that is commensurate with a declared position of military neutrality?
The Chairman referred to civil aircraft. Again, I emphasise that a decision to authorise or refuse applications for exemptions in this matter is a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. He has had the opportunity of coming before the committee and I understand there was considerable engagement on these issues. It is important to state, as I have done but I will say it again for clarification, that civil aircraft are prohibited from carrying weapons through Irish airspace and airports unless an exemption has been obtained in advance from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Various issues require detailed consideration before a decision will be made. As a matter of policy, the Department recommends against the carriage of such items on such planes. In 2014, we recommended against approval of 19 applications for exemptions. These related mainly to applications where there was a proposed carriage of munitions of war. As far as the troops that the Chairman mentioned are concerned, in terms of the numbers it is clear that the vast majority of such transit arrangements involve civil aircraft transiting through Irish airspace or airports. We do not regard that as being inconsistent with a policy of military neutrality. The granting to the United States and its allies of overflight permissions and facilities and the provision of landing facilities at Shannon by no means constitute an act of participation or, indeed, any participation in war within the meaning of our Constitution, in particular Article 28.3 thereof.
It is important, again, to state that there is a clear distinction between the legality of Ireland granting these permissions and providing these facilities, on the one hand, and the legality in international law of the proposed armed conflict in Iraq on the other.
There are different and distinct legal issues involved here. Legal opinion is divided and there are doubts as to the legality of a proposed armed conflict in Iraq in any event. The Deputy mentioned a UN resolution, but the absence of a further UN resolution authorising military action does not determine the US legal position is not sustainable. At all times, I want to keep the distinction clear between political and military neutrality and between civil and military aircraft. Deputy Kirk raised an important point in regard to military aircraft, namely, the distinction between a military overflight and a military landing.
I remind members there is a vote in the Dáil, but as the Minister must leave in ten minutes, at 5 p.m., I would like to continue and complete the meeting. Anyone who wishes to leave for the vote is free to go.
On occasion, we have not suspended a session when members have agreed to pair off. I am offering to pair off with another member here. However, if the committee members are not in agreement, I must suspend the session.
It is fine for any member who wants to go to vote. There is no requirement to stay.
My next question relates to a scenario where a person's home has been used by persons on the way to a theatre of war. For example, if a group of belligerents or military stop at a house and avail of hospitality and overnight accommodation and clearly are carrying weapons and continue on to the theatre of war, could that family, if liable to prosecution, offer neutrality as a defence?
I would have difficulty addressing these hypothetical circumstances. However, perhaps they are not hypothetical and the Chairman has some evidence he wishes to proffer of activity of this type. I am here to deal with the issue of transit through Shannon Airport by way of overflight or landing of either military or civilian aircraft. It would not be fair for me to comment to the committee on a hypothetical set of circumstances, where people in a given scenario might engage in some form of help or assistance to people going to or coming from a theatre of war, whether armed or not. I do not subscribe to entering into debate on the example put forward.
I welcome the Minister. I take a somewhat different perspective. We are looking at the word "neutrality" in a simplistic fashion, considering world politics and world order. It is like we are saying, "but for this, we are neutral". We are quick to comment on what is going on all over the world. We may not send out armies, but if we were a military power, we might do so. Think of Libya and many other countries involved in what I see as a civil strife. We took a particular view on these and to what was going on in Libya, where there has been a change of regime. However, I do not know how much better matters are there.
Looking closer to home, there is a very close relationship between the US military and our Defence Forces. There is considerable co-operation between them, with training classes and exchanges where best practice and techniques are exchanged. Some of our Defence Forces study at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and some US army officers attend the military college at the Curragh. There is also a US Defense Attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Sean Cosden, based in Dublin. Therefore, we already have close ties with the US forces. However, what we choose to do is to be involved in peacekeeping, while the Americans choose otherwise. Therefore, the situation is nuanced. It is not a question of saying we are not neutral because we work with the Americans.
The Minister said there are certain protocols in regard to inspections and that only where there is a suspicion that people are operating outside the permissions granted would there be an inspection. I believe that is fair. If people are entitled to carry certain hand-guns or other weapons, that is part of the permission granted. Much of the consternation regarding Shannon stems from anti-American, anti-capitalist and anti-everything the US represents sentiment. The idea has been expressed that Shannon Airport would be a prime target here, but perhaps it might be Google or somewhere else. We do not need to focus on big names or large pieces of infrastructure. One only needs to look to France, where a bakery was the target or to what happened at the Charlie Hebdo office.
We are living in a world where we must face the reality that it does not matter whether one professes to be neutral. Think of what happened in the shopping mall in Westlands, Nairobi, where rebels connected with al-Shabaab, which is connected to al-Qaeda, shot people they believed were Christians. Many white westerners fit the description of Christians, but rebels do not care whether or not they are churchgoers or believe in God. If they say they are not Muslim, they are shot. That is the reality of what happened in Nairobi and of the world we face.
I do not agree with the notion that the Americans are somehow to blame for attacks on the west, on Europe or on Ireland. That notion ignores the evidence that in many countries where there is civil war and trouble among the people, the regimes in power, whether legitimate or unofficial kill their own people. They are not just coming to the west and killing people for the sake of getting headlines, they are killing their own people. Over 100,000 Christians were killed last year and I found the report on that very disturbing and wrote to the Minister about it. Not just in the west, but in countries where Christians have lived traditionally, Christians are being killed just because they are Christian and much of this is happening in Muslim countries.
We are living in a world where in the comfort of our democracy we forget what it is like not to have rights and freedom. Think of the sort of regimes there are, such as that in Palestine and of the sort of regime that purportedly represents Muslims who are being oppressed by the Israelis.
One would not write home about many of them and recommend them as a regime for anyone to live under.
Please respect the Chair without interfering. Please let me finish. I am asking the Deputy to put a question to the Minister. He is leaving at 5 p.m. Deputy Mulherin has had a long run and should put some questions to the Minister. Perhaps she wants to leave it with these comments. I am asking her to conclude.
I acknowledge the remarks of Deputy Mulherin, all of which are important in the context of our international affairs. We play a very important role with regard to conflict, for example, the continued and internationally respected participation by Irish personnel in UN peacekeeping, including in the Golan Heights at present with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. We have given 50 years of unbroken service. Recently UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, visited our acclaimed UN training school at the Curragh. That highlights the quality of our training. There are many international participants in courses that are conducted there from time to time, including, on occasion, US personnel. They learn about international law, human rights and best practice in the area of peacekeeping, all of which is important to Ireland and none of which impinges on our traditional policy of military neutrality.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised an important point regarding provisions for the inspection of civil aircraft and the issue of troops being carried, for the most part, on civilian aircraft rather than on military aircraft. It is important that we acknowledge the primary responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, for the regulation of civil aircraft. Having regard to that role, I come back directly here to certain matters on the petition in asking any concerns, suspicion or evidence be laid before members of An Garda Síochána because the Garda has statutory powers in respect of entry, search and the application of the law.
I thank the Minister particularly in the circumstances under which he has come here today and the pressure he is under. We appreciate his coming before the committee to assist us with our deliberations. We will now suspend our public session and will conclude in private session to conclude our business.