Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
European Defence Agency Projects and Defence Forces Service in the UN: Motions
The purpose of this afternoon's meeting is to consider two motions referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann on 8 December 2020 relating to Ireland's participation in the European Defence Agency, EDA, project on maritime surveillance, MARSUR, networking relating to operational support and development under MARSUR III and the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2019. I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, who is joining us today from a witness room in Kildare House. I also welcome officials from the Department. I thank the officials and the Minister for the briefing material we received prior to this meeting.
The proposed format of today's meeting is that we will hear opening remarks from the Minister for each matter referred, before opening it up to the floor for questions from members of the committee. I wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make that official in any way identifiable. I also remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located within the Leinster House complex. I call on the Minister to make his opening statement in respect of the motion referred to the committee relating to Ireland's participation in the EDA project on MARSUR networking.
We are all still trying to get used to these new surroundings. Even a year after Covid-19 struck, it is not easy to have proper conversations on complex issues when one is not in the same room as others. I will, obviously, try to answer people's questions as they arise and, hopefully, give the committee a detailed outline of the subjects on which I am asking for the committee members' support today. The first of those issues is what is called MARSUR III. The following motion has been placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann and was referred to this committee for consideration:
That Dáil Éireann approves Ireland’s participation in the European Defence Agency Project - Maritime Surveillance (MARSUR) Networking - Operational Support and Development (MARSUR III) pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.
In commending the motion to the select committee, I will briefly outline the function of the EDA and the background to the programme 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 efforts to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, as it stands now and develops into the future.
On 6 July 2004, the Government approved Ireland's participation in the framework of the EDA. It is an agency of the European Union which is composed of defence ministers of the 26 participating states. Denmark does not participate due to its opting out on CSDP issues. Ireland participates in the framework of the agency and contributes to the annual cost of running the agency, including its annual work programme. The agency is focused on assisting member states in capability development, in obtaining better value for existing member states, defence expenditure, improving competitiveness and securing greater efficiency, particularly in the area of research technology and procurement of defence capabilities. The primary reason for Ireland's participation in the agency is to support the development of the Defence Forces' capabilities for peacekeeping and international crisis management operations. The Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 prescribes that participation in EDA projects or programmes is subject to Government and Dáil approval. Capability development projects with the EDA are classified either as category A projects, where all member states join unless they specifically opt out, or category B projects, where two or more member states come together to pursue a particular initiative. Ireland has participated in a number of category A and category B projects over the years. Four of those are now completed. Those projects covered capabilities such as force protection, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, protection, counter-improvised explosive devices and earlier maritime surveillance projects.
There are four current and ongoing EDA projects in which Ireland is participating. These projects relate to cyber-defence training, satellite communications, counter-improvised explosive devices training and military search capacity building. The proposal I am putting to the committee today is to seek approval for Ireland to participate in a follow-on to the EDA project on maritime surveillance, MARSUR, networking, that is, operational support and development under MARSUR III. Ireland has participated in the MARSUR project since its inception. MARSUR networking provides a secure information network among the European maritime operation centres to share maritime and naval information in a secure manner in the interests of European maritime security. The technology used to communicate is known as the MARSUR exchange system, MEXS. This system has been developed by the participating member states since the first MARSUR project. The project aims to avoid duplication of effort and to use available technologies, data and information exchange to enhance co-operation and simple, efficient and low-cost solutions to enhance situational awareness in support of surveillance and security in the maritime domain. The Naval Service has been participating in the MARSUR project since 2012. This third iteration, MARSUR III, is a follow-on project, a continuation of the work done to date with the aim of further enhancement and improvement in terms of maritime surveillance. Previous iterations of this project have received Government and Dáil approval. This third iteration remains true to the objectives of the previous projects, with its aim to further develop a capability that fulfils the need of maritime surveillance, information sharing and networking.
The EDA MARSUR projects strengthen the recognised maritime picture. In simple terms, a recognised maritime picture is an image or map that shows all vessels and activities that are present in a particular maritime area. It links to national and international data and information on vessels, the maritime environment, infrastructure, etc., that has been compiled from various monitoring and surveillance systems. Enhanced exchange of information plays an important part in protecting maritime trade, the maritime environment, natural resources and in countering illicit activity in the maritime domain. The MARSUR projects have assisted member states, including Ireland, in enhancing situational awareness so as to combat drug trafficking, people smuggling and other illicit activities. MARSUR III is a follow-on project and will look to improve and upgrade the current technology to support the exchange of classified information, provide support to EU maritime operational engagements and CSDP missions and operations, and develop new functionalities such as artificial intelligence and big data processing.
MARSUR III will last for six years, with the possibility of extending it for a further two years. In that regard, I am seeking approval for Ireland's participation in the project for the life of the project, including any extension that might arise. The cost of participation is €50,000 per year for the life of the project.
There are 15 other EU member states preparing to join the MARSUR III project, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden - in other words, virtually every country that has a coastline and maritime interest. This level of engagement is indicative of the project's value and importance in terms of maritime surveillance and security.
Participation in this project will further enhance the capability of our Defence Forces to undertake the roles assigned to them by Government at home and overseas. As the State's principal seagoing agency, the Naval Service provides unique seagoing capability. It is tasked with providing a fisheries protection service and general maritime patrolling, and is ready to respond to, for example, an aid to civil power request, a pollution incident or a search and rescue or recovery mission, which is exactly what happened over the weekend when a fishing vessel was caught in a particularly difficult storm off the south coast. While everybody was brought home safely, the fishing vessel, unfortunately, sank because it lost power and the ability to turn on its edges.
Having access to national and international data on maritime surveillance through the EDA MARSUR projects is essential for the Naval Service to continue to provide this important role. It is a system that has been used on overseas missions and at home. It was used by the Naval Service when it was engaged in Operation Sophia, the EU security mission in the Mediterranean, and in a national context it supports Naval Service security and defence operations within Ireland's exclusive economic zone.
The EDA maritime surveillance project is one of the longest-running projects in the EDA and is an excellent example of member states working together to develop effective technological solutions in support of common interests and endeavours. I commend the motion to the select committee.
When some people looking from afar hear about the EDA they think about threats of European armies and so on. It is nothing of the sort. This is an opt-in mechanism on a project-by-project basis to work with other countries to improve capacity, learn lessons and build interoperability. The project we are looking to be part of for the next six years today is built on the work that has already happened regarding improving maritime surveillance and capacity in our waters and other EU waters. I strongly recommend we support it and let it get on with building on the work that has already been done.
I do not know whether the Chair wants me to deal with the motion first before going into the other elements of the committee. It involves all of our overseas missions. There may be very different questions on that. I am in the hands of the Chair.
I want to ask the Minister about a couple of aspects of his contribution. My first question relates to MARSUR III and our contribution. Will we be able to offset some of the challenges presented over the past year by some states interfering with data cables and undersea fibre-optic cables between Europe and the US? Will MARSUR III be able to be a bulwark against that?
Are we in a position to be able to recruit into or enhance our Naval Service? It is currently doing an incredible job but it is significantly understaffed. Is it intended to recruit, upskill and train new staff? At current staffing levels we will struggle.
When this matter was raised in 2019, there were questions about how it interfered with our neutrality and sovereignty. Have those concerns been proven to be unfounded over the past two years? What would the Minister suggest to those who have made those comments?
There is a real danger that in the midst of a discussion on the perceived benefits of the MARSUR programme for the Defence Forces, the larger principle of Irish unity is lost as the Government seeks to normalise the country's participation in the EDA, something to which Sinn Féin is fundamentally opposed. The Minister briefly touched on the concerns around a European army. I would be interested in hearing more from him regarding that. There is a real danger, in particular given the departure of Britain from the EU, that the discourse on an EU army will be reignited once again.
Ireland had the option of opting out of the EDA. It seeks to develop the military capacity of European states to allow said states to function as a body in the furtherance of EU aims. We are still a neutral country. This further dependency on the EDA calls that into question in a serious way. A previous Minister explained Denmark was constitutionally prevented from participating in the EDA following its original rejection of the Maastricht treaty. How does it function in the area of naval surveillance in the absence of its membership of the EDA and, consequently, MARSUR?
I would like to put a couple of other questions to the Minister. I have a broad question on the EDA. How much does Ireland contribute to it annually? What other projects are involved? The Minister outlined a number of projects we are involved in and are operating. Has Ireland opted out of any programmes to date? I ask the Minister to elaborate on that a little bit further.
Does MARSUR permit access by military vessels from other countries involved in the EDA to Irish waters? To what degree is that permitted?
Deputy Gannon alluded to a major concern that I share, namely, the capacity of the Irish Navy. We know a number of our vessels are still tied up and there are major issues in terms of the recruitment and retention of naval personnel. How does all of that fit into the dependency on the EDA and the MARSUR programme? It is a major concern.
A major concern I have is that we would be so interlinked with the EDA, it will become virtually impossible not to say "Yes" to an EU army.
I fundamentally believe it is a long-term aspiration of the EU to develop an EU army. When we are so tied in and dependent in terms of all of our training, surveillance and all of that, it will become impossible further down the road to say "No" to that. Those are some specific questions on that issue.
On a broader issue, I take this opportunity to ask the Minister, as this is his first time to appear before the committee since the appointment of Deputy Jack Chambers as the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, which surprised many people, myself included, as it was one that went below the radar, what is the Minister of State's specific role with regard to defence? What responsibilities does he have? It has been said he has no responsibilities whatsoever. On the other hand, I note he has met representative organisations of the Defence Forces and been briefed by a number of those organisations. Will the Minister outline who has responsibility for defence and what responsibilities the Minister of State has?
A considerable number of questions have been raised. Having regard to the number of questions, I propose to go back to the Minister and then I will revert to Deputies Berry and Clarke. I note the questions from Deputies Gannon and Brady. Some of Deputy Brady’s questions might have strayed somewhat from the motion, but I am keen this committee avails of every opportunity. I ask the Minister to be particularly brief in his responses to questions that may not be directly related to the motion. I do not wish to rule them out in the interests of the smooth running of the meeting. I thank the Minister again for his attendance. We will deal with these questions now and then come back to Deputies Berry and Clarke.
I will deal with Deputy Gannon's questions first. I am not sure this will make a huge impact with respect to underwater fibre cables but I can come back to the Deputy on the technicalities of that. My understanding is that MARSUR III is more about surveillance on the surface of the water, primarily, and the sharing of information in a way that is confidential and secure. That is important in the context of maritime security. Ireland has ten times as much sea surface as land surface. We have a significant responsibility in the north-west Atlantic in terms of maritime security. In terms of co-operating with our neighbours and other EU countries in sharing data in a way that is secure and safe, we could say "No". I would make this point to Deputy Brady. No one is forcing us to do anything here. We do not have to be part of any of these projects if we do not want to be. We have chosen to be part of these projects because we think it is Ireland’s interest and enhances the capability of our Defence Forces, not undermines their independence as seems to be suggested. If the Deputy were to ask those in the Defence Forces whether they want to be part of these projects, he would get his answer. They want to be interoperable with other defence forces in case they need to work with them, whether it be on a security, rescue or maritime catastrophe issue - for example, if there was an oil tanker spillage or something like that. We want to make sure, just like when our Defence Forces are on peacekeeping missions overseas, we have interoperability with the other nations with which we work. We are in UNIFIL with Polish forces at the moment. As we train together and understand each other, we are interoperable in a very efficient way that keeps our personnel as safe as they can be.
The idea that neutrality means we do not talk to anybody else, do not do anything in partnership with anybody else, keep to ourselves, keep our head down and do not spend any money on the military and military capacity, to my mind is complete nonsense. Being militarily neutral means we decide what we are and are not part of and what does and does not suit Ireland and our interests and defence priorities. That is what being non-aligned means. The European Defence Agency, EDA, only works for many of the other countries in the EU that are also non-aligned militarily and are also neutral because it allows countries to opt in or opt out as the case may be, whether it be category A or category B projects.
On this particular project on which I am asking members for their support, Sweden is a country that also considers itself to be neutral - and it is very much a part of this as well - as does Malta, but because they are maritime countries they want to make sure there is interoperability and proper sharing of information. Ireland, like other EU neutral counties that are not members of NATO, decides to work with other countries when it makes sense to do so. The projects in which we are involved, linked to the EDA, have all been ones that significantly enhance our capability from a military perspective, be it around cybersecurity, from which we need to learn and share experience with other countries. If our view was that we could not talk to any other EU countries because that would compromise our independence, we would be in a pretty sorry state in terms of our capacity and state of readiness for many threats, some of which are real and some of which are perceived.
The programme for Government and the White Paper on Defence are very clear on this. We are not changing our position in the context of Irish neutrality but we are being proactive in what we choose to be part of. These EDA projects we are part of certainly make a lot of sense to me in terms of Ireland’s capacity building within our Defence Forces.
Both Deputies have raised very fair questions on the Naval Service with respect to strength, staffing and resource issues. We know about that. We are trying to fix it. We have introduced sea-going and financial incentives for people in the Naval Service. We will continue to work with the Naval Service on a recruitment and retention strategy until we get it right. We will also continue to invest in the Naval Service until we can be sure we have sufficient numbers that we need. We have a target strength where we know we need to be at. We are not close to that at the moment. I believe that, given time to address this, we will get back there. We have recruitment and retention issues across the Defence Forces more generally and that is a big focus of the new Commission on the Defence Forces, which is doing good work. I am really happy with how it is progressing. It will report before the end of the year. I can assure the Deputies that I am more than aware of the challenges, but the idea that we would respond to recruitment and retention challenges in the Naval Service by opting out of increasing our capacity, both nationally and internationally, and by learning from best practice and by opting into shared data gathering and so on, in many ways would be downgrading the role of our Defence Forces and our Naval Service, not improving their capacity, which certainly will help to attract more people into the Naval Service as they see it as an exciting and rewarding career.
Regarding Deputy Brady’s questions on a European army and so on, that has nothing to do this motion. I do not see any path towards the creation of a European army. I see interoperability, co-operation and opt-in or opt-out options for countries. As it happens, Denmark is a NATO country and it co-ordinates its military co-operation and research through NATO structures rather than through the EDA. That is a matter for it. We are not a member of NATO. We work with NATO on certain things and again we choose when and on what we do that. That is what a neutral state can do. That is how the EDA works for us as well.
I reassure the committee that this adds to rather than compromises our independence as a country. It allows us as an independent state to get the benefit of co-operation without being tied into a military alliance. That is the beauty of it. Other countries rely on NATO and its structures for that kind of interoperability, but we do not. The way in which the EDA works allows countries that are not NATO members to benefit from shared information and shared projects of interest on an opt-in or opt-out basis depending on the project.
The Deputy asked how much we spent on this. I will provide the figures. The maritime surveillance, MARSUR, project costs us €50,000 per year. Our overall contribution to the EDA in 2015, including projects, was €397,000. In 2016, it was €221,000. In 2017, it was €547,000. In 2018, it was €578,000. In the year up to 2020, it was €689,000. It is in and around €500,000 per year. Given the projects I outlined that we have been and continue to be part of, this represents much better value for money than trying to build the same capacity on our own because we believed doing so enhanced our neutrality somehow. We would be left behind and, unfortunately, the Defence Forces would be left exposed by not having the benefit of these projects and the know-how developed through them.
According to a note I have, there is no provision in the EU treaties for the establishment of a European army. That is true, but there is also no political intent to move in that direction. That is certainly the case from an Irish perspective.
On the matter of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, under the Defence Acts, I as Minister can call the Council of Defence or the Council of State to advise me on a defence issue. For that to happen, there is a requirement in the legislation for a Minister of State in the Department of Defence to be part of the Council of Defence structure. The Government felt it was consistent with existing legislation to have a Minister of State in the Department of Defence. That is what the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, has been asked to do. He does not have any formal assigned role to go with that, but if he is going to be part of the defence structure, he has to be briefed and up to speed because he is someone whose counsel I will seek in terms of political decisions we have to make around defence. That is why he has been briefing himself, meeting representative bodies and so on, as he should. He is working with me and does not have an assigned role that a Minister of State would normally have for a specific policy area, but he is certainly involved. I have had a number of meetings with him on broader defence thinking and policy development within the Government. That will be useful, particularly when the Commission on the Defence Forces reports. I hope he and I will be able to bring those recommendations to the Government and ensure they are acted upon. That is the position. There is no mystery around it.
I thank the Minister. As I am conscious of the time, I remind members we have to conclude our business by 6 p.m., which is less than an hour away. We still have to discuss the second motion, which we have not dealt with yet.
I record apologies on the part of Deputy Leddin, who has had to leave us, and I note the attendance of Deputies Cowen and Stanton.
I will next call Deputies Berry, Lawless, whom I neglected to mention earlier, and Clarke.
I wish the Minister and his team a good afternoon and I thank him for his opening statement. Getting it in advance yesterday was helpful.
The Naval Service is more important now than at any time in Ireland's history since the Second World War. It is essential. Due to Brexit, we now have a third country with a large sea border on our doorstep. The land bridge to the Continent has effectively been compromised, leaving us much more reliant on our sea lanes of communication. All of the Deputies at this meeting are familiar with the drugs issue in every town and village throughout the country. Anything that enhances our anti-smuggling operation is something we should embrace.
If the Naval Service is so important, then MARSUR III is also important. It is essentially just a secure communications network, both device and data. This is the same principle as the Garda liaising with Europol or Interpol. The Garda's sovereignty is not being compromised by interacting with either, and neither would the Naval Service's by interacting with like-minded countries around Europe. My main concern in respect of MARSUR has to do with whether Ireland, from a manning experience, will be able to play a full role. Naval ships are MARSUR's eyes and ears. Unfortunately, our eyes and ears are tied up in Haulbowline at the moment and unable to put to sea.
We always try to find solutions. While I accept the Minister has been working very hard on recruitment and retention, I have a couple of suggestions that might help. The Minister appreciates there are imperfections in the seagoing service commitment scheme. A person must have three years of service in the Naval Service before being eligible to apply for the scheme. I would be grateful for the Minister's thoughts on extending the scheme to everyone. As with any job, we try to get people who join the Naval Service to commit to the organisation during their first three years. Denying them access to the scheme makes them question that commitment. Have they made the right decision? They are 20 or 21 years of age and have the world in front of them. If they are embraced as full members of the Naval Service from the get-go, I suspect it would help with retention.
I would be grateful for the Minister's views on another suggestion. The tax credit that is provided to the Naval Service's sailors is useful and has taken the sting out of the lack of pay. I appreciate it was increased in the previous budget by €230 to €1,500 per year. However, the seafarer's tax credit for private sector sailors – those who are working with shipping companies or on trawlers – is €6,350. That is more than four times as much as the tax credit for Naval Service personnel. Could we devise a pathway to pegging the Naval Service tax credit to the seafarers' allowance? It would have a significant and almost overnight effect in the navy and get people to stay longer.
My next point has to do with the independent pay review body that is scheduled to be stood up next year. We all appreciate that the Commission on the Defence Forces will make its interim report in December, but when will the independent pay review body be established? Will it be in January 2022 or later? If the Minister signalled it would be established as soon as possible, it would help retention by giving people hope.
To summarise, what are the Minister's views on extending the seagoing service commitment scheme to people with less than three years' service, will the Naval Service tax credit be pegged to the seafarers' allowance, which is four times larger, and will he signal when he believes the independent pay review body will be established next year?
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and engagement. I broadly support the collaboration as proposed, but I will drill into the details of a couple of gaps we may have in an attempt to understand whether our participation will bridge them.
Deputy Gannon raised an interesting point on undersea cables and surveillance. There was a significant incident about 12 months ago in which aircraft circled what is called spaghetti junction off the south-west coast. It was suggested this was an intercept operation, certainly a mapping of some sort, to try to trace those cables, albeit from the air. It was very apparent the target was undersea cables. Part of our offering for locating foreign direct investment and the headquarters of multinationals' EU operations in Ireland, primarily in Dublin, has been the security and integrity of the data sets they keep and the data transfers to the US. There are data protection and other issues around that which I will not get into today. Can we stand over physical security not being compromised? Does this project enhance that? I hope and expect that it would, but the Minister might comment on that. Are any other measures being taken to secure those assets and transfers and to have maritime surveillance on the undersea cables that would be of significant interest?
The next point is on protection of assets of a different sort, such as natural resources. There is some degree of fossil fuel exploration off the west coast at the moment. We are, thankfully, moving on from that to a more wind based and renewable energy based space. I anticipate, and hope, that in the next number of years we will see development of significant offshore wind energy. To what extent, if any, will the likes of this project help to secure and monitor those assets from harm, whether hostile, just weather events or other factors coming across the horizon? Is it envisaged that our energy security will be enhanced as part of this, through those kind of offshore energy assets?
My third point is slightly different and goes back to Brexit issues. We have had some at-sea skirmishes, as it were. We had the Rockall incident with Scottish or Irish ships, perhaps a bit of both, being turned back. The voisinage dispute is now resolved, but the issues were there at the same time. Where our territorial seas end and the UK seas begin is now a European border as well. To what extent will that feature in this programme? Will it assist with these types of issues and engagements when they arise?
I thank the Minister for his time this afternoon. As part of the Common Security and Defence Policy, does MARSUR oblige the State to align our foreign or defence policies to those of other member states? If it does, is there a presumption that Irish interests and the interests of other member states will always align? The Minister spoke of spending money on our military and opting into projects. Is there, whether intentionally or unintentionally, a possibility of this quid pro quoof software for naval operations, creating a situation where the Government becomes over-reliant on this provision of software and hardware, thereby resulting in us not being able to withdraw at a future date?
The Minister also mentioned cybersecurity, which does not fall under the Department of Defence remit. We have spoken about this before and the Minister acknowledged his issues and concerns about that fact. How does the cybersecurity of MARSUR meet with the needs or asks of the Department of Defence?
I too would like to know the future impact of Irish participation given the retention and the recruitment crisis in the Defence Forces, particularly in the Naval Service. MARSUR ensures more funding from EU budgets for the arms industry, for obvious reasons, but it also includes technology. Technology has been developed by private companies with EU funds which has then been exported outside the EU to countries that would not, in any way, be aligned with our position on foreign affairs, humanitarian work and peacekeeping. In fact, these countries have a long and shameful track record of human rights abuses. How will the Minister address those concerns in asking Ireland to agree to this while knowing the potential is there for other countries, which have this shameful track record, benefitting from it?
I welcome the Minister to the committee. I am also interested in the area of cyber defence. I note we are participating in cyber defence training, which is hugely important because there is so much happening in that space at the moment. My question may be related to what Deputy Clarke talked about. On cyber defence, I ask the Minister how many personnel are involved, what is their level of expertise, do we have the equipment they require and what is the interaction with other member states? The Defence Forces have a huge and important role to play in this area.
I also note there is training involved in satellite communications. The Minister might tell us a little more about that. What is our role there?
I will answer Deputy Berry's questions first. I agree with his comment on the importance of the Naval Service. I live next door to a Naval Service base; Deputy Stanton lives pretty close to it. In normal times, I cycle down to the Naval Service base most weekends and sometimes run along there as well. I know it very well and I know many people working there. As Minister, I am more than conscious of the need to rebuild momentum in recruitment and investment in the Naval Service. We have invested very heavily in capital investment in the Naval Service in upgrading our fleets and so on, and we will do much more.
We are also committed to investing significantly on Haulbowline Island. Today, the Government made a decision to transfer the ownership of Haulbowline Island from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. When I was in that Department, I essentially took ownership of half the island in an effort to take responsibility for what was called the east tip, which is now a maritime park. At the time, it was essentially a slag heap in the middle of Cork Harbour. We will continue to invest in that island in improving the work atmosphere there. We will invest in accommodation facilities as well, in what is called block eight. We will invest in new capital equipment, including ships, in the years ahead.
The Naval Service has a strong future. I understand the frustrations but I also push back strongly on some of the commentary on the Naval Service, stating that it is on a downward trajectory and there is no hope for the future because it is not prioritised and so on. None of that is true. It is being prioritised. We have, like many countries in the world, a real challenge at the moment in recruitment and retention within the Defence Forces. Many countries have that. Since the Defence Forces are much smaller than those in many other countries, when we have significant numbers of talented people with specific skill sets in the Naval Service headhunted by the private sector because they are really good, we have a problem. We have to respond to that. We are doing so with tax credits and the service at sea scheme, which will, hopefully, be worth more than €10,000 over two years for people who are eligible for it.
We speak to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform all the time about the terms and conditions of that scheme, but it is not straightforward. Last summer, we wanted a simple and significant increase to the patrol duty allowance. It was not possible to achieve that because it would have been seen as a pretty straightforward pay increase. We could not do that in the context of public sector pay negotiations. Let us be honest about that. We had to design a scheme that did not undermine public sector pay policy and, at the same time, recognise the unique service in the Naval Service and the commitment that is necessary to go to sea.
Therefore, we designed the scheme that does not apply to everybody but applies to many people going to sea. If it applied to everybody, it would be considered by many outside the Defence Forces as a simple pay increase.
Let us consider what we are doing on pay across the Defence Forces. There is a 10% increase in the military service allowance to a restoration of pre-Haddington Road agreement levels and of certain allowances specific to the Defence Forces, including security duty allowance and patrol duty allowance. The patrol duty allowance for 120 days per year is worth more than €7,000 per year. There is also the tax credit of €1,500. On top of that there is up to €5,000 per year for seagoing.
There are many financial benefits to being in the Defence Forces as well as job security, a real sense of adventure and working for the State. Clearly, we need to do more because the overall package is not strong enough to retain people. Many people are joining the Defence Forces and we have a pretty tough system of qualification and training to get in because the standards are high, as they should be in the Defence Forces. I assure the Deputy that we will keep working on getting that balance right to get the numbers up to where they need to be. Of course, we also need to get the equipment.
Deputy Stanton had three questions. There are ongoing conversations on the qualification criteria to try to get more people in. Regarding tax credits, working within the Naval Service is different from a broader seafarers' tax credit, but I take the point. This was a tax credit that was agreed and increased by the Minister for Finance in advance of last year's budget. We will see if we can maintain that progression when it comes to the next budget.
The programme for Government makes a commitment to having an independent review body. Not everybody in the Defence Forces supports this by the way. PDFORRA does not support that approach and instead it wants to be affiliated to ICTU for the purposes of pay negotiations. Whatever path we take here, we need to ensure it works for the Defence Forces so that people feel they are valued and paid appropriately. The programme for Government has committed to setting up a pay review body quickly after the commission on the future of the Defence Forces makes recommendations. Of course, as part of its terms of reference, it is also allowed to make recommendations on pay structures. The issue of pay and pay structures within the Defence Forces will continue to be prioritised by Government either through the commission and its work or the subsequent pay review body. I have not entirely ruled out the PDFORRA request to build a connection with ICTU. We will look at that. I believe there are problems with it, but I do not have a closed mind to any of these issues. I have a political responsibility for everybody in the Defence Forces and we will keep an open mind on all these discussions.
Deputy Lawless asked about the undersea cables. I will read out a note I have because several members, including Deputy Stanton, have asked about it. The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications is currently undertaking an information gathering and consultation process with relevant stakeholders to inform policy development and decision-making in the area of international connectivity for telecommunications. As part of this process, a public consultation was undertaken late last year. The public consultation document highlights that international connectivity for telecommunications relies on submarine cables using fibre optic technology.
Ireland is connected to North America and to the UK by a number of submarine cables. There are currently no submarine cable routes from Ireland directly to continental Europe without traversing the UK, which is seen as an area for potential development. The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications outlined that resilience is built into the system to mitigate any damage to submarine cables. A high capacity and multiple routes provide resilience in the event of a route failure. Where damage has occurred to a cable, in the past the operators have shared a cable while repairs were under way. The current review of international connectivity for telecommunications will further inform this area.
The Defence Forces are aware of active sub-sea fibre optic cables landing on the island of Ireland. While these may present strategic locations for marine counterterrorism, the locations and security of these telecommunications resources do not rest with the Defence Forces.
Deputy Lawless asked about energy security. As with the challenges of Brexit from a fisheries perspective and from the perspective of maritime management in general, which is becoming much more complex now with Brexit, I believe that energy security offshore will become an increasingly important issue. We will facilitate the spending, primarily by the private sector, of billions of euro on building offshore energy apparatus, both fixed and floating, in the Celtic Sea, the Irish Sea and along the west coast. Those will be State assets that will need to be protected and I believe the Naval Service will play an increasingly important role in that regard in the future. I am trying to have diplomatic solutions rather than military ones when it comes to Rockall. I continue to work on that with colleagues in Scotland.
Deputy Clarke asked about cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a Defence Forces responsibility, but ours is not the only Department. No single Department looks after cybersecurity. The lead Department is the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, which is responsible for Ireland's cybersecurity centre. The formal Defence Forces personnel are very much part of that centre. Defence Forces personnel are on secondment to Europe's cybersecurity centre in Tallinn, Estonia. We need to ensure that the Defence Forces protect defence infrastructure from a cybersecurity threat that is very real. The Defence Forces will continue to contribute to the overall debate.
As Minister for Defence, I chair the joint task force that measures threats to Ireland and puts together the response capacity to those threats. Cybersecurity is in the top two or three priorities. The Department is very much part of the cybersecurity strategy in Ireland, but, of course, other Departments are also involved, including the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Environment, Climate and Communications; the Taoiseach; and Justice.
Does MARSUR III require Ireland to align our foreign and security policy? No, it does not. We have decided to work in tandem with many other countries because it is in Ireland's interest to do so, but it is also in their interests to take a European approach to maritime security. Just as we do with the Garda when it shares information and builds networks through Interpol or other networks, the EU is stronger than the sum of its parts by agreeing to work together in different areas that are strategic and benefit everybody. It does not undermine our neutrality or our independence of thought from a foreign policy perspective.
If there is one thing I know about the maritime domain, it is that it does not respect borders. If somebody wants to bring drugs into Ireland, when they are travelling through other countries' waters it is the sharing of information that allows the Naval Service to be as effective as it is, for example, in intercepting drug trafficking. The Naval Service is very effective at that but, without intelligence and the sharing of information, it is like finding a needle in a haystack. That is the practical reality.
As for whether we are becoming over reliant on the European Defence Agency, I do not think so, but we use it to the maximum effect we can. That is what we should be doing. We should be sweating this opportunity as much as we can to get as much out of it as we can to improve our own capabilities and capacity by sharing. If one takes the example of cybersecurity, the reason we are linked to the European cybersecurity centre is not because we want to become overly reliant on it, it is because we want to learn from it. There is a reason Estonia is where that is, and that is because Estonia was essentially under attack in terms of a massive cybersecurity attack and it has learned the lessons from that. We need to make sure that we are never in that position in the future by also applying those lessons here.
Finally, on the satellite communications, a research project that I mentioned earlier is another EDA project that we are involved in, but any new project that we buy into and are part of has got to go through this kind of process where I need to put it to the Dáil and the Government to get approval for it. There is nothing hidden here. On the satellite side, telecommunications and satellite technology is something that Ireland really needs to be part of given where we are geographically in the world and the opportunities that are there from that for us, in particular, to use satellite telecommunications.
I am reluctant to intervene. We dealt with Deputy Stanton's question.
I will move on to the second motion. I would remind the Minister we are now down to 26 minutes and I am keen to hear from members. The Minister, I note, has quite a lengthy opening statement. I suggest that he commence the opening statement at paragraph four and perhaps do his best to get through it as quickly as he can because I am keen to get Deputy Brady and other members back in.
I will try to do that. This is less of an ask per se and more of an outlining of the facts but it also applies to 2019. In truth, this is a little out of date. It is a procedure that we have to go through to explain. The reality is we are still involved in all of these missions and the 2019 picture is very similar to the picture today, although the numbers vary slightly.
The following motion was placed on the Order Paper for Dáil Éireann and has been referred to this committee:
That Dáil Éireann approves the report by the Minister for Defence regarding service by the Defence Forces with the United Nations in 2019, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 6 March 2020, in accordance with Section 13 of the Defence (Amendment) Act, 2006.
Irish troops were first deployed on UN peacekeeping operations in 1958 and since then, not a single day has passed without Irish participation in UN peace support operations.
As of 5 January 2021, there are some 586 Defence Forces personnel serving overseas in ten different missions around the world. Ireland has a battalion in UNIFIL and also a company group in the UNDOF mission on the Golan Heights. We also have other significant postings in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. For all these Irish men and women of the Defence Forces deployed on these operations, service with the United Nations is rightly regarded as a noble and important contribution in supporting Ireland's place in the world and our international and foreign policy objectives.
Ireland's main commitments during 2019 were to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights.
The UNIFIL mission was Ireland's largest overseas deployment during 2019. Due to other national commitments both Finland and Estonia withdrew from the Irish-Finnish battalion in November 2018. As an interim measure, Ireland assumed the full duties and responsibilities of the Irish battalion and continued in this role up to November 2019 contributing some 450 troops during that period. In November 2019, following an agreement with Poland to come on board as a key partner in this UN peacekeeping operation, Ireland reduced its contribution of troops in UNIFIL to 340 personnel with Poland providing some 220 personnel to a joint Irish-Polish battalion. Hungarian personnel also deployed as part of the Polish contingent. The Irish Defence Forces have had an ongoing relationship with the Armed Forces of Malta since 2009, providing both cadet and officer training. In 2019, nine Armed Forces Malta personnel also deployed as part of the Irish-Polish battalion. The UNIFIL mission in Lebanon continues to represent Ireland's largest overseas peace support deployment.
Ireland's second largest overseas deployment in 2019 was to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights. The Defence Forces contribution to UNDOF comprised approximately 137 personnel in 2019.
In September 2019, the United Nations appointed Acting Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien to the post of Deputy Force Commander UNDOF. Maureen O'Brien is the first female to achieve this rank in the Defence Forces, and is the highest ranking officer from the Defence Forces to serve in this mission. Additionally, she assumed the role of Acting Force Commander for the period October 2019 to July 2020, following the untimely passing of the Force Commander, Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri of Ghana in April 2019. We are very fortunate indeed to have Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien serving as Deputy Force Commander of UNDOF. She brings extensive command and peacekeeping experience to the post.
Since its establishment in 1974, UNDOF has been a successful mission in supporting the efforts of the international community, both in the Golan Heights and in the Middle East region more generally.
Government and Dáil approval was received in June 2019 for the deployment of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Forces to participate in the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, the UN-led mission in MALI. The deployment of 13 personnel to the mission, primarily drawn from the Army Ranger Wing, took place in September 2019. All deployed personnel are currently embedded within a larger German company and are carrying out assigned tasks in accordance with the mission mandate.
MINUSMA was established on 25 April 2013 by UN Security Council Resolution 2100 to stabilise the country after the rebellion in 2012. The role of the mission is to ensure security, stabilisation and protection of civilians; supporting national political dialogue and reconciliation; and assisting the re-establishment of state authority, the rebuilding of the security sector, and the promotion of human rights more generally in Mali.
United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO, UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, and UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO are also projects that we are involved in. Ireland continued to contribute military observers and staff to various United Nations missions such as United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, UNTSO, throughout 2019. In addition, a small number of Defence Forces officers continued to serve with MINURSO, the UN mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara - we have only two personnel there now - and MONUSCO, UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a complex mission.
On other UN mandated missions, the UN has come to increasingly rely on regional organisations including the African Union, the EU and NATO to provide forces to implement and support UN Security Council resolutions. In 2019, the Defence Forces were deployed in a number of such UN mandated missions. The EU Training Mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, is a good example of that. Ireland has participated in the EU Training Mission in Mali since the mission was launched in 2013. During 2019, 20 Irish Defence Forces personnel were deployed to EUTM Mali.
I have visited the mission near Bamako. We are working both with the UK and a German contingent. The objective of the mission is to train and mentor the Malian armed forces to improve their military capacity and their effectiveness in guaranteeing the country's territorial integrity. The other EU mandated missions in which the Defence Forces personnel were deployed in 2019, and are still serving, are the EU-led mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, EUFOR, with five personnel, and the NATO-led international security presence in Kosovo, KFOR, with 13 personnel.
I think I have given a good description of where we are. Our guiding star is the UN with UN resolutions, and UN mandated and supported missions. We operate across a broad portfolio of different missions. The two dominant missions in terms of numbers are the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon or UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights. It has been a somewhat complex mission in recent years for obvious reasons given what has happened in Syria, and the relationship between Syria and Israel. We think both have been very valuable missions in terms of experience and the Irish contribution in both has been significant, and certainly noted internationally. In many ways our Defence Forces on peacekeeping missions are a reinforcement of Ireland's approach to international peacekeeping and conflict prevention. Certainly, being a Minister for Foreign Affairs as well as a Minister for Defence has been very helpful in that context.
I thank the Minister. When one sees that the UN peacekeeping operations have involved 70,000 tours of duty it puts into perspective the amount of involvement that Ireland has had over the years and that pride, which is very welcome to see written about. I hope all of that translates to the much earned yet outstanding medals for A Company of the 35th Battalion of Jadotville.
That Acting Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien has been made acting first commander is a very significant event that deserves recognition. I hope that many more women will follow in her footsteps and will match, if not exceed, her achievements.
The Minister has spoken at length about Mali. His statement includes the following sentence, which sits uneasily with me but maybe that is due to the arrangement of words: "The mission aims include reforming the chain of command in areas of training, logistics and military policy to ensure obedience." Can he elaborate on what that may be, please?
I thank all of the members of the Defence Forces for the phenomenal work they have done over very many decades in overseas missions. They have catapulted Ireland right to the top of the international stage in terms of our standing as honest brokers. A lot of that stems from our neutrality and how we are perceived internationally so I commend all of the members of the Defence Forces.
Like Deputy Clarke, I commend Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien on her phenomenal achievement. She is the first female to hold her new rank and be a senior member of an overseas mission.
I have a number of concerns about Mali, in particular the 20 Irish Defence Forces personnel on the EU training mission to Mali, which was a decision taken without Dáil approval. The Defence Forces (Amendment) Act 2016 is quite clear about when Dáil approval is required in terms of the triple lock mechanism. The provision lays out clearly the number of personnel and how once the number exceeds 12 personnel the scheme must go through that process. I have serious concerns about this matter and the fact that the mission involved members of the Defence Forces providing training to the Malian army. I do not know how that can be perceived as a one-sided involvement in the current conflict situation. To my mind, that training goes beyond our traditional peacekeeping role. I would like to hear some views on the matter.
Can the Minister detail the role of the Irish troops involved in the training of military forces in Mali? Last year, soldiers who had been trained as part of this mission staged a coup in Mali. I tabled a number of questions and the Minister has confirmed that no Irish troops had been involved in the training of those soldiers. What EU forces were involved in the direct training of the Mali forces who went on to stage a coup? Does the involvement of troops in Mali, in the EU's military force, not undermine Ireland's standing as a neutral country? I think it does and the reputation that the members of our Defence Forces have built up over many years as honest brokers in areas of conflict. Does this training not undermine our position as a neutral country? I am concerned about our standing in the international community, which is a just recognition that we have.
I pay tribute to the Defence Forces personnel who have served overseas over the many decades since the 1950s, as the Minister said. I wish to remember those who have lost their lives so have given the ultimate sacrifice. We must remember that our troops working as peacekeepers is not a game and is a very serious situation. I am open to correction but I think more than 87 people have lost their lives serving abroad over the years. With respect to the United Nations, what is the position regarding the UN making payments to the Irish State?
In light of our seat on the UN Security Council, is the Minister aware of any plans for new overseas missions for the Defence Forces in this calendar year?
In terms of amendments to the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020 promised recently that would permit Reserve Defence Force specialists to serve overseas, can the Minister update us on the current status of the legislation? Report Stage is due to be taken in the Dáil and I would appreciate an indicative timeline.
Lastly, it is very good that the troops who will be deployed overseas in the next few months will be vaccinated prior to travel. Are there plans to vaccinate the troops who are currently deployed overseas, primarily in Syria and the Lebanon, prior to their return home?
On vaccines first, we have been insistent on ensuring that the Defence Forces before heading off on rotation whether it is to UNIFIL or the United National Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, are vaccinated beforehand. That was an understandable ask from representative bodies and we also wanted to do it, particularly given the role of the Defence Forces in the roll-out of vaccines, testing and so much more besides around managing this pandemic. It was not just a reward for all of that work. It was also a recognition that they are going to parts of the world where there is not the same level of control and protection from Covid.
The European Secretary General made pretty serious interventions last year to stop rotations and personal leave for people on peacekeeping missions and it was quite disruptive. I recognise the professionalism and flexibility shown by our personnel abroad in the context of an international pandemic. It was very challenging for many peacekeeping missions. We will vaccinate people before they leave, and we have also ensured that people get the appropriate allowances for the quarantine required before leaving. It is effectively the equivalent of beginning the mission early and getting the appropriate allowances and financial recognition for those sacrifices.
It is a bit more complex to get vaccines to our troops out there because we are reliant on the UN system and it is not as straightforward to give vaccine prioritisation. We will do everything we can. In any event, on these new rotations everybody there will be vaccinated before they depart, which will make that question less of an issue. The past 12 months has been somewhat challenging.
I have just been handed a note on the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020 and am looking for the relevant date. The Department is engaged with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General to finalise the legal text of the amendments I talked about. They will brought forward on Report Stage of the Bill. I am anxious to get on with that - yesterday, if we could. It is fairly straightforward legislation and the signal it gives to reservists is strong. It also gives a signal to the Commission, quite frankly, on the direction of travel we would like it to pursue. Far be it from me to lean on the Commission, which I certainly will not do, and there is a strong chairperson who will make his own decision on the direction of travel in terms of policy and recommendations. I would be surprised if the reserve was not a large part of those recommendations.
New overseas missions are unlikely this year but we are starting a process of reviewing peacekeeping missions more generally. We have been in UNIFIL for quite a long time and are likely to stay, and we have also been on the Golan Heights for some time. Those two missions have dominated Irish peacekeeping for a number of years. We have to anticipate where the UN and the Security Council will need expertise in the future. If we decide to change focus to build capacity for peacekeeping missions in some other part of the world, there has to be quite a long lead-in time from a training perspective for that. In the years ahead, we are likely to see an increased ask of Ireland from the UN, for Africa and across the Sahel in particular. Sometimes they are chapter 7 missions rather than chapter 6, and that requires a different kind of equipment and training to ensure we keep our people as safe as their training and equipment can keep them.
Although I sense some concern and criticism in regard to our experience in Mali, our involvement in both missions - the training mission and the UN mission embedded with a German contingent - is very helpful in scoping out new challenges for which the Defence Forces may need to prepare. That will not happen in the space of a few months; it will require two or three years of preparation time to change the emphasis in regard to equipment, procurement and training, and a different kind of mission will be required if we seek to pursue it. We are having that conversation within the Department of Defence and with the Defence Forces to consider some of those options. I do not foresee any change in missions this year, at least in any of the larger missions.
To respond to Deputy Stanton, we always have to remember people who have lost their lives abroad. This is serious stuff. The Defence Forces train as they do because they are in very dangerous parts of the world that can quickly ignite in terms of tension and conflict, as we have seen on the Golan Heights and, previously, in southern Lebanon with tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. There are multiple tensions within Syria and also between Israel and Syria, particularly with the forces linked to Iran. The potential for risk and danger always needs to be managed.
On payments from Ireland to the UN, a total of approximately €14.9 million was received by the UN by way of appropriations-in-aid in respect of UNIFIL and UNDOF. The amount outstanding at year end 2019 in respect of UNDOF and UNIFIL missions was €3.8 million. Ireland is not entitled to any reimbursement in respect of Defence Forces participation in EU-led and NATO-led missions as all troop contributors to such missions are responsible for their own costs. In 2020, the amount received from the UN by way of appropriations-in-aid in respect of UNIFIL and UNDOF was €13.2 million. We get back from the UN in the region of €13 million or €14 million every year in respect of those missions and will continue to pursue that.
Deputy Brady asked some important questions about Mali and I hope I can give some reassurance on the issue. As EUTM is a training mission, it does not require the same triple-lock systems. We are not sending Irish troops into harm's way but rather for a training mission, which is what it is. The Army Ranger Wing and its support staff, which is there with it and the German contingent, are on a different kind of mission but the training mission is just that. I visited the training facilities when I was last in the defence Ministry. It is about trying to build capacity, know-how, professionalism, discipline and all the other qualities that need to be built within the Defence Forces to enable them to operate as they need to in a very volatile and difficult environment, as has been seen in Mali over and over again.
Deputy Clarke asked about ensuring obedience. One just has to read the sentence in my submission. I referred to "logistics and military policy to ensure obedience to the civilian authority and the restructuring and training of units of the Malian armed forces." We are working to enshrine a sense that the Defence Forces need to be loyal to a civil authority. That, of course, was what the coup was about when senior military leaders took over the country, which was far from welcome or ideal. In any training mission, one of the most important points - Deputy Berry will understand this better than most - is that defence force personnel have to be loyal to civil authority because they are there at the behest of the government and the state, as opposed to their own interests in controlling a state. I am glad to say that in Ireland there is no issue with the relationship between the Government, the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence, although there are differences of opinion at times. In many countries throughout the world, the relationship between senior officers in the defence forces and government ministers, and respecting the civilian authority, constitutes a large part of training.
Respecting the civilian authority in a country is a big part of training. I seek to clarify that. "Obedience" might be the wrong word but the Defence Forces must serve the state and the democratic structures of the state as opposed to what we see in some part of the world, such as Myanmar with military generals running the country in a brutal way that is clearly unacceptable to the international community and the UN.
Brigadier General Maureen O'Brien is an inspiration within the Defence Forces. Despite the fact she is a women in that position and the highest ever ranking woman in the Defence Forces, not only is Brigadier General O'Brien hugely effective in her own right, she is so impressive that she may well be sought after within the UN system for potential future roles around advice and strategic thinking. In many ways, Brigadier General O'Brien is a trailblazer for what is possible and what we want, which is more women officers in senior positions in the Defence Forces. It is a shame she is coming to retirement age because I wish we could have her for much longer.
Jadotville was mentioned. We are doing what we said we would do. The Chief of Staff has a process under way to make recommendations on Jadotville, which I hope can bring this debate to a successful conclusion since it is the 60th anniversary of Jadotville in September this year. The Chief of Staff is focused on it. The process needs more time and he has asked me for more time. There has been an extensive consultation process and a huge archive of information and data to go through. We must give him the time and space to do it properly, so we get the right outcome and hopefully it will happen-----
I thank the Minister for joining us and the members for their contributions. The committee is proud of the work of the United Nations troops and appreciates what they do in perhaps the most challenging regions of the world. When he has the opportunity, I would be grateful if the Minister would convey to our troops the appreciation and good wishes of the committee for their ongoing work.