Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 October 2006

2:00 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will offer a commitment that no member of the Defence Forces will be ordered to participate in EU battle group activities overseas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32355/06]

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Question 12: To ask the Minister for Defence the progress made with regard to Irish involvement in EU battle groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32349/06]

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Question 41: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will reconcile his assertion, articulated in responses by him to parliamentary questions, that Irish commitments to EU battle groups will not necessitate extra defence spending with the demand made on radio on 4 October 2006 by Defence Forces representative association PDFORRA for more funding and manpower in order to meet their new commitment to EU battle groups. [32259/06]

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Question 46: To ask the Minister for Defence the level of commitment of members of the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps that Ireland will devote to a future EU battle group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32263/06]

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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Question 57: To ask the Minister for Defence the position with regard to Ireland's participation in the formation of an EU battle group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32261/06]

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Question 59: To ask the Minister for Defence the further developments in Ireland's involvement with EU battle groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32267/06]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 177: To ask the Minister for Defence the extent of discussions to date in regard to Ireland's participation in EU battle groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32565/06]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Question 178: To ask the Minister for Defence the extent of the training offered to members of the Defence Forces in anticipation of participation in EU battle groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32566/06]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 12, 41, 46, 57, 59, 177 and 178 together.

I have on many occasions in the House set out the background to EU battle groups, the development of which is strongly endorsed by the United Nations, and Ireland's position on them. Following the Government decision agreeing to Ireland entering into discussions with like-minded nations on a possible contribution to a battle group, a delegation from the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces met with their Swedish counterparts in Stockholm. The detailed parameters of a possible contribution by Ireland to the Nordic battle group are being worked through and are close to finalisation.

The potential Defence Forces contribution will involve an EOD-IEDD contingent with its own security detail, together with staff posts at the operational and force headquarters. The total number of personnel involved is expected to be somewhere between 80 and 100. However, it must be remembered that this level of commitment will only arise should the battle group be called upon to undertake an operation. In addition, battle groups are only deployed for between 30 and 120 days. Any contribution to a battle group will be met within the context of the overall ceiling of 850 personnel serving overseas at any one time set in the White Paper on Defence and will have no adverse impact on our existing peace support operations.

A number of issues are currently being finalised and I expect to shortly bring the matter to Government for a final decision. As I have previously stated, any deployment of the Irish contingent as part of the battle group will be a matter for sovereign decision, which in our case means the requirements of the triple lock must be satisfied.

Turning to the question of the voluntary nature of participation by members of the Defence Forces in battle groups, a battle group is simply another vehicle under which the Defence Forces may participate in overseas peace support operations and, as such, the standing arrangements for participation in such missions will continue to apply. In general, the despatch of any personnel on overseas missions, including peace support operations, is undertaken, as far as possible, on a voluntary basis. That said, however, it would be unacceptable if a mission to which the Government and Dáil Éireann were committed could not be undertaken simply because we could not get a sufficient number of volunteers. As such, all members of the Permanent Defence Force are liable for overseas service, subject to the provisions of the Defence Acts. I refer in particular to the Defence (Amendment) Act 1993, which excludes people who were enlisted prior to that enactment.

There are no plans for the involvement of the Naval Service or the Air Corps on overseas operations. However, individual members of the Naval Service or the Air Corps may be deployed on overseas peace support operations, as they have been in the past.

The Government's White Paper on Defence, published in February 2000, set out a medium-term strategy for defence covering the period up to 2010. A major objective of the strategy is to ensure that Ireland has a world-class military organisation capable of carrying out the roles assigned to it by the Government, both at home and abroad. This objective requires an ongoing modernisation process, including an investment programme, to ensure that the Defence Forces are properly equipped for these roles. With the extensive investment in new equipment and training over the past number of years and with the current policy of continual recruitment to the Defence Forces, there is no requirement to increase expenditure on equipment or manpower to meet battle group commitments. As I have already stated, any proposed battle group commitment can be met from within the existing ceiling of 850 personnel serving overseas at any one time.

Ireland's proposed contribution to the Nordic battle group is based on capabilities and equipment already available to the Defence Forces. A palette of potential offers, ranging from niche capabilities up to, and including, an APC mounted infantry company together with support elements, was identified as part of the study on battle groups undertaken by the interdepartmental working group I established to examine the issue. As such, the capabilities and the requisite equipment in respect of each potential offer already resides within the Defence Forces and any commitment from the palette will not give rise to additional manpower or expenditure requirements.

Regarding training for battle groups, most training will take place in the contributing member states, that is, Irish troops will mainly be trained in Ireland. That said, some level of joint training with other battle group elements will be an imperative. The extent of any such joint training and whether training will extend to exercising is a matter for decision by battle group participants. No such training has taken place to date.

The Attorney General has advised that there is a constitutional impediment to training of foreign troops in Ireland. As such, there are no plans for training of foreign troops in Ireland. However, as we are not a framework nation that should not be a problem. Sweden has confirmed, as framework nation for the Nordic battle group, that there will be no requirement for joint training or exercises by the Nordic battle group in Ireland.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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That was an interesting answer. The Minister said the personnel involved should be deployed on a voluntary basis as far as possible. Will the Minister agree that section 4 of this year's Defence (Amendment) Act provides for the secondary conscription of Defence Forces personnel to undertake overseas services? Until now, the attitude of the soldiers in the Defence Forces, and I am mindful of the word "defence" in that title, was civic-minded and the numbers volunteering usually exceeded the numbers required. That attitude has been welcomed throughout the world in terms of United Nations missions abroad.

Will the Minister communicate with PDFORRA whose general secretary expressed major concern at the annual conference last week about the shift that section 4 of the Defence (Amendment) Act allows? I do not know if the Minister is aware that the general secretary stated that personnel involved in these activities have always done so on a voluntary basis and that the organisation would pursue all means to defend the voluntary rights of its members on this matter. That could create a crisis and I urge the Minister to ensure, if possible, that the situation that existed prior to the 2006 Act, and perhaps even prior to the 1993 Act, is endorsed in that members who join the Defence Forces should only be obliged to serve overseas if they volunteer to do so.

Am I correct in stating that the majority of members of the Defence Forces join to defend the State's sovereignty rather than take part in overseas missions or battle groups in operations throughout the world? Since our foreign affairs position has changed in that we will now take part in battle groups, will consideration be given to have 2006 as the cut-off date and that those who joined prior to that would be excused from any secondary conscription for operations overseas?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to the speech by the general secretary of PDFORRA. I am very familiar with the speech; I listened to it as it was delivered and, along with everybody else in the hall, applauded enthusiastically when it ended. It was a very good speech.

Regarding compulsory deployment, the general position has been that when the Army wants people to take part in an overseas mission it uses volunteers, as the Deputy correctly stated. In fact, it is usually over-subscribed, which was the case in the present instance in Lebanon. I am open to correction but I understand that since 1993, the Minister for Defence has been able to deploy people compulsorily if a sufficient number of volunteers do not come forward. I understand also that on occasion there have been deployments of non-volunteers under the legislation when there was a shortage in specialist areas such as cooks, drivers, engineers, technicians etc. That situation will continue.

I understand that people who enlisted pre-1993 are excused from being deployed on Chapter VII type missions. If it is the law since 1993 that only people who enlisted prior to 1993 are excused, it makes little sense now to say we will excuse everybody who enlisted up to 2006. We would be unable to deploy anybody in that case other than people who may join in the future.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Or those who might volunteer.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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People who volunteer will not be deployed in that case. If we were short a vital member of staff such as an explosives expert, engineer or medic we would not be able to deploy them. We would have to go without them if we did not get somebody to volunteer. I am sure the ordinary troops and those specialists will volunteer but it is a residual right of the Government.

We are signed up to be on standby for the Nordic battle group from 1 January 2008 for a period of six months. If the Nordic battle group is deployed, subject to the triple lock mechanism we are committed to joining that battle group if it is to be deployed in certain circumstances. That is a commitment by the State and the State must do everything to ensure it meets that, including ensuring its domestic laws allow it comply with that commitment, if necessary.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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The Minister said there will not be any joint training in the context of the battle groups in Ireland and that that is not required because we are not a framework nation. In terms of the legislation we discussed before the summer and the proposal for assembling the battle groups prior to deployment, there would be areas where the troops would be assembled to allow troops from a number of nations to come together and await the signal for redeployment to the theatre of conflict. Is it a possibility or is it encompassed in the existing legislation that such an assembly could take place in this jurisdiction?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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That is not possible. The Attorney General has advised that no foreign troops bearing arms under foreign command are entitled to be on Irish soil.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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What about Shannon Airport?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Those troops are passing through. The situation postulated will not come to pass. The deployment of the assembly will be within the framework nation and everything will happen quickly after that.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister foresee a constitutional referendum on the matter of permitting troops to serve or train in Ireland?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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No.