Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
European Defence Agency Project: Motion
I remind members and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure that for the duration of the meeting mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device used. It is not sufficient to leave them in silent mode as it maintains a level of interference with the broadcasting and recording systems.
Today we will consider a motion referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann on Ireland's participation in a European Defence Agency project related to military search capability building, pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Kehoe, and his officials. We thank them for sending the briefing material prior to the meeting. We will hear an opening presentation by the Minister of State which will be followed by questions from members. I remind them of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I thank the Chairman and appreciate the opportunity to address committee members. The following motion was placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann and referred to the select committee:
That Dáil Éireann approves Ireland’s participation in a European Defence Agency Project in relation to Military Search Capability Building, pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.
In commending the motion to the committee, I will outline briefly the functions of the European Defence Agency and the background to the programme in which Ireland wishes to participate.
The European Defence Agency, 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. It is an agency of the European Union that is composed of the Defence Ministers of the 27 participating member states. Ireland participates in the framework of the agency and contributes to the annual costs of running the agency, including its annual work programme. The agency 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 and procurement of defence capabilities. The primary reason for Ireland’s participation in the agency is to support the development of Defence Forces capabilities for peacekeeping and international crisis management operations.
The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 prescribes that participation in EDA ad hoccategory A and B projects or programmes is subject to Government and Dáil approval. Ireland has participated in a number of EDA projects since we commenced our participation in the agency in 2005. All such projects have been approved by Dáil Éireann in accordance with the provisions of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and are targeted at enhancing our defence capabilities in support of international crisis management operations. They include a force protection programme involving 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. The projects also include a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection programme to enable the Defence Forces to remain at the leading edge of capability development in this key area through access to the results of the research, studies and development work packages undertaken as part of the programme. There are counter-improvised explosives devices manual neutralisation projects to enhance the skills of our explosives-ordnance disposal personnel in dealing with such devices where the use of remote or semi-remote techniques is not possible. The agency also has maritime surveillance networking projects, under which a system was developed to enable the sharing of information and data through a common data interface at differing security levels.
A project in respect of co-operation on cyber ranges in the European Union aims to maintain and improve cyber resilience, as well as the levels of awareness, insight and expertise of member states' personnel. A project on joint procurement arrangements for satellite communications aims to provide better value and capability satellite communications to EDA members. All of these projects are designed to enhance the capacity of the Defence Forces to participate in international crisis management operations, whether through capability development or more economic procurement of required capabilities.
The proposal I am putting to the committee is to seek approval for Ireland to participate in an EDA project relating to advanced military search capability. This is a key capability when working in a contested environment. The Defence Forces engage extensively in specialist military search activities, dealing with unexploded ordnance, improvised explosive devices and ensuring a safe and secure operating environment for military operations. The Defence Forces engineer specialist search and clearance teams are regularly deployed on both home and overseas operations. There are two specialist search teams operating overseas in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and they predominantly conduct route searches and area clearances in advance of vehicle or foot patrols.
The Defence Forces have also provided specialist search capability to An Garda Síochána in support of aid to civil power operations during high-profile visits by foreign VIPs and for searches for bodies and weapons. Examples of recent such deployments include the visits by the Pope, members of the British royal family and the US Vice President. There have also been a number of searches for the bodies of missing persons and more conventional operations against paramilitary groups and criminal organisations. The Defence Forces corps of engineers does not have specialist search teams at an advanced search capability level. Advanced search personnel are capable of conducting hazardous environment search, working in confined space and operating in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments. Participation by the Defence Forces in this project addresses this capability gap.
The aim of the project is to develop common processes, techniques and procedures for military search for contributing member states. The overall cost of the project is €2.8 million over six years and it will be funded by eight participating member states. Funding comprises both financial contributions and contributions in-kind. Ireland’s contribution over the lifetime of the project is €157,500. This comprises €102,500 contributions in-kind associated with hosting an international seminar and a number of training events and a direct financial contribution of €55,000. Costs will be met from within existing resources in the Department. Eight member states are planning to join the project. Those states are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Ireland. The anticipated benefits of the Defence Forces participation in this project are as follows. It addresses a current deficiency at the advanced level of engineer specialist search and clearance capability; the training to instructor level in this project will ensure that this requirement may be met in-house going forward; and the project provides an efficient and cost-effective means of qualifying teams to advanced search level and maintaining their currency, which would otherwise be prohibitive if it had to be procured in the market.
Additional benefits also arise from interaction with other forces and the sharing of tactics, techniques, procedures and experiences. The Government’s White Paper on Defence, published in August 2015, states that Ireland will identify opportunities to participate "in multinational capability development projects within the framework of the European Defence Agency in support of the Defence Forces' operations, capacity and capability.". This project is a prime example of how the Defence Forces can develop their military search capability to an advanced level and provide a pathway for ensuring that there is no future skills fade. Ireland’s participation in this project affords us the opportunity to keep abreast of best practice and new developments in the defence environment in a cost-effective manner, particularly as it impacts on multinational crisis management operations.
I commend the motion to the committee.
I will be brief. Nobody would deny the members of our Defence Forces the skills they need to do their work. We note the needs outlined by the Minister of State in this respect and it will not cost too much. There is a major "but" because this is moving us away from our traditional role in United Nations peacekeeping operations, apparently drawing us further into the idea of a European Union, EU, army, which many countries and various individuals are promoting. I find that disturbing and extremely controversial.
The Minister of State mentioned "crisis management operations" but what exactly are we talking about in that respect? The Minister of State also mentioned military search but although such terms sound okay, we know there is much underlying them. On the previous occasion on which the Minister of State was here, I asked about the skills relating to interrogation. He stated that he would get back to me on what sort of interrogation skills were being taught or promoted. I have concerns about this because it seems to be drawing us further into this European army and away from the traditional role with the UN peacekeeping operations, where we have really enhanced our operation and are well-known, regarded and respected.
I know that I said I would revert to the Deputy on her question. The reply is on its way. I have not signed off on it yet but I know it is ready for me to sign off. That was the week before last and I was in the Dáil twice last week dealing with matters. In no way is Ireland promoting an EU army, and I have stated that on numerous occasions. The Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army and the concerns of the Irish people were taken into account in that respect. The Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army or conscription to any military formation. The treaty does not affect or prejudice Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. Many people have spoken of such an army right across Europe, with some people calling for such an army, there is absolutely no provision in the treaties for the establishment of any such army. The vast majority of member states are members of NATO, and for them NATO is and will remain the foundation of their collective defence arrangements. I have never stated that we should be members of or look at being members of a European army. In no way have I ever stated that we should promote such an idea.
The Deputy referred to crisis management and many people attach different meanings to the phrase. The complexity of contemporary conflicts and crises requires a comprehensive approach addressing the multiple levels of dimensions on which they evolve. I can give an example of a crisis management situation with the Naval Service's participation in Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean. That was a crisis that required management and members of the Irish Defence Forces were able to respond.
I thank the Minister of State for his presentation. As stated in the Dáil, the Fianna Fáil Party is supporting this proposal. Questions arise about an EU army and there is rhetoric across Europe in respect of it. However, there is no legal basis for that proposition. If there ever was such a proposition, it would have to go before the people and they would not vote for it. I do not support the concept. We must divide rhetoric in European politicians from the basis of treaty law in the European Union.
As a legal construct, PESCO allows for an opt in and an opt out based on the democratic wishes of Dáil Éireann. It is important to remember this. Will the Minister of State outline for those who do not support this move what the consequences would be of not supporting it in terms of domestic practicalities or for UN mandated missions? What would the skills gap be if we did not participate in projects such as this? What would be the positive and practical consequences if we were not to support it? Perhaps the Minister of State might give some practical examples of the enhanced skills from which the Defence Forces could benefit and detail the know-how that would be developed at home in allowing those who travel abroad on missions to develop the skill sets necessary to train others within the Defence Forces.
The Defence Forces corps of engineers does not have specialist search teams at advanced search capability level. Advanced search personnel are capable of conducting hazardous environmental searches, working in confined spaces and operating in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments. Participation by the Defence Forces in the project addresses the capability gap. Participation in the project will address a deficiency in advanced engineer special search and clearance capabilities. The training to instructor level in the project will ensure this requirement will be met in-house. It will ensure the personnel participating in the project will be able to return to Ireland with their experiences and further train other members of the Defence Forces. This will allow more personnel to undergo specialist training.
The project provides an efficient and cost-effective means of training teams to advanced search level in the most up-to-date manner, which would be prohibitively expensive if it had to be procured in the marketplace. We are able to use the skills we possess, but we will be updating the skills of the Defence Forces. They were used for the papal visit during the search of the Phoenix Park and Ireland Airport West and the recent visit of Prince Charles to the naval base. I understand they were used in other areas for other business also. They were used in conducting searches when the President of the United States and also the former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden visited. We are updating the skills we possess and they will be used for such visits.
There are quite a number of issues surrounding this and other ongoing attempts to further ingrain Ireland's defence policies with those of other countries within the European Union which have indicated publicly their aim to bring about a European army. While it has not been passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, every single step taken in recent years has been blatantly flagged by those at the head of the European Parliament and the European Commission. The objective has been stated clearly at European Council meetings and it is a little more than rhetoric, as pointed out by Deputy Jack Chambers. Gradual movement in this direction is gathering pace, as is clear from the motions that have been brought before the committee on a more regular basis of late. Some of them are innocuous, or seem to be, while some are more blatant in their intent, but they are all part of an overall jigsaw. An apparatus is being formed to make it virtually impossible for the Defence Forces to stay out in the future. Doing so is becoming more difficult; the more interdependent we become, the more the Army becomes dependent on the skill sets of other EU armies and the more our call signs and operational procedures will become the exact same as those of other countries. Since the founding of the State we have enjoyed an independent foreign policy and the Defence Forces have upheld our neutrality proudly. We need the best possible protection for Irish soldiers. We also need the best working conditions and proper pay for them. It is great to hear the Minister of State talk about the papal visit; we all saw the media headlines about the pay some soldiers received for being on duty and involved in operations for the visit. The same applies to what happens on other occasions on which they are on duty for a lot longer than they should be, especially considering that we are living in a time of peace.
I asked a question about this specific issue in the Dáil recently. The Minister of State answered that he could not respond to it owing to concerns about the security of the State. The information I have is that the ordnance unit which comprises those involved in bomb disposal who most likely would be part of the groups the Minister of State would send abroad to learn additional skills is not operating at full capacity and is struggling to fill the time slots available. If that is true, the Minister of State is signing us up to something in which we will probably not be able to participate and will be overstretching an existing resource. It is not a skill that can be learned overnight. The skill set is available within the Defence Forces, but my information is that corporate knowledge is being lost because the unit is not running at full capacity, which is an emergency. I do not expect the Minister of State to go into detail on how many soldiers are allocated to the position or how many vacancies there are. That is not why I raised the issue in the Dáil. The question I have asked is whether the Minister of State is aware that there is a shortfall and that there is a need to increase numbers. Having said that, sending personnel abroad to acquire training in skills they might never need in aid to the civil power is not the way to increase numbers.
The Minister of State has correctly said the European Defence Agency was set up in an effort to improve European defence capabilities, rather than the defence capabilities of individual countries in the fields of crisis management and peace making, as well as sustaining the European security and defence policy, as it stood at the time. While Ireland may have signed up to the policy, the first goal of the Defence Forces is peacekeeping. They have an honourable history in that regard. They are also supposed to function in aid to the civil power. The operations listed by the Minister of State were undertaken on that basis; they were not operations carried out abroad because, as far as I know, there is not that capability. The Minister of State also listed other projects in which Ireland had been involved, including under the European Defence Agency. While some of the projects can be considered to be innocuous, others are definitely not.
Their aim is to increase the interoperability of EU armies and the EDA.
More recently, the aim of PESCO is not only to enhance the capability but also the military spend. Coupled with that are the changes that happened to European funding. As of 2016, funding is available for military research and the sum of money that has been set aside, of which European military contractors are encouraged to avail, is not small. It includes grant aids and so on to enhance the military apparatus within Europe. It has moved from a few hundred million euros to a number of billion euros in the space of five or six years.
I do not expect to win over the Minister of State on the matter but I am opposed to it as being one part of a continuous change to the nature of our neutrality and the use of the Defence Forces in making us more dependent as a State in Europe on the European military apparatus.
I note Deputy Ó Snodaigh's concerns about a European army but I have addressed that question in reply to other Deputies. Before members of the Defence Forces participate in any training overseas, we must ensure that we have the capability and capacity to respond to civil power requests. I have been advised by military management that our participation in the course will not prohibit us from carrying out our work at home. A core team of engineers, comprising 60 personnel over the duration, will go on the course, and one half of them will become trainers who will be able to bring their expertise home to train others in the same area. I agree that it is a matter of enhancing the capability of our personnel, which is important. As well as when our personnel respond to calls for civil power, when VIPs visit, they come to a safe environment, and personnel can put their training to good use overseas in operations on any of our peacekeeping missions overseas.
The Deputy asked from where the European Defence Fund comes. Until 2020, the Commission will allocate €590 million to the European Defence Fund, €90 million to the research window and €500 million to the capability under the European defence industrial development programme, which was exclusively resourced from redeployments under subheading 1a of the EU Multi-annual Financial Framework 2014-2020. After 2020, the European Defence Fund will be financed from the EU budget. The level of funding proposed is €13 billion, which will depend on the outcome of negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework 2021-27. I reiterate that the guidance and advice of military management indicates that it is a good course in which we should participate. It will give members of the Defence Forces enhanced capability, which I am sure all Deputies would support. When members of the Defence Forces travel overseas, I want to be able to say we are sending the best, the best trained and the best equipped at any time. The course is worthwhile and worth the money we are spending and investing in it.
I welcome the Minister of State and acknowledge the wonderful work that has been done by the Defence Forces at home and abroad over many years. It is only right and proper that the wonderful work being done by all of our personnel, of whom we have been proud and supportive over the years, is put on the record.
On the small amount of funding that is required for the project to proceed, as the Minister of State noted, the Defence Forces deal with unexploded improvised explosive devices and so on. For the safety of our people, it is vital that we engage and, given the funding that is being made available, support the motion as a committee. The corps of engineers needs to be specialised, which it is, and the finer points of its duties must be dealt with. It must be given top priority. The Minister of State referred to an overall cost of approximately €157,000, which is vital for the Defence Forces in addressing the current deficiency in the advanced level of engineering specialists and searching-and-clearing capabilities. I have seen at first hand what the Defence Forces have done at various places around the country. Members of the Defence Forces must be protected and safeguarded, and they must have not only the equipment but also all the knowledge and know-how. I have no hesitation in supporting the motion.
Deputy McLoughlin reiterated the points I made to other Deputies about giving members of the Defence Forces enhanced capability, whether at home or abroad.
The Deputy referred to the Defence Forces' domestic role. If we invite foreign dignitaries or Heads of State, such as British royalty, the Pope or the President or Vice President of the United States, they should come here aware that they are in a safe environment. If members of the Defence Forces are, for example, sweeping Knock Airport or the Phoenix Park, they should have the relevant skills and capability to be able to do so. When peacekeeping overseas, too, they should have the training and expertise to be able to carry out their work.
In recent times, whenever I receive a document from the Department of Defence, I get shivers down my spine. There is an increasing feeling that we are being walked into circumstances. There were references to capabilities for peacekeeping and international crisis management operations. What are international crisis management operations? It is as though we are ashamed of the fact that we are renowned worldwide for peacekeeping. That is our speciality. There are enough people with the necessary equipment who engage in military activity. We engage in peacekeeping and we have a specialist ability to do so, built up over many generations. I get the feeling that we are being dragged, slowly but surely, as if we are ashamed that we are only peacekeepers.
What are international crisis management operations? The Minister of State indicated that a force protection programme is a key issue for the Defence Forces engaged in peace support and crisis management operations overseas. We are being walked into something here and we should be extremely careful. As a former Minister for Defence, I am very proud of the role played by the Irish Defence Forces in peacekeeping abroad. Ireland is renowned for its peacekeeping efforts. We have a specialist knowledge of these matters and we should be very proud of our peacekeeping, and continue to support it. I get the feeling that we are semi-ashamed that we are not in with the big boys. It is as if peacekeeping has gone out of fashion. In my opinion, peacekeeping has not gone out of fashion and is more important now than ever. We should not allow anybody to interfere with it.
The Minister of State said all of these projects are designed to enhance the capacity of the Defence Forces to participate in international crisis management operations. That spells trouble because it is not international peacekeeping. Our Defence Forces are not there for international crisis management operations. We do not have the numbers and we do not have the capability. I get extremely concerned every time I get a memo with this sort of language in it. It is about time we stood up and said we are proud of the fact that we are renowned for our peacekeeping abilities. That means having skills that are not available to very many people operating in the world of defence force operations.
The Minister also said that the Government’s White Paper on defence, published in August 2015, states that Ireland will identify opportunities to participate in multinational capability development projects within the framework of the European Defence Agency in support of the Defence Forces’ operations, capacity and capability. What does all that mean? It is jargon for saying we are shifting away from genuine peacekeeping. I support previous speakers who said it was about time we stood up and said we are peacekeepers. We are proud of the skills we have developed over many years on various operations throughout the world. We do not get engaged in peacemaking, which means getting involved in conflict. This is worth protecting and it is worthwhile for this committee to set out what we believe our Defence Forces should be doing. They should continue to do what they have been doing, very successfully, down through the years as peacekeepers in various parts of the world.
I get the impression that people want to show that our Army is as good as the next. However, ours is a peacekeeping army. It goes on peacekeeping missions and does not look for conflict. I get very nervous every time I see documentation like this because we are walking into something I do not believe the vast majority of the Irish people want to get involved in. We are all very proud of our peacekeepers who have carried out their duties in various parts of the world and brought great credit to the country. If we are going to become one of the others, count me out. I do not think it is an advisable road to go down. This committee should state that it wants our Defence Forces to be the best peacekeepers in the world.
Deputy Barrett has strong views on this subject, which I absolutely respect. However, members of the Irish Defence Forces have been participating in EDA projects since 2005. I named a number of the projects they have participated in. They include: a force protection programme; a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection programme; counter-improvised explosives devices manual neutralisation projects; maritime surveillance networking projects; co-operation on cyber ranges in the European Union; and joint procurement arrangements for satellite communications. My view is that peacekeeping and the EDA are interlinked and have interoperability. We cannot do peacekeeping without doing the training and education for our personnel or giving them the very best equipment.
On the previous occasion on which I was before the committee, the motion relating to Operation Sophia was going through and I stated that peacekeeping has changed. The Deputy had a different opinion but I have been involved with the Defence Forces since 2011 and I have seen advances in technology in that period of which we have to keep abreast. The threats we face today are totally different from those we faced when we first went to the Congo in the 1960s, at the beginning of our proud peacekeeping tradition. The Deputy said the majority of the Irish people do not want to get involved in these things but I have a different opinion on this. I believe that, when we send members of the Defence Forces overseas on peacekeeping duties, such as on the UNIFIL mission where we have 460 people or UNDOF, the vast majority of Irish people expect them to have the best of training, equipment and expertise. If we had not trained and educated members of the Irish Defence Forces but left them as they were in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, we would have had many more fatalities than we have had.
The Deputy said that peacekeeping had not changed, but I beg to differ with him on that. It is still about keeping the peace but we need to have the necessary capability and capacity when we send troops overseas.
I am sorry to have to disagree. Peacekeeping has not changed - we have changed. We have a very proud record in peacekeeping and have engaged in various missions abroad that were genuine peacekeeping missions. It is still possible to participate in peacekeeping and we do not have to be involved in crisis management, which means situations of conflict. We have built up a lot of respect for our Defence Forces. They should, of course, have the necessary protection if somebody comes upon them but I am talking about the missions we go on. We go on purely peacekeeping missions and do not get involved in operations issues, which require being armed to the teeth.
That is the point I am trying to get across. We have done more for the world peace with our small groups of soldiers going abroad on peacekeeping missions than many large armies which go abroad up to their necks in equipment. Let us not lose those skills. Like me, the Deputy will have had the pleasure of seeing how our troops integrate into communities. The Chairman will have also seen it. They involve themselves in community activities. They do not go in and march up the street with a lot of equipment. They become part of the community, which is how they get the information and support they need from local people. That is where we should remain. We should not get involved with the other guys who want to have a lot of ammunition. While it is a decision for people to make up their own minds on, we can do more good in the world by being experts in genuine peacekeeping and by maintaining our reputation in that regard.
I thank the Deputy. He has always expressed strong views on this important issue. They need to be given due cognisance and heed must be taken of them given his experience of seeing how policy has evolved over the years. Does Deputy Ó Snodaigh have a question this time?
I do. I asked a few questions earlier, but I have very specific ones on the briefing note we received. Does the SOFA, which was signed last week, despite our opposition, cover participation in the four search events which it is expected will be conducted annually by participating member states? An Garda Síochána is mentioned in respect of units co-operating with the Defence Forces when carrying out the high profile specialist search function during high profile visits by foreign VIPs. Are gardaí going to be trained by the personnel who have been, or who will be, sent on the six-year training course?
The cost is minuscule if one takes it some ways. The note suggests that it will be €157,500, including €102,500 in contributions-in-kind, and that the net financial cost of Ireland's contribution will be €55,000. Is that per year or is it for the entire six years? If it is the former, it is €10,000. I find it difficult to understand how one would host an international seminar and send soldiers on four training events at a cost of €10,000. How many personnel will be trained over the six years? Will it be the same personnel and is the Minister of State adamant that tying those personnel up on these courses will not take from current or recommended EOD capacity in the State? I do not refer to the overseas responsibilities because there are two ESSC units overseas.
Another question arises from that but it is not answered in the briefing note. It seems to be suggested rather than guaranteed. The briefing note states that the Defence Forces' corps of engineers do not have ESSC teams at an advanced search capability level. One of the things the USA, the British and the Pope seemed happy enough with was the level the Army had. Why are members getting trained to a level which is not required to have a US President, the Pope or the English Queen coming to our shores? They were happy enough. Did the State have to rely on a foreign army to train or dictate how searches were carried out in advance of those visits? Given that this is an advanced search capability on the conduct of hazardous environmental searches, working in confined spaces and operating in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments, what additional equipment will be required to be purchased by the Defence Forces in future to ensure they carry out these searches independently of the other nations? Will it be part of the interoperability of these searches that we will have to import or purchase equipment from either the European Defence Agency or other armed forces?
It is very important to have continuous training. On my recent visit to Mali, I saw a presentation on improvised explosives and the way the technical nature of those has changed over the years. It is very important for our personnel to be able to identify what type of explosive is being used, where it might be buried or laid and how to spot an anomaly in an area. I do not have the proper military language in which to couch it for the Deputy, but these matters have become technical over the years and we must keep abreast of such developments. The SOFAs will not apply as this is a course. We will not need SOFAs for courses.
It does not make a difference to this debate but the Minister of State argued that the SOFAs were required for Irish soldiers to be able to operate in the battle group in Germany. These four search events will be conducted in member states, including Cyprus and Spain. That means operating with a potential liability if something happens.
A lot of these courses are run indoors. There might be a little bit outdoors but I am not sure of the extent. However, soldiers are not out in battle or anything. I assure the Deputy of that. There are 60 places on the course over the duration of the project. Perhaps a number of people could be on the first part of the course and there might be a more advanced part of the course in two or three years to which they would return for further education in the area of explosives and so on.
No, I do not expect that to happen. We are called in under the aid to the civil power protocol. That is what we were called in under for searches at Knock Airport. We were called in to search the Phoenix Park as an aid to the civil power to assist An Garda Síochána.
If the Minister of State does not have the relevant material, he might revert to me on the following. I recall meeting chairmen of other foreign affairs and defence committees at a parliamentary forum organised by the Presidency of the EU. Some small member states, which, like us, take great pride in their neutrality, suggested that smaller member states like ours should be involved in cybersecurity projects at EU level.
Trying to counteract cyber terrorism is a significant problem for the international community, one that knows no boundaries. As we all realise, we can all easily become victims of it. If we are not participating in it, perhaps it is the type of area in which we should be interested in becoming involved, particularly as a small member state with a strong attachment to its policy of neutrality. Will the Minister of State come back to us on the matter if the information is not readily available?
I do not want to open up another argument, but we are an observer in a PESCO project involving cyber affairs, with other countries that have the same military policy as us, but I will come back to the Chairman on the matter.
As I am sure expertise in how to deal with it is only being developed, it is an area in which we all could welcome our involvement. The matter is important in that respect, particularly when I talk about small member states that are of like mind in protecting their neutrality. It is the type of co-operation and collaboration in which we should consider getting involved.
I know that the committee has been talking about visiting one of our missions. I go back to what Deputy Barrett said about peacekeeping. I can arrange for members to visit the Curragh Camp for a full briefing on our peacekeeping duties and the missions we carry out. The Minister can answer some of the technical questions concerning how peacekeeping has changed over many years and discuss the threats compared to what they were ten, 15, 20 or even 30 years ago.
I agree with the point made about cyber security, an issue I have raised previously with the Minister of State. It is unfortunate that our policy on cyber security resides in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. This needs to change as a priority. As the Comptroller and Auditor General has criticised its strategic function and entire operation, there is a weakness. It involves collaboration with European partners, but at an interdepartmental level we need to re-evaluate the basis on which the policy on cyber security resides in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment where it is seen as a technical or technological issue, rather than a security matter. I am talking about the matter in an Irish, not a military, context. The Chairman's point is valid. There are significant opportunities for us in attracting foreign direct investment if we develop a better cyber security policy from a defence perspective. There are also opportunities in the areas of job creation and enterprise.
Members of the Defence Forces are seconded to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in respect of cyber security which is a standing item on the agenda for meetings of the Government task force on emergency planning. Dr. Richard Brown from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment gives us regular updates. I do not believe the Defence Forces are acting in isolation in cyber matters. Every Department is involved and feeds information into the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
Some would agree with Deputy Jack Chambers, but others might not. We will agree to differ as it is all interlinked. Courses are continuing and there are desktop exercises in matters such as cyber security and cyber threats.