Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 3 November 2016
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
European Defence Agency: Motion
All mobile phones should be switched off as they cause interference, even if left in silent mode, with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.
The purpose of the meeting is to consider the following motion which was referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann on 18 October 2016:
That Dáil Éireann approves the participation by Ireland in two European Defence Agency Projects - (1) MARSUR Networking – Adaptive Phase (MARSUR II) and (2) Cooperation on Cyber Ranges in the European Union pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, and his officials. I invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.
In commending the motion to the select committee, I will briefly outline the function of the European Defence Agency, EDA, and the background to the programmes in which Ireland wishes to participate. The EDA was established by a joint action of the Council of the European Union in 2004, "to support the Member States and the Council in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future". On 6 July 2004, the Government approved Ireland's participation in the framework of the European Defence Agency on the basis of a memorandum submitted by the Minister for Defence, in association with the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The EDA is an agency of the European Union. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, is head of the agency. Federica Mogherini is also chairman of the EDA steering board, its decision-making body, which is composed of defence Ministers of the 27 participating member states, that is, all EU member states except Denmark, which has an opt-out on defence matters under Protocol 5 to the Treaty of Amsterdam, and the European Commission.
Ireland participates in the framework of the agency and contributes in the region of €311,000 to the annual costs of running the agency including its annual work programme. Outside of the annual general work programme, the agency also supports a range of other work programmes and projects funded on an ad hocbasis by the member states in various compositions. In some instances, all member states will participate in these projects and programmes unless they specifically decide to opt out. These are referred to as Category A projects or programmes. In other cases, a small number of member states will group together to pursue a particular initiative. These are referred to as Category B projects or programmes.
The EDA is focused on assisting member states in capability development, obtaining better value for existing spending levels, improving competitiveness and securing greater efficiency particularly in the areas of research, technology, manufacturing and procurement, which have been notable for fragmentation and duplication. The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 regulates Ireland's participation in EDA ad hoc projects. It prescribes that participation in Category A or B projects or programmes is subject to Government and Dáil approval. The primary reason for Ireland's participation in the EDA is to support the development of Defence Forces capabilities for peacekeeping and international crisis management.
I will give a brief outline of Ireland's involvement to date in EDA projects and programmes, following Government and Dáil approval. Ireland participated in a Category A programme on force protection, which is now completed. This involved measures to protect military forces engaged in operational activities. This is a key issue for the Defence Forces engaged in peace support and crisis management operations overseas. We participated in another Category A programme, which is also completed, on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection. This is a key capability area for the Defence Forces. Participation in this programme and access to the results of the research, studies and development work packages undertaken by the programme enables the Defence Forces to remain at the leading edge of capability development in this key area.
Ireland is participating in a Category B project on counter-improvised explosives devices manual neutralisation techniques, which was set up to address counter-improvised explosives devices manual neutralisation techniques training, which has been identified as a crucial skill and capability to be developed. Manual neutralisation techniques are used for explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device, IED, disposal. Operators, on occasions, cannot use remote or semi-remote techniques to render an IED safe, and these complex explosive devices have to be neutralised manually. For example, manual neutralisation techniques are used where there is an immediate threat to the life of hostages who have an IED attached to them. The project began in 2014 and will run for four years.
Ireland has participated in another Category B project, which is now completed, on maritime surveillance. This programme further developed the recognised maritime picture exchange network technology that allows for the sharing of information among the wider EU defence community in support of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy and the EU Commission's initiative to establish a common information-sharing environment.
The proposal I am putting to the committee is to seek approval for Ireland to participate in two EDA projects, one in the area of maritime surveillance and one in the area of cyber ranges. MARSUR Networking – Adaptive Maintenance, known as MARSUR II, is a Category B project, and is a follow-on to the Category B project on maritime surveillance networking, which I mentioned, which ended in October 2015. The objective of that project was to develop an automated information-sharing environment through the development of software technologies and the formation of a network to enhance information sharing within the maritime surveillance community.
This web-based system is now operational and information on the positions of ships, fishery protection and maritime safety and security is exchanged in a number of electronic forms between member states participating in the project. While the national operational system in Ireland is located in the naval base, with the user interface located in the naval operations centre, the system can be accessed from a remote location, including when ships are deployed. This is proving particularly useful for the Naval Service which is carrying out humanitarian operations in the Mediterranean. Classified information on the location of other craft in the area, as well as the locations of migrants who need to be rescued, is being exchanged with the Italian authorities. The original 13 member states, including Ireland, contributed €80,000 each to develop the system.
The main objective of the follow-on Category B project is life cycle support of the existing maritime surveillance capability through the provision of adaptive maintenance, system upgrades and enhancements and technical support. The project is necessary to ensure Ireland gets the full value of the initial project. It will ensure the system is maintained, kept up to date and adapted to meet the outgoing needs of the Naval Service. In order to maintain and increase our capability in this area, it is important that Ireland participate in the follow-on project. It will also improve the Defence Forces' inter-operability and operational effectiveness.
I will now give the committee some detail on the second EDA project - co-operation on cyber ranges in the European Union. The EDA Category B project aims to maintain and improve cyber resilience, as well as the levels of awareness, insight and expertise of member states' personnel. Cyber attacks pose a potential threat to the communications and command and control systems of the Defence Forces, both at home and overseas. The need to be able to defend Defence Forces' systems against cyber attacks has been identified as a specific capability requirement by the Defence Forces. Cyber ranges are a virtual environment used for cyber training, exercises and technology testing and evaluation. They also provide the means to help to strengthen knowledge of cyber defence operators and the performance of the computer information systems. They provide tools that help to strengthen the stability, security and performance of cyber infrastructure and IT systems used by the military. They can be remotely accessed in one country by personnel from another location or country. Remote access to cyber ranges and joint development of exercises and training events allow participants to benefit from better quality events and increase cost efficiency.
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has the lead role in the whole-of-government response to the cyber threat. In 2015 it published Ireland’s national cyber security strategy. This document is a high level policy statement from the Government acknowledging the challenges in facilitating and enabling the digital economy and society. The Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána provide inputs from the security perspective to this work. The Government task force on emergency planning which I chair maintains cyber security as a standing agenda item. Two members of the Defence Forces are seconded to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment’s computer security incident response team. In any emergency or crisis, once defence systems are supported, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces will provide support for this team in so far as resources allow. Details in this regard are being developed in a service level agreement to be agreed between the Department of Defence and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Participation in the training and exercises available through the EDA Category B project will enhance the capacity within the Defence Forces to secure, protect and defend their own systems against cyber attack and also to contribute to enhanced capacity within the incident response team.
The total budget for the new maritime surveillance Category B project is €675,000. The cost of Ireland’s participation in the project is €15,000, per annum and €45,000 over the life of the project. With regard to the second project, cyber ranges, there will be no financial contribution to the project. Member states will contribute to it in kind, that is, through participating and exchanging information and knowledge of cyber range training and exercises. For Ireland, the maximum resource commitment is 100 man days for the life of the project.
I reiterate the benefits of our participation in both programmes. The success of the original maritime surveillance project hinges on the positive continuation of the follow-on project, MARSUR II. Without technical support, the services will degrade over time and ultimately become unserviceable. In order to maintain these benefits and further increase our capability in this area, it is extremely important that Ireland participate in the project. The cyber ranges project is an ideal opportunity for the Defence Forces to gain access to cyber ranges and enhance and protect the capability they already possess. They will be given an opportunity to gain access to best practice and standards in an extremely cost efficient manner. Our contribution to the project will be through participation and the exchange of information. Cyber defence is a key capability for the Defence Forces and their participation in the project will strengthen that capability.
Ireland’s participation in the EDA affords us the opportunity to keep abreast of best practice and new developments in the defence environment, particularly as it impacts on multinational crisis management operations. By participating in EDA projects the Defence Forces gain access to the most up-to-date technologies and can develop the capabilities and skills required to fulfil their role, including in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, at reduced cost. The Government’s White Paper on Defence, published in August 2015, states Ireland will identify opportunities to participate "in multi-national capability development projects within the framework of the EDA in support of the Defence Forces’ operations, capacity and capability". The two projects being discussed are prime examples of how the Defence Forces can develop their capabilities in maritime surveillance and cyber defence. I commend the motion to the committee.
I welcome our participation in the European Defence Agency as it allows us to multiply the resources we have available. We can connect with other members states, pool our resources and benefit from economies of scale in training provision and having access to knowledge and resources. That can only be good. As has been said by many Deputies, our participation in these training programmes and projects ensures our personnel and soldiers receive the most up-to-date training and gain expertise in order that when they are operating overseas, they can do so safely and come home safely because they will know what they are doing. Our participation in projects such as this ensures we have access to the most up-to-date technology and expertise worldwide, which is good.
The annual cost of €311,000 represents huge value for money and money well spent. Our spend on defence as a proportion of GDP is one of the lowest in the European Union. Over time, as more resources become available to us, we should seek to increase our spend, given the many threats we face, both at home and internationally. Certainly, I am very happy that there is co-operation with other member states at European level. The reason we participate is that the Defence Forces carry out many peacekeeping missions abroad. Just because they are peacekeeping missions does not mean that there is no danger involved for our troops. When they participate in peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, they are sometimes under threat and fire; it is vital, therefore, that they have access to be the best training we can provide for them.
I am very happy that we have participated in a programme on chemical, biological and nuclear protection. Unfortunately, this is the direction warfare is taking and it is becoming more sophisticated. Things previously unseen are coming down the tracks in terms of the capabilities of other armies. It is incumbent on the State, therefore, to ensure it is up to speed and has the most up-to-date knowledge available by sharing knowledge with other member states. Where we can do some things very well, other states might do them slightly better and vice versa. In pooling knowledge we ensure this expertise is shared.
On countering improvised explosive devices, we have such experience in this country, while at international level we have seen atrocities and people using these devices on an individual basis to harm others.
I hope we never see anything like it on our shores but at the same time we need to be prepared and we need to have training for troops. I very much support the two projects being put forward.
In terms of maritime surveillance, more of our landmass is under water than above water. We have a huge area to cover and protect. The fact we can exchange information with other member states is positive. I am particularly delighted that we were exchanging information with the Italians using the system while we were conducting our operations in the Mediterranean. That shows what can be achieved. I have no doubt it saved lives by directing our personnel where to go to pick up and rescue those in need. It is a very positive programme. The continuation and enhancement of that programme are very good.
The cyber ranges project shows we are thinking ahead. There are already a number of threats to the country and our democracy and on an international level through cyber activity. Our forces are very well equipped and have the best knowledge but co-operation on cyber ranges, the sharing of knowledge and the pooling of resources will minimise inefficiency. One hundred man-days is a minimal amount to put to any project so it represents huge value to the State in terms of what we will gain back as a country.
The Minister of State has my full support on both projects and I look forward to hearing reports on how our people have gotten on when they have been completed.
I welcome the opportunity to go through this and acknowledge that minimal cost is involved but that does not mean I support it. There is a danger in moving in the way we are moving. I raised this when the European Defence Agency and all it entailed was first being discussed. Nobody disagrees with increased efficiencies but part of the European Defence Agency's purpose is to increase capacity across the Defence Forces, which means expending money. If that expenditure is being dictated by other member states, the vast majority of whom are in NATO and whose underlying desire is to enhance NATO or have interoperability between the EU military structure that is now emerging and NATO, I would question it. The context to all this is the debate since the British referendum on EU membership. Since the English decided they would withdraw from the European Union, there has been a rush by some countries to reignite the debate about the European army. The Minister of State has replied to my questions on this in the past so I will not raise it as an issue here. We will have other opportunities for that.
I accept that the proposals before us will incur minimal costs. I am fully supportive of any move which will enhance the capacity of our Naval Service as it carries out its humanitarian work in the Mediterranean in particular. I also accept that as a small country, we need to learn from other countries and other navies and on occasion to co-operate and share but there are some questions that need to be answered about these two proposals. In some of the research I did I looked at the European Commission's joint staff working document on the implementation of the EU maritime security strategy action plan which emerged in June of this year. It states: "Cooperation with NATO (action 1.1.3.) remains a priority for Member States as emphasised throughout the reports". That should be answered. Ireland does not play a role in that but it is not reflected in the Commission document. Do we play a role in it? When we agree with the European Defence Agency and all that entails, we become dependent. It entails interoperability which by its very nature, especially in the field of computer technology which we are talking about here, means that we become dependent. Becoming dependent means that there will be a huge cost if we move away from systems that are shared with other countries and that is the danger. If one looks at the MARSUR proposal, the reason MARSUR II has been proposed, as the Minister of State said, is that the first programme is at an end and it needs to be continued because of the benefits gained from the first programme. That means we will be tied to that programme into the future because we have invested time and effort into it. We will have to continue to buy into such a programme because as computers, technologies and systems develop we become more and more dependent on them.
We have the ability to opt out of the category B programmes because they are not binding on all member states but the category A are because we did not take the option Denmark took to opt out. I do not know what other programmes come under the European Defence Agency. Are there ones that we have opted out of? Is it the case that we are in a rush to get involved in everything because we want to play with the big boys?
The bomb disposal proposal was mentioned by the Minister of State. During the years the Defence Forces have gained an expertise which they have shared throughout the world and that has been recognised. It was one of the reasons there were Irish soldiers in Afghanistan very early on in that conflict. They were there to train Afghani police to identify IEDs and to help in whatever way possible. On that basis, one could say it was a humanitarian approach.
The problem with the second project for the EDA cyber ranges is that when one looks at some of the documents in the background, the idea is that information sharing on maritime issues would not be confined to the European Union. There is talk in the documents of going beyond the existing European Union structure. Will the Minister of State elaborate when it is hoped that will happen? What work has been done in recent times on expanding beyond the existing EU members?
The other issue is that in some ways the cyber range programme deals with a virtual environment and not actual events. In some ways, it is setting out scenarios that would result if there was a cyber attack. The dangers I see as a lay person, which is the problem when one is dealing with something as highly technical as cyber security, is that it will help to strengthen the knowledge of cyber defence operations. A state is sharing its information with 26 other member states, or perhaps 25 if Denmark is not involved. By its nature, sharing information and giving remote access in one country to personnel from another location or country undermines cyber security.
The ability to use such schemes can be undermined once other security services, military forces or navies have some idea of the work and practices involved. Given what we have seen, even in the US presidential debate, if we are to believe what has emerged about Hillary Clinton's e-mails and whether the Russians are involved, it is other countries that are mainly involved in cyber attacks. We have also seen supposed allies targeting cyber attacks on each other. We need only take Angela Merkel as an example. It was the Americans, her supposed allies, who were tapping into her e-mails and telephone conversations. Therefore, being dependent or reliant in any way on schemes developed by other countries is a dangerous road to go down. Those countries may currently be allies but, as we have seen from the history of Europe, in particular, that can change quite quickly. Could we not do it ourselves? The cost is minimal and it is a virtual environment rather than a real-life situation. I hope we will never face the real-life situation.
The specifics of these programmes are not laid out in full in the briefing document we received from the Department or in what has been said by the Minister of State. There was a reference to 100 hours on the part of some military personnel. That is not huge; it is minor. How long will it last? Is it expected that there will be another follow-up programme? In some ways, some kids would probably be able to do this on their computers, given it is a game, albeit an important one, if it is a virtual scenario. I know from speaking to military personnel during the years that they are keen to develop their capabilities and their understanding of how armies are becoming more dependent on computer and IT systems. There was a concern that armies were becoming more reliant on them and that, in the event of a war, much of their capabilities, if they were computerised and not as mechanical as they previously were, could be knocked out. If scenarios have been developed on how to respond to emergency situations based on computer simulations, then everyone will go by the textbook. The enemy or whoever is attacking will have a grasp of the likely response in certain scenarios because they have been practised in this virtual environment.
I have had three different experiences of foreign affairs committees since I was first elected to the Dáil. The first one was very much focused on human rights issues. The second one, in the previous Dáil, added "trade" to the title of the committee. Now this one has "defence" in its title. We have broadened our horizons considerably in recent years.
Having heard the Minister of State's presentation, two things come to mind when thinking about Ireland and defence. The first one is the preservation of our neutrality, which has been undermined in recent years. We must be strongly committed to our neutrality. The second one concerns the reputation of our peacekeeping forces. Both are connected. It is because we are a neutral country, along with our development aid programme, that we have an excellent reputation. Our peacekeeping troops abroad have been exemplary in all their missions. I know that there are serious issues with how peacekeeping troops from other countries handled situations, but the Irish peacekeeping troops have been excellent. I had those two aspects in mind when reading the Minister of State's speech.
Perhaps I should know the answers to my questions, but defence is a new element to this committee. My fellow Deputies here are their parties' spokespersons on defence. Why did Ireland not look for an opt-out clause similar to that of Denmark? What does it mean in real terms if we do not have that opt-out clause? The participation in category A and B projects are subject to Government or Dáil approval. Again, perhaps I should know the answer, but when was the last time we had to do something that required the Minister of State to come to the Dáil? The term "international crisis management" is vague. Keeping in mind our peacekeeping troops and our neutrality, is there a danger that we will end up in a very different role in an international crisis management situation?
My other question concerns fishing and the role of the Navy in protecting our fishing waters. In years past there has been great concern on the part of the fishing industry about the attention paid to it as opposed to that paid to intruders in our waters, that is, the big factory ships. There is a perception among some in the fishing fraternity that they were being targeted. I am not saying whether they were breaking the law but the focus on them was disproportionate to that on other fishing fleets. Will the Minister of State provide some further information on the protection of our fishing waters?
I will deal with the last questions first. Denmark is constitutionally debarred from participating. I assure Deputy O'Sullivan that Ireland's traditional policy on military neutrality is completely unaffected by the Treaty on European Union as amended by the Lisbon treaty. We are not and will not become, as a result of the treaty, part of any alliance or military formation. Legally binding guarantees secured by Ireland at the European Council prior to the second Lisbon treaty referendum clearly state that the Lisbon treaty does not affect or prejudice Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. Any form of common defence can only come about if all member states agree unanimously. Even if member states were to so agree, Ireland could not participate without a separate referendum to approve its participation. While issues have been raised concerning the European army, nothing in the treaties provide for the establishment of such a European army. I refer to Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh's question also.
There is no doubt that we are broadening our horizons and pushing out the boundaries, but I assure the Deputy that we remain neutral. She can be absolutely assured of that because there are many people around here who would be forced to put their hands up, as it were, if we were not keeping within the realms of our neutrality. However, when we go abroad and speak to personnel on the ground, they tell us of the importance of working with like-minded states. We are a small country and nation. If we do not keep up to date with what is out there, we will be left behind and we will not be able to participate in the likes of UNIFIL or UNDOF missions abroad.
There is a perception about sea fisheries protection. I speak to those in the Naval Service regularly. They treat everyone the very same. When they are on sea fishery patrols, they do not target those from specific countries over others. If someone is fishing illegally, they do their best to bring them to book.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh had a number of questions. We opt out of a number of projects. It is not that we are ready to jump in to every project; we do opt out. We have opted out on many occasions, but we examine the benefits of each and every project to the Defence Forces.
It is important that we look upon every project in that manner.
Reference was made to cybersecurity which is an absolutely huge issue, not only for this state but right across the world, because there are people ready to attack. The question was asked if we are we allowing people to attack our systems and get access to our information. These are training exercises. This is not about sharing information or anything like that. It is about specific exercises with cyber attacks that are set up in a very controlled environment. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh made a reference to the European army. I have responded to the Deputy about this in parliamentary questions on many occasions.
I very much welcome Deputy Lisa Chambers' comments and her support for the projects. I believe there is great value for money here, as the Deputy has outlined. It is important to participate in chemical and biological exercises because we are in a very changing environment in a changing world. We have to be ready for that, and participating in the projects under the EDA is beneficial to the Defence Forces.
I still have a number of questions as I refer to the document but perhaps I am bouncing the Minister of State into it. I think I bounced myself into it last night when I started reading it. I want to talk about the implementation of the EU maritime security strategy action plan. Have we signed up to that, which dates from 2014? If we have, were we concerned when for instance in its report on MARSUR the European Commission's joint staff working document on the implementation of the EU maritime security strategy action plan says that:
[T]he MARSUR Networking community is preparing to expand to additional Member States [and that is literally what we are speaking about now] and entities such as the EU Satellite Centre and is exploring options to integrate valuable surveillance information from different Maritime Security Regimes reaching beyond the boundaries of the European Union.
That it is reaching beyond the boundaries of the European Union is the aspect I am interested in given that throughout the document it speaks of co-operation with other nation states. In one place the document discusses increased co-operation with north African countries, in particular with a view to improving the safety of navigation in the Mediterranean. These are laudable aims but they are beyond the bounds of the European Union and they have not been discussed, to my knowledge, in the Dáil or in this committee.
When people signed up, through the referendum, to the European Defence Agency there was a presumption - perhaps wrongly by most people and I know I tried to highlight what the European Defence Agency was talking about at the time - that it was going to increase capacity and increase interoperability and not just within the European Union but beyond. The Commission's working document on the implementation of the EU maritime security strategy action plan says that co-operation with NATO remains a priority for member states with "The need to promote closer cooperation with NATO on standards and procedures". There is continuous emphasis on NATO in what is supposed to be an EU document on maritime security. It also says that MARSUR is the defence layer of the common information sharing environment. Therefore, this is not about just sharing information for the sake of maritime protection, it is regarded as a defence mechanism.
The document also speaks about how "At international level, relevance is given to the work developed under NATO and to its High Level Committee of Emergency Civil Planning, to the NATO Civil/Military Transport Working Groups". They seem to be intertwined continuously and there is a logic to that because most of the EU countries are in NATO and most of their armies have developed an interoperability and a sharing of information based on their membership of NATO. The danger is that the more we tie ourselves in to the EU military structures, our military and our IT systems then become synonymous with the NATO systems and become dependent on them.
Page 17 of that document also cites, "The importance of taking into account NATO when determining the development of capacities is also suggested, as a way of enhancing complementarity of efforts while benefiting from the work already developed, in particular in the areas of normalization and standardization". That is the concern. I remember when the referendum was held and Ireland signed in to the European Defence Agency and Denmark did not. These were the concerns people had, that we were getting tied. I am not arguing about an EU army in this case. I am whether, in all of the opt in or opt out options, full account taken of the dependence or interdependence that will arise from Ireland getting involved in programmes that are underlined or underscored by NATO which seems to have a greater interest in the European Union going in this direction?
I have a few final remarks. Every time we speak about the Defence Forces participating in any project where we share knowledge and work with other member states, there is huge suspicion and I do not understand why. At the end of the day, if on the one hand we support our troops participating in peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, which I believe most Deputies do, then we cannot on the other hand say that the troops cannot participate in projects where they work with other member states. If we are going to send troops overseas, they need to be properly equipped and they need to know what they are doing. They need to participate in training exercises or we are sending them overseas and they are not safe. They are not going over there on holidays. They are going over to participate in missions that are inherently unsafe for their welfare and possibly their lives. If the troops are not properly trained and if they do not have the most up-to-date knowledge, then they are at a disadvantage. I do not buy this idea that somehow our neutrality is being attacked because we participate in cross-training exercises. We should make no apology for equipping our troops to the best possible standards that we can.
We must ask ourselves why we do this. We do this because we know that we will benefit from economies of scale by sharing knowledge and expertise. We know that we will learn from other member states and other armies. Our troops tell us this. Every time they come back from an exercise they tell us how much they have benefited; therefore, why are we sheepishly asking for support to participate in the next training exercise? We should be fully supporting this because if we are sending them over and they are not properly trained, it is on our heads. It is up to us to ensure they are properly trained and equipped to do the missions we send them overseas to do.
I have no doubt that we do opt out of some these training project projects and programmes. I have no doubt that our troops would love to do more projects and would love to learn from and interact more with other armies. The point is being made that we are a very small nation and we do not have the answer to everything. We do not have access to all of the equipment available internationally and all of the knowledge. That is why we do these programmes. Expanding capacity or enhancing interoperability are not bad things. They are good things, and we should be proud that we are doing them and proud to be proactive about it. It annoys me that every time we participate in a defence mission or defence project abroad, there is a suggestion that we are somehow undermining neutrality. At the end of the day we have a triple-lock system. We paddle our own canoe.
It is important to remember that simply because another member state has its own ideas about a European-wide army or has its own idea about what they would like to do with defence policy in their country does not make any difference to what we do in our own state. We decide for ourselves, as we have always done. The protections are in place in the treaties to ensure that decisions with regard to our own defence policy will always be taken by ourselves in our own State. The protections are there for neutrality and the protections are there for us to decide our own policy. This fear and suspicion needs to be put to bed. We should be very loud and clear in explaining to the public and to Deputies who oppose such projects why we are doing this. We are doing it to protect our own troops because we send them overseas regularly, and if we do not train them properly, we are putting their lives at risk.
I wish to confirm that the EU and NATO declaration confirms that future co-operation will fully respect the decision-making autonomy of both organisations.
It will not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of any member state. We partake in the maritime security strategy, but we are protected by our own treaty and the triple lock arrangement. It is not often that I agree with Deputy Lisa Chambers, but I agree with her absolutely this morning. She is dead right that we must participate with like-minded countries in projects and training exercises because we have a very small defence force compared with some of the larger states. When we go abroad and see our peacekeepers with UNIFIL or UNDOF on the ground, they tell us about the importance of interoperability, working with like-minded states and the experience of co-operation. We will take command of UNIFIL from Finbatt at the end of November. If we did not have the opportunity to work alongside other member states before partaking in the joint battalion with UNIFIL, we would be in serious trouble. It is a great opportunity for members of the Defence Forces to work with others from like-minded countries and participate in training exercises and the projects we are discussing.
In response to both Deputies, I have never said I am opposed to engaging in joint exercises or training abroad or working with countries within the European Union, but that is not the point. The issue is whether we are aware that in making these decisions that over time we will become more dependent which will undermine our ability to take decisions for ourselves. This is a tiny country and we do not have huge destroyers or tanks on the scale similar to that in Germany or anywhere else and no one is suggesting we should. In fact, in some ways, there is no need for us to do so because we are a small nation on the outskirts of Europe. We have some skills that we can sell, as I mentioned, and we can train others. That is the benefit of co-operation. However, one has to be careful about the underlying trend, which is why I have continuously raised this issue. If I did not raise it, I would not be doing my job.
There is a concern. A huge number of people in the State are concerned about the drift towards the militarisation of Europe and the world and have voted in different referendums at different levels and on occasion have won. We have to satisfy our concerns by asking questions. Every time we engage in international co-operation or take part in international operations with countries which are involved in military alliances, we must ensure we do not compromise ourselves in any way. I have accepted the bona fides of different Ministers and programmes. I am not opposed to use of the virtual environment. I have just raised questions as to whether it is as secure as we want it to be. If one takes part in a cyber attack simulation, is one exposing oneself? Have we taken steps to ensure those who take part in such simulations will not end up disclosing how Ireland, if it was to come under such an attack, would react?
As I said, NATO has been in existence for 60 years and the European Union is younger. If one looks at history, in particular the history of Europe, most of the countries involved are former imperialist powers, most of which are still involved in imperial adventures abroad. We are not. We have suffered from this and have a different history from most of those with which we are working. While it is cost-effective and efficient to ensure that if we are operating in the Mediterranean, we can use the best others make available because we have only one ship operating in that entire sea, one has to be concerned. The Minister of State reassures us when the questions are asked and it is my job to obtain that reassurance. The Minister of State has done it, as have previous Ministers, but I would not be doing my job if I did not raise concerns.
From relatives of mine in the Defence Forces who have operated overseas and participated in joint exercises, I am aware of the experience they have gained. They have said it is a lot better than sitting in barracks or training on the Curragh because they get to learn from and train others, as we have succeeded in doing. However, we should as much as possible seek to engage in exercise with countries which are not members jof NATO. I am not irrational about the ease with which we can find these opportunities. There is not a huge number of countries near our shores in which people speak English and which would be able to take part in such exercises, but one has to go looking as near to home as possible to make it cost-effective for our soldiers and sailors to benefit from the shared experience and knowledge that comes from these exercises.
We should always remind ourselves that the Nice treaty included provisions affirming that Ireland could not take part in a common defence without further amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann. I sincerely hope that possibility will never arise. We also have the Seville Declaration of 2002 in which we obtained agreement among our EU partners on Ireland's position on military neutrality. That is very clear and it is included in the Constitution. That is our source of governance and we will stick by it. There is also the triple lock arrangement, to which Deputy Lisa Chambers referred.
The Minister of State has outlined clearly that Ireland's participation in European Defence Agency projects enhances the capacity of the Defence Forces in their peacekeeping and crisis management operations. We should take every opportunity in the Oireachtas to record our appreciation of the huge contribution made by Permanent Defence Force personnel over many decades in working in the most difficult of peacekeeping missions. All of the soldiers involved did the country proud and, sadly, some made the ultimate sacrifice. I represent two counties which have a huge tradition of participating in the Permanent Defence Force and know many families in which a number of siblings have participated in peacekeeping missions. These families have always taken great pride in the fact that their members were able to participate in missions in the most difficult of circumstances. The least the Defence Forces deserve is to be properly equipped when they participate in very challenging missions. Anything that can enhance their capacity within the parameters we all support is welcome and necessary. Participation, co-operation and collaboration enhance the capacity of the Defence Forces and ensure they have the most up-to-date skills and access to the most modern technology.
I agree with Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh that if there is a concern among the general public that our neutrality is somehow at risk, we should absolutely take it on board. It is incumbent on us as Deputies to ensure, in respect of the protections we have all outlined that assure our neutrality, we will decide for ourselves our policy and what we will or will not participate in. We must ensure information is provided for the public and that we tell them why we are doing what we are and set out the benefits for our soldiers. This refers not only to the cost benefits but also to the benefits of the knowledge and training our soldiers will receive, all of which are intended to keep them safe. We should put this information before the public to a greater extent. We may at times have failed to inform it properly of the operations in which the Defence Forces participate and why. We must reassure it that this remain at all times a neutral state and that we have no intention of ever changing this.
My comment on the suspicion of some Deputies of participation in defence operations was not directed at any one individual, rather it was a general comment to the committee.
In recent months when we had to discuss participation in the UK battle group there was huge resistance in the House to that participation. I could not understand why because in my view it would have been an opportunity for some of our troops to gain extra experience and knowledge and to educate themselves further, which would be a good thing. A further conversation about how we might embark on a public relations exercise, for want of a better phrase, on behalf of the Defence Forces about participation in this type of project with other European member states and how we might better inform the public of what is going on, would be very beneficial to the Defence Forces.
There is an onus on us all to amplify the provisions in the Seville Declaration which is very clear about what we can and cannot participate in. We should all give that more currency when debates on this arise. Maintenance of our neutrality is a strong issue for us going back many decades. That cannot be diluted in any way whatsoever. That is the overwhelming view of the people of this country.
I am concerned when I read some of the Commission’s documents. The need for the European Union to kowtow to NATO appears in every document. I have never seen the phrase, "with respect to Ireland’s neutrality" stated. Even though we are part of a document, that is not stated anywhere in the document I have been quoting from. There is no footnote to say Ireland is a neutral country or has the opt-out. Our officials should ensure ad nauseamthat it is reflected in those documents because then there will be no question of undermining our neutrality or officials not doing their job. That is something we can refer to. This is a working document; therefore, perhaps, there is time to do that, unless it has been passed. There are many references to NATO and obviously it has capability but when it states the European Union must enhance its capacity in line with that of NATO, those of us who have concerns about militarisation need to see someone hold up a flag and state Ireland’s key position and the key decisions we have taken in recent years. That would be useful.
At the recent parliamentary meeting on the Common Foreign and Security Policy held in Bratislava in conjunction with the Presidency, I took the opportunity in any discussions to reaffirm very strongly the Irish position. Officials have told me that predecessors of mine and other people who participated in those parliamentary meetings took the opportunity to outline exactly the Irish position. That is what we should do at all times.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh is right in one respect, we had a debate on neutrality when there was a Private Member’s motion on a Friday in the previous Dáil. The Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, was there. I spoke on behalf of Fianna Fáil. President Juncker had not long taken over as President of the European Commission. He had made outlandish statements in regard to common security policy. I recall stating at the time that his remarks were totally reprehensible. When senior Commission officials make comments, we should be quick to pounce on and reject them.
I absolutely respect the concerns and viewpoints of the Chairman and members although mine might differ from theirs but that is the best thing about a parliament, we all have different viewpoints. If we do compromise or if there is any impact on our neutrality, there is the opt-out clause. The Deputy says we should work with like-minded countries that are not aligned with NATO but our options are limited. The Deputy did recognise that. We have to consider the language barrier. The Chairman is right that when we send our troops abroad they must be fully equipped and have the skills to carry out their duties and responsibilities in a professional manner. It is my responsibility and that of the Government to make sure we give the forces the equipment and skills to ensure they are able to carry out their duties in a professional manner.
The EU-NATO declaration of July this year confirms that future co-operation will fully respect the decision-making autonomy of both organisations and will not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of any member state. It may be only two or three lines, but it is clearly stated in the declaration.