Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Defence (Amendment) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to continue the debate on the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2011. Earlier, I dealt with the purpose of the Bill, the role of our Defence Forces and peacekeeping missions abroad. As I said earlier, I have always supported and commended their work on the international stage.
Sections 3 and 4 deal with the committee established for the purposes of identifying candidates and informing the Government of their suitability for appointment. These are important modernising sections, which I support.
Delving into the legislation, section 7 provides that the Minister for Defence, having consulted with the Minister for Justice and Equality, may request the President of the Circuit Court to temporarily designate a Circuit Court judge to perform the functions of a military judge under certain circumstances: where no person has been appointed as a military judge, where a military judge appointed under the principal Act is ill, absent or otherwise unable to carry out his or her functions, or where a military judge cannot properly deal with a matter before him or her. Again, sections 6 and 7 are modernising provisions and I commend the Minister on these proposals. On the broader issue, I see that no additional costs will arise for the Exchequer as a result of the Bill.
This is an important Bill. When we discuss defence we are referring to the Defence Forces, but we are also dealing with policy matters. I mentioned earlier our magnificent role in the United Nations. To mention a more up-to-date situation, I would very much like to see Ireland supporting the cause of United Nations membership for a Palestinian state. I believe the meeting about this will be held in September. This is a crucial thing for us to do. Ireland should support the cause of UN membership of a Palestinian state with 1967 borders in order to put pressure on Israel to withdraw to those borders. When one talks to members of the Defence Forces who were in the Middle East, in the Lebanon, the message is that we need to assert our own independent foreign policy line.
The current position of the Irish Government on this issue was expressed in the Dáil on 2 March 2011 by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who said: "It would be premature to declare such recognition now, in advance of actual control of the territory in question, a condition to which we in Ireland attach significance". That is something the Minister should be careful about. He seems to be saying it would be premature to declare such a recognition. Yesterday, members of the Technical Group met Mr. Sadaka of the Ireland Palestine Alliance - we have also met many Palestinians - and gave a commitment that we would raise these issues and push the agenda. We should also consider our own history, which was dominated by an imperial power, when dealing with foreign policy matters.
On the question of the role of our peacekeeping troops, I would like to see our troops deal more effectively with crisis situations. I mentioned battle groups earlier, but I would also like to see them use their clout and skills to move into areas in which there is famine and drought, such as Somalia. The issue of foreign aid is directly linked to this debate. I want the Government to use its foreign aid wisely. Every Member supports the principle of assisting the poorest of the poor countries and reaching the target of 0.7% of national income for overseas development assistance by 2015.
However, I have concerns about some of our partner countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda. Annually, Ethiopia and Uganda receive €37.5 million and €46 million respectively in aid from the Irish Government. Recently, Ethiopia placed an order with Ukraine for 20 T-72 tanks worth approximately €100 million and another for unmanned surveillance drones from Israel. Uganda has bought eight fighter jets and other military hardware worth €700 million from Russia. It is unacceptable that these countries can spend hundreds of millions of euro on military hardware while their people go hungry. Should Ireland give aid to countries that are arming themselves to the teeth? How would the IMF and EU react if Ireland started spending €800 million on weapons while cutting services such as special needs assistants? It is time for the Government to start asking hard questions on international aid.
I would like to see our Defence Forces develop a role in assisting humanitarian missions and conflict resolution. The Defence Forces also have to be given clear policy direction. I have serious concerns about the use of Shannon Airport by US troops travelling to and from Iraq. A recent opinion poll showed that 58% were opposed to such use while only 19% approved with 21% having no opinion and 2% do not knows. That is a clear statement on foreign policy coming from the people. Why has the Government not implemented this? I recall Labour Party Members jumping up and down about human rights when in Opposition. Now they have all gone AWOL since getting in to power.
We must stick to the independent foreign policy line when sending our Defence Forces on overseas missions. It is within a reformed UN and OSCE not the European Union that Ireland should pursue its security concerns. Ireland should pursue a positive neutrality and independent foreign policy rather than joining military alliances such as the WEU and NATO. Ireland must seek to promote European and international security through a policy of disarmament and oppose, therefore, the militarisation of the European Union. Ireland must also refuse to co-operate with or condone any policies or military groupings which maintain nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Irish troops should only serve abroad as peacekeepers under the auspices of the UN. I suspect there is a grouping in the Government that wants to see that political agenda changed.
The Army has played a blinder in dealing with delicate situations at home. It has been magnificent in dismantling pipe bombs planted by gangs across Dublin, particularly on the north side. I also hope the economic crisis does not distract from tackling gangland crime such as shootings in pubs and bombs under cars. No one seems to bat an eyelid anymore to the rising number of shootings across Dublin.
The Defence Forces have been reduced from 15,201 personnel in 1981 to 9,595 in 2011. I hope the Army will not be overstretched in dealing with UN missions and its State role.
The Defence Forces must retain the power to enforce discipline through its own unique code of discipline within the military justice system. This disciplinary code must support operational effectiveness. However, there is a right to due process. For this reason I welcome the opening of the new military justice centre McKee Barracks in 2009. It has a modern courtroom with a digital recording system, waiting area, consultation rooms and related administrative facilities.
The Minister stated earlier:
My concern in bringing forward this legislation was not to address the position of any individual but to put in place coherent legislation in respect of which there could be no confusion as to eligibility criteria and to go further by extending eligibility to a broader pool of people. I did not wish to simply address the circumstances of one individual.
Due process must be in place when dealing with such cases. The changes to the Defence Acts are both necessary and desirable. We need reform, accountability and fairness in this area.
I welcome this modernising legislation which contains progressive provisions. When we are devising policy, it is important the Government does not take its eye off the ball but keeps our independent foreign policy top of the agenda. Ireland has always been identified as such and has earned much respect for this across the world. However, I am concerned that if Ireland becomes identified with any power bloc this respect will be lost. I know from talking to family members and friends who served on UN missions that they want this foreign policy integrity maintained.
I thank Members for their constructive contributions. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter, will respond to the issues raised on Committee and Report Stages. The Bill will further enhance the measures implemented to date by the Defence (Amendment) Act 2007. It is also necessary to address the issues identified subsequent to the enactment of the Defence (Amendment) Act 2007.
The measures included in the Bill are proactive in the context of providing for an efficient and effective system of military discipline within the Defence Forces. In that regard, I am of the view that they will be welcomed by all members of the Defence Forces.
On my behalf and that of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter, I thank Members for their instructive and helpful contributions. I am sure the debate on Committee Stage will be equally as constructive as that in which we have just engaged.