Dáil debates

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Cabinet Committee Membership

2:00 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach to list the members of the Cabinet committee F (national security). [50147/17]

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach to list the Ministers and officials who attend meetings of Cabinet committee F (national security). [51914/17]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The members of Cabinet committee F are as follows: the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade; the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform; the Minister for Justice and Equality; the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation; the Minister for Health; the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment; the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government; and the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for defence. The Garda Commissioner and Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces also attend. Other Ministers may be invited to attend, as appropriate, depending on the business in hand.

The committee last met on 7 November. That meeting was attended by: the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade; Minister for Justice and Equality; Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government; and the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. Also in attendance were key personnel from the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána together with a number of civil servants.

The role of Cabinet committee F is to keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to, threats to national security under review as well as to provide for high-level co-ordination between relevant Departments and agencies on related matters. The Cabinet committee allows greater ministerial involvement in preparing for and managing major security threats.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his response. Will the Taoiseach indicate the position on the prioritisation of those threats? Probably one of the growing and most significant threats relates to cybersecurity. Will the Taoiseach indicate the degree to which the national security committee has taken action to prepare the State in respect of potential cyberattacks? We know what happened in Britain, where the health service was overwhelmed. We know other countries, especially eastern European countries, have had their systems paralysed as a result of a cyberattacks. Often, these attacks are perpetrated by other nations and criminal conglomerates. Does the State have a programme of investment to enhance its cybersecurity measures?

Will the Taoiseach indicate where Ireland ranks now for a potential terrorist threat of the kind we have witnessed in London and the United States carried out by ISIS or others and the nature of our vulnerability? Will the Taoiseach give an indication of the dissident threat and how vigilant the Garda and the Army are in that regard? How concerned are they?

The Taoiseach took a decision to get a staff member to photograph him chairing the national security cabinet committee so that it could be tweeted. I gather the Taoiseach took umbrage the last time this was raised, taking the view that we are all back in the analogue era – we are not.

Officials and key personnel will change from time to time, depending on the nature of the crisis. Is the Taoiseach certain that security would not be compromised in some circumstances given the nature of the personnel who would be present? My concern relates to cybersecurity.

2:05 pm

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Táim buíoch den Taoiseach fosta. Apart from responding to the type of incidents the Taoiseach mentioned, does Cabinet committee A have any role in ensuring that An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces are trained and equipped to deal with these types of incidents? Does it have the authority to review and update the current national security and intelligence structure? The Taoiseach will be aware that in August last, EirGrid revealed that State sponsored hackers gained access to a Vodafone network it used, leaving its network exposed to attack. Has this threat been discussed by the committee and what defence measures is the Government considering in the light of these threats?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. On the specific role of the national security committee, has it given consideration to a matter I raised with the Taoiseach previously, namely, the need for a bespoke security agency which would separate security considerations from An Garda Síochána, leaving the Garda as a policing organisation and taking all the elements of security it currently does, together with military intelligence, the national cybersecurity agency and others, into a bespoke security agency? Has this matter been discussed by the committee?

With regard to the facilities available in the event of a national emergency, a recent weather event caused a nationwide red alert. We have a national command centre, which I utilised on occasions in the past. Do we need to review the infrastructure we provide for a national emergency, whether it is caused by flooding, snowfall, an attack or a nuclear incident in the United Kingdom, to ensure we have a secure command centre that will direct our response to any security threat that might emerge?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The security threat or the threat of a terrorist attack is set from time to time by the Garda Commissioner. I cannot remember the exact term used but the threat is at the second lowest of four or five different levels. It was elevated from low or very low to the next level up, either low or slightly elevated. I cannot remember the exact term but it is the second lowest level and it has not been lowered since.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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How many levels are there?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I think there are five levels but I cannot swear to that. I am sure the level is currently set at the second lowest level, which I think is called elevated.

As I stated previously, the membership of the Cabinet committee is not a secret and I have just placed it on the record of the Dáil. Aside from the picture that was tweeted, photographers have been invited into the meeting room in the past by the news media, as was a camera from RTÉ, and pictures have been published. The Cabinet committee's discussions are confidential and it is not the practice to answer questions relating to specific issues dealt with by the committee, for example, agenda items, work programmes and terms of reference. I can, however, speak generally about issues of national security and I am happy to do so.

Cybersecurity is dealt with on two levels. The first, the national centre for cybersecurity, had its budget increased in recent times. The Defence Forces also have a role in cybersecurity. We are very aware of what has happened in other countries, whether it is the WannaCry attack which compromised the information systems of the national health service in the United Kingdom, or cyberattacks on parliaments, including the Oireachtas, in recent years. We are very conscious that Ireland has many data centres and a large amount of data is stored here. We need to ensure that, as a country, we are very wise to the risks of a cyberattack and there is greater co-operation at European level on this particular issue. One of the specific discussions we have had around the European Council table has been on what European countries can do in terms of greater co-operation to manage these new security threats such as cyberattacks. We intend to do exactly that and we have also had some initial conversations with the US authorities about how we could share their expertise in and around cybersecurity.

On Deputy Howlin's question on establishing a bespoke security agency, I may be correct in saying that it falls within the remit of the Commission on Future Policing to examine whether we should have a bespoke security agency.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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That is correct.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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While it initially appears to be a great idea to have an agency similar to those in other countries, whether MI6, the CIA or similar agencies in smaller countries, when one thinks it through ones sees the complications that would arise. Notwithstanding that Ireland is a small country with much lower security risks than other countries, creating a whole new agency and disentangling it from the Garda and Defence Forces would be complicated and our national security could be compromised during the transition phase, which could last for years and be very expensive. I have an open mind on the issue and I am interested in hearing views on it and seeing what the Commission on the Future of Policing recommends.

The national emergency centre is used to co-ordinate these events. I believe I have covered most of the issues raised.