Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Ceisteanna — Questions
National Security Committee.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent work of the interdepartmental group established to monitor the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10011/08]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if the interdepartmental group established to monitor the terrorist threat in the aftermath of September 2001 is still functioning; when the group last met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11367/08]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the purpose and remit of the interdepartmental group on security established in the wake of the 11 September 2001 atrocities in the United States; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15229/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
Having regard to the confidential nature of the work of the National Security Committee, it would not be appropriate to disclose information about the dates of individual meetings nor any of its proceedings.
The committee is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government and comprises representatives at the highest level of the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. It is concerned with ensuring that I and the Government are advised of high level security issues and the responses to them, but not involving operational security matters.
The committee meets as required and will continue to do so. In addition to their meetings, the members liaise on an ongoing basis to monitor developments that might have national security implications, in particular in the international arena.
I raised this matter with the Taoiseach's predecessor on several occasions and was informed that people with direct links with al-Qaeda cell groups were living in this country and were under close scrutiny by the Garda. Since his accession has the Taoiseach been briefed by security authorities on this matter? Will he comment on whether there is any evidence of al-Qaeda-linked cells operating in or living either in the Dublin area or in the country?
Is he also aware of the clear threat of international terrorism in that al-Qaeda has threatened to target the forthcoming European football championships? In view of our proximity to the west coast of Britain, is the Taoiseach satisfied that the protections in place at Sellafield will stand up to any possible threat or attack? Has he consulted on this matter with his counterpart, Prime Minister Gordon Brown? If he has not discussed this with Mr. Brown, is it his intention to do so, in light of the statement from al-Qaeda to target the forthcoming European championships?
We are all aware in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks and other more recent outrages of the scale of the threat posed by international terrorism. While there are no grounds to suggest that Ireland is at particular risk, the security services maintain a high state of vigilance. They are also in regular contact with other security services and there is an ongoing exchange of information and intelligence through fora such as Europol and Eurojust. It would not be appropriate to speculate on the matter of what persons may or may not be linked to terrorist organisations, except to assure the Deputy that the Garda Síochána closely monitors the security situation on an ongoing basis. This would include any activities that might pose a threat to international security.
The committee has an advisory role to ensure the Taoiseach and the Government are apprised of high-level security issues and the responses to them. The security services keep in close contact on these matters.
Can I take it the Taoiseach will raise the matter of security with his counterpart, Gordon Brown, when the opportunity presents, particularly in light of the European championships?
On the Order of Business in the House last week I raised the matter of damage to a number of vehicles during transportation to Chad. The Taoiseach will be aware that this is a logistically complex and very dangerous operation. Can I take it he has spoken to the Minister for Defence and that the necessary arrangements are in place to ensure our troops there are properly and fully equipped and that if these vehicles have either to be repaired or replaced this would be done forthwith?
What is the view of the Taoiseach and the Government of the threat posed by dissident republican groups on this island? He will be aware of the Independent Monitoring Commission's 18th report which refers specifically to Óglaigh na hÉireann. It states that in the period of the 18th review, this group was more than likely responsible for the murder of Andrew Burns in County Donegal on 12 February 2008. This is the first murder attributed to this group. The Taoiseach will be aware that in December 2007 Óglaigh na hÉireann launched a pipe-bomb attack on Strabane PSNI station. The report also refers specifically to the Irish Republican Liberation Army, the IRLA, and its involvement in the centre in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. The report is very specific in its references to these two groups. The IMC states in the report that all of these groups are aware of the publicity attracted once an incident occurs. Has the Taoiseach had discussions on this 18th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission? This is an objective and independent report. There is a clear threat of whatever magnitude. Has the Taoiseach an up to date position on this matter? Has he a current estimate of the numbers involved, whether it is ten, 20, 50 or less than 100? Is it the Taoiseach's considered view that either of these groups, or both of them, have the capacity to carry out a major act of violence either in the Republic or elsewhere on the island of Ireland? Is that the information available to the Government? Perhaps the Taoiseach could comment.
Earlier I said in relation to terrorist threats that the security services are constantly monitoring and liaising with other security services, as appropriate, to deal with that matter. I do not think there is any benefit in saying more about it, other than that, so it will not be misinterpreted one way or the other.
The situation in Chad is outside the remit of these questions. Operational matters are dealt with by the Minister for Defence. If the Deputy tables a written or oral parliamentary question to that effect, he will get an accurate reply.
As regards the question of dissident activity, the IMC report was positive but there is always a problem with some small dissident groups. Thankfully, our security services, including the Garda Síochána, have been very successful to date in ensuring the nefarious activities of such groups have not brought about the mayhem, or worse, that they have been contemplating. Monitoring has been taking place successfully in this respect and we are glad to report that such attempts have been thwarted. Gardaí will be particularly mindful of that issue in their efforts to quell any activity from that quarter, which has no mandate from anyone and must be dealt with firmly within the law. That includes bringing criminal proceedings where necessary and where evidence can be obtained and collated. It is an ongoing operational matter that the Garda Commissioner and his senior colleagues are co-ordinating. I commend them for the work they have been doing so far. I hope they will continue to be successful in thwarting those who seek to undermine everything that everyone else is trying to achieve.
The specific questions are about the operation of the committee and I appreciate that, for understandable reasons, the Taoiseach does not want to get into the committee's operational work. However, will the Taoiseach provide a general assessment of the extent to which people may feel reasonably secure that the Government and the State's security services, working with other security and intelligence services, are on top of the threat from terrorism? People are going about their normal business and are travelling abroad on planes or ships, as well as attending major events. Can the Taoiseach give them an assurance that our security services, working with other security services, are on top of the threat from terrorism? What is the Taoiseach's assessment of the situation in this country? Are we talking about a relatively small number of people who are posing, or are likely to pose, a terrorist risk?
The Government is satisfied that the necessary structures are in place to obtain, assess and act on intelligence concerning the threat posed by terrorism, including international terrorism. The highest priority continues to be placed by the Government and the security services on identifying and countering any threats that may have implications for this country. Obviously, there is ongoing liaison both bilaterally in terms of working with other intelligence services and also in the context of Europol and Eurojust, which is another indication of the importance of the European connection in this matter in terms of security and justice matters generally. Given the nature of terrorism and what it represents, there are absolutely no grounds for complacency. One must be mindful of the need to continue to monitor to the greatest possible extent. There are no guarantees in this line of work but, as I said, we are satisfied the necessary structures are in place to obtain, assess and act on intelligence and considerable resources are devoted to that effort. This has become more complex in view of the international nature of it. The source of that terrorist activity has changed. Clearly, it poses continuing challenges in terms of being able to track people who may be suspect or who may need to be monitored for any period they happen to be here. That depends very much on the level of co-ordination with services outside this jurisdiction.
A significant effort is being applied internationally and within the European Union also to deal with that matter. I do not think it serves any purpose for me to say any more than that since it is an operational matter dealt with by those charged to deal with it who are expert in that area and who have considerable experience, unfortunately, in terms of our own domestic situation in trying to keep tabs on some of these activities.
I wish to pursue a little further with the Taoiseach the extent, or his assessment of the extent, of the terrorist threat or the terrorist related activity within the State. The Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 allows the Garda to obtain the personal telephone records of persons who are suspects for terrorist offences which carry prison sentences of five years or more. The last year for which figures are available is 2006. According to those figures, 10,000 requests were made by the Garda in 2006 for access to personal telephone records. That is approximately 30 per day, which would suggest that the extent of terrorist related activity is much higher within the State than most of us would have thought. Will the Taoiseach indicate why such a high number of requests were made by the Garda for access to personal telephone records in its investigations on terrorist related activities in 2006?
We cannot draw an inference from the numbers mentioned by the Deputy as to the number of people who have been genuinely suspect; in other words, that relates to calls as I understand it. Therefore, in terms of a question, the matter could best be placed before the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who would have a more direct line of responsibility for this matter than me. I am simply advised generally as to the situation through the national security committee. I do not think the inference the Deputy may be drawing is necessarily the case in terms of the numbers being monitored.
Has the interdepartmental group in question discussed the implications of the Government's ongoing accommodation of US military flights at Shannon Airport en route to its war in Iraq? Given that we are currently hosting an international conference that is addressing the whole issue of cluster munitions, whose intent I wish every success, what assurance can the Taoiseach give that the flights using Shannon Airport are not themselves transporting cluster munitions to its war arena in Iraq?
Does the Taoiseach agree that, as these questions are all in the context of post-11 September 2001, there are, indeed, security implications and that we would have justification in being concerned for the people who are employed at Shannon and those who live in close proximity to it by the ongoing presence, regular and recurrent, of US military aircraft and with all the questions that have arisen and have not been satisfactorily answered in relation to the potential use of that facility and those planes for the transportation of prisoners by means of rendition, a term which has entered into the vocabulary? Does the Taoiseach not accept that the assurances of what I regard as the discredited Bush regime in relation to the whole matter of the war in Iraq are not sufficient, are simply not good enough and do not quell the justifiable concerns, questions and fears of the Irish people? Does the Taoiseach not believe that it would be appropriate to assuage public fear and establish the truth of the matter that the Garda should be instructed to carry out routine and regular checks of these aircraft to establish whether they were transporting prisoners and whether unacceptable munitions such as cluster munitions were being accommodated on such flights?
The role of the committee that is the subject of these questions is to ensure that I and the Government are kept advised of high level security issues and the responses to those issues. The committee has no role in relation to the wider policy or political issues of the type raised by the Deputy and, therefore, they are not relevant to this question.
I do not understand how these matters would be irrelevant to the remit of the committee. Our understanding is that this is an interdepartmental group on security established in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001. Surely the potential for an attack, which has been raised on many occasions by different voices in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001 and in the fact that the Government continues to accommodate US military overflights and landing opportunities at Shannon Airport, is very much within the remit and context of the interdepartmental group's brief.
I am asking the Taoiseach to clarify the reason he can make the claim that the interdepartmental group does not have a function or role in addressing these matters. Surely the group should have such a role if it is tasked with addressing national security issues. Surely this is a matter of national security concern which would merit address by this interdepartmental group. Will the Taoiseach explain why the group has apparently not addressed these matters heretofore? Will he not now consider that it should address them?
No, Ireland has made overflight and landing facilities available to the United States for more than 50 years. This matter had nothing to do with the setting up of the interdepartmental committee, nor is it relevant to it. Aircraft wishing to carry munitions of war on Irish territory can only do so with the permission of the Minister for Transport in the case of civilian aircraft and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the case of foreign military aircraft. There have been no applications for the transport of such munitions. As I said, the arrangements that are in place in Shannon Airport have been in place for decades under successive Governments.
As Members will be aware, Ireland, as a neutral country, is not part of any common defence pact and there are no plans to change that position in the immediate future. While I do not intend to overstate the position, does the Taoiseach agree that if the interdepartmental group were to examine the attacks of 11 September 2001, it would immediately ascertain that we could do nothing in the event of a similar incident taking place here? Are plans in place to deal with the possibility, however remote, of a similar event occurring here? Are there plans to purchase equipment to permit us to deal with such an event?
The Deputy will be aware that emergency planning is a separate issue which comes under the aegis of the Department of Defence. The Department deals with contingency planning in that area and what the military would be required to do to assist in the event of any such attack taking place. Considerable work has been done in the emergency planning area. The office of emergency planning was set up shortly after the events of 11 September 2001 to co-ordinate the work of the various emergency services in preparing contingency plans. The task force on emergency planning, which is chaired by the Minister for Defence, meets frequently to assist in that role. If the Deputy has further queries on the policies formulated since then, he should direct them to the Minister for Defence. The national security committee informs us of high level security matters, but we do not get involved in the operational aspects.
If evidence became available that an aircraft was coming in over the Atlantic with a terrorist intention, such as flying into a building, has this committee a plan in place to deal with it? We have no capacity to deal with it at present. Was a specific plan put in place by this committee to call in assistance so that the State could deal with such a situation?
A few years ago there were a few scares about the circulation of anthrax and other poisons in Ireland. Is there a plan to deal with that element of terrorist activity, be it by al-Qaeda or any other group? Has the committee any contingency plans in place to deal with these admittedly unlikely situations? Rather than just saying it is somebody's responsibility, are there plans that can be put into operation if something like that happened?
Military contingency planning is about making preparations for these worst case scenarios. That is precisely what our military people do. They put in place arrangements in the context of contingency planning. I do not have that detail here, but the Defence Forces are very professional and they are in a position to provide for all eventualities. I do not know the specifics of what assistance would be obtained in dealing with that matter, but it would be in place.