Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Permanent Defence Force.
The article to which the Deputy refers is the report of an interview with the Defence Forces' Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan, that appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, 27 December 2006. The interview was wide-ranging and the Chief of Staff gave his views on a number of current matters of interest to the Defence Forces, including their preparation for Ireland's involvement in the "Nordic" battle group in 2008, the question of hours at sea for Naval Service personnel, the triple lock mechanism, the threat to Ireland from Islamic extremists, current overseas missions and the changing nature of the work involved, the possibility of Defence Forces involvement in a future UN mission to Darfur, the effects of the Army hearing loss controversy on the image of the Defence Forces, the 90th anniversary commemorations of 1916 and the future use of members of the Reserve Defence Forces on overseas missions.
The overall impression conveyed by the interview was of a modern, highly motivated, well trained and professional Permanent Defence Force fully equipped to deliver a high quality service to the Government and people of Ireland and to take on whatever tasks may be asked of it at home or overseas within the parameters and constraints set out in the White Paper on Defence.
The overarching objective of the White Paper was to ensure that the State has available at all times flexible, well equipped and well trained defence forces, including an appropriate reserve, to meet the roles laid down by Government. The Chief of Staff has made a significant contribution to delivering this capability and his commitment is evident from the interview.
I have just returned from visiting our troops in Lebanon, accompanied by the Chief of Staff, and I am pleased to report that I saw highly trained, well equipped and motivated soldiers carrying out their peacekeeping tasks in a professional and competent manner. As a former member of the Defence Forces, Deputy Timmins will be delighted by the improvements that have occurred in defence in accordance with the White Paper and in light of the changed defence and security environment.
I had no difficulty with the interview per se. The Deputy probably knows better than I that the Chief of Staff has a distinguished record and I would be sorry if any shadow was cast over it by the actions of someone who leaked a letter sent by me to the Chief of Staff. There is a steady stream of correspondence between a Minister for Defence and a Chief of Staff.
As in any democracy, Army officers in Ireland speak on operational matters in general and do not comment on policy matters. Policy is the remit of the Government, which is answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the people. When a senior member of the Army is interviewed in the public domain, there is a possibility that today's clever media will drag him or her into saying something that should not be said, namely, something that casts a judgment on some aspect of Government policy. I am glad to say the Chief of Staff avoided that situation, but it was timely to write through him to the officers of the Army to remind them of the position in this regard. My letter contained no personal reference to the Chief of Staff. As the Deputy knows, if the Minister wants to communicate with Army officers, the proper way to do so is to send a letter to the Chief of Staff and ask him or her to circulate it. We have a responsibility to ensure that the situation obtaining since the foundation of the State is adhered to. Basically, I asked anyone who speaks in the public domain to stick to operational matters rather than policy.
Does the Minister vet all articles written by members of the Defence Forces or is he of the opinion that he should do so? He is concerned that a part of the letter ended up with a national newspaper. Does he know how this happened and does he intend to follow up on the matter?
I have no idea about how this occurred. Once one writes a letter to the Chief of Staff and asks him to circulate it, it becomes difficult to follow the trail. I do not vet the statements of Army officers in advance and I have no desire to do so. Occasionally, I take the opportunity to remind officers of their obligations, namely, that the Army is neutral. It has maintained a tradition of neutrality since the foundation of the State and has never commented on policy regardless of which Government is in power. I hope this situation is maintained in future.
There is a steady stream of correspondence between a Minister for Defence and the Chief of Staff. While I address many matters therein, I have had occasion to remind people of their responsibilities, which has been the practice of every holder of this portfolio since the foundation of the State.