Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Military Aircraft Landings
3. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his views on recent discussions his Department has had with the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality and Defence on the need for an immediate overhaul of the manner in which his Department gives permission for civilian aircraft to land or overfly the State carrying munitions, given the scale of the number of such requests and against the backdrop of the growing destabilisation of the Middle East. [45023/15]
This question relates to whether the Minister has had contact with his colleague in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with regard to reviewing the practice of authorising permits for the transit of weapons and munitions through Shannon Airport. This is against the backdrop of the fact that last year permits were given permits by the Minister to take weapons and explosives through Shannon Airport on a total of 272 flights, the majority of which were used to take US troops between military bases and locations in the Middle East where, as Members are aware, a slaughter of innocent people is under way. What is the Minister doing to review the procedure?
My Department continues to consult the Departments referred to by the Deputy on each application received for permits under the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order 1973. I am in contact with the Departments in respect of the policy and administration matters related to the 1973 order. The primary purpose of the Air Navigation (Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods) Order 1973, as amended, is ensuring the safety of aircraft and those on board. The Deputy's concerns relate primarily to foreign policy considerations; these are not my responsibility.
The rights for civil aircraft to overfly and land for refuelling purposes are known as the first two freedoms of the air. Such rights are vital for the operations of airlines around the world, including Irish airlines, and it is only on rare occasions that a state would deny such rights. Civil aircraft being used to transport military personnel and goods have been landing in and overflying Ireland for many decades. The vast majority of the airlines operating these flights are from the United States and other NATO countries. However, exemptions also have been granted to airlines from Russia and Switzerland during the years. These flights are operated in compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation's safety rules. This period covers many international crises and military confrontations. Ireland has not sought to withdraw or suspend such permissions at any stage during this time.
I should also point out that successive Governments have considered the granting of such permissions to be compatible with Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality, which is characterised by non-participation in military alliances.
It is the Minister's responsibility, as it is his Department that grants the permits. I take it from his reply that he is stating he intends to do nothing to change the position. More than 550 permits were granted to airlines carrying troops, weapons and explosives to their forward operating bases, all from NATO countries, by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Moreover, they areen routeto areas engaged in war. Under the legislation the Minister cited, he is authorised to search such aircraft. It is part of his powers he has chosen not to invoke. When the Administration came to power, its programme for Government stated, "We will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law". I am aware, on foot of freedom of information requests, that munitions and explosives that could have been the components of cluster bombs went from the United States to Saudi Arabia. I am aware that the United States is facilitating illegal breaches of international law in Yemen in the massacre of civilians which is occurring there. Therefore, the Minister will be in breach of the programme for Government and international law unless he carries out the searches he is lawfully permitted to do before granting permits. I really do not know why he is not doing it. He might enlighten Members.
All of the actions I am taking and all of the ways in which I am implementing the legislation are related to the clear policy of the Government on neutrality and aviation safety. As I informed the Deputy in my opening response to her question, my responsibilities in this regard are clear. They relate to safety. I consult the relevant Departments at all times on any decision I make. I have done so and the Government continues to do so. All of the decisions the Government makes are clearly framed and undertaken within the powers available to me under the 1973 order. I have made available to the Deputy all of the information on of applications with which I have dealt, the origin of such flights and the reasons for decisions I have made.
The Minister states he is interested in safety, that he is not interested in foreign policy, but yet he is citing neutrality. How is neutrality advanced by him authorising the transit of 190 tonnes of explosives and ammunition to Afghanistan, where, as Members are aware, the Taliban is in control? I would think it not advanced in terms of the safety of people in that region or in Yemen. Perhaps the Minister might deal with an issue regarding the permits he grants. This time last year, the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport appeared before the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions and stated permissions were only granted based on strict criteria, that the munitions were not visible or on board, that everything was placed in the hold. In my court case earlier this year direct evidence was given that was not contradicted but was accepted by the judge without qualification to the effect that such armoury was carried on board aircraft in clear breach of the direction of the Secretary General of the Department. How does this advance safety, with which the Minister is concerned, never mind neutrality? I do not see how Ireland can claim neutrality, given that it is facilitating this movement by NATO countries and the United States, in particular. Perhaps the Minister might deal with the breach of the permits granted.
In any answer to the Deputy I never said I was not interested in neutrality. I have explained clearly that I have responsibilities in this area in respect of aircraft, that is, to their safety, as well as safety within Ireland's airspace. All decisions I make in that regard are focused on these objectives and taken in consultation with the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence.
The Deputy asked about the safety of the aircraft and the materials being transported on board. As I have indicated previously, flights transporting dangerous goods that are granted exemptions are generally carrying munitions such as cartridges, ammunition and some categories of explosive devices and fuses. These must also be packaged securely and on passenger aircraft, they must be stored in the hold to ensure they are inaccessible during the flight.