Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Ireland's participation in MARSUR III: Motion


5:35 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves Ireland’s participation in the European Defence Agency Project - Maritime Surveillance (MARSUR) Networking - Operational Support and Development (MARSUR III) pursuant to section 2 of the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.

I appreciate the opportunity to present the motion to the House following discussion at the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence on 30 March. In commending the motion to the House, I will briefly outline the function of the European Defence Agency, EDA, and the background to the programme that Ireland wishes to participate in. The agency was established by a joint action of the Council of the European Union in 2004, to support the member states and the Council in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future.

On 6 July 2004, the Government approved Ireland's participation in the framework of the European Defence Agency. Ireland has participated in a number of EDA projects since it commenced our participation in the agency in 2005 in the areas of force protection; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear; counter-improvised explosive devices, C-IED, training; military search training; cyber ranges; a joint procurement project for satellite communications; and indeed the previous projects related to maritime surveillance. As Deputies will be aware, all projects related to the EDA are voluntary and countries decide to buy into them if they want to, but certainly are not forced to.

The proposal put forward by me today is to seek approval for Ireland to participate in the follow-on EDA project relating to maritime surveillance, MARSUR, networking, operational support and development, MARSUR III. This is the third iteration of the MARSUR projects. To give some background on what the MARSUR project is, the main objective of the EDA MARSUR programme is to further develop a recognised maritime picture, RMP, exchange network among member states. An RMP is a picture or map that shows all vessels and activities that are present in a particular maritime area. It links to national and international data and information on vessels, the marine environment, infrastructure, etc., that have been compiled from various monitoring and surveillance systems.

The MARSUR project continues to enhance, upgrade and develop the capability for participating member states to share different levels of classified information across the network. The MARSUR projects have assisted member states, including Ireland, to combat drug trafficking, smuggling, illegal immigration and migration and international terrorism. Better exchange of information plays an important part in protecting maritime trade, the maritime environment and natural resources. This sharing of information, which is stipulated through the EDA MARSUR projects, also contributes to safety at sea. MARSUR III is an excellent example of where member states can come together, work with each other, and deliver a capability that can match the emerging threats in maritime surveillance.

Participation in this project will also allow the Naval Service to consult and compare best practice with other member states in developing the RMP and analysing it. Without the MARSUR III technical support, the systems in the Naval Service will be negatively impacted, and the expertise and technological advances that have been achieved to date will quickly become redundant. The MARSUR III project will last for six years with the possibility of extending for a further two. I will seek approval for Ireland's participation in the project for the life of the project, including any extension. The cost of participation is €50,000 per year for the life of the project. There are 15 other members states preparing to join the MARSUR III project, which is another indication of its value and importance. These include Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyrus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. It is a real mixture of countries, including quite a number of other neutral states.

As the State's principal sea-going agency, the Naval Service provides a unique sea-going capability. The Naval Service is tasked with providing a fishery protection service, general maritime patrolling and surveillance, and is ready to respond to, for example, an aid to the civil power request, a pollution incident, or search and rescue and recovery missions. The search and rescue and recovery mission is particularly pertinent given the recent support that the Naval Service has provided to the crew of the Ellie Adhamh. Having access to both national and international data on maritime surveillance through the EDA MARSUR projects is essential for the Naval Service to continue to discharge this important role.

The system has also supported the Naval Service in discharging its role in the Mediterranean Sea in association with other member states. Participation in this project will, therefore, enhance the capability of our Defence Forces to undertake the roles assigned to them by Government, both at home and overseas. I thank the members of the select committee from all parties for their engagement in the debate last month. As I said before the committee, Ireland's participation in this project in no way undermines our military neutrality. Ireland's participation in this project is about strengthening our Defence Forces' capabilities. I hope we had a good opportunity to give people the reassurance they needed at the committee.

The programme for Government and the White Paper on Defence are very clear on this issue. Our participation in projects like EDA MARSUR makes a lot of sense with regard to capacity building and support for our Defence Forces in the future. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

While we are here to discuss the motion relating to Ireland's participation in the European Defence Agency project on maritime surveillance, we cannot separate the MARSUR project from the larger and more substantive issue of Irish neutrality. We have heard, and will continue to hear, arguments about the benefits to Ireland of participation by Ireland in the EDA. What we will not hear from the Government parties is how this participation comes with the continuing price of undermining our military neutrality as a nation state.

We cannot debate MARSUR without an examination of the continual erosion of neutrality that has steadily taken place since the early 1990s, when Ireland failed to take the opportunity to follow the example of Denmark in establishing protocols that would exempt our country from involvement in the mounting campaign for the militarisation of the EU. Since then, the Government has committed Irish troops to EU- and NATO-led military missions, and to EU battlegroups led by NATO member states. We have witnessed the deployment of Irish troops to overseas training missions without Dáil approval in the service of foreign governments, which are guilty of some human rights abuses. A real danger has re-emerged following the departure of Britain from the EU, with the advent of Brexit, that the issue of an EU army will be once again allowed to rear its head.

It is a matter of record that leading figures in the EU are committed to the creation of a continental army. We in this House have a duty to protect the principle of Irish neutrality, a principle that has served our nation well. We in Sinn Féin believe passionately in the contribution that our Defence Forces have made and continue to make to our standing as a nation on the world stage. We believe passionately in the principle of neutrality. We believe passionately in the role that a militarily neutral Ireland can make internationally as a potential initiator of peace in war-torn regions as a nation with its non-aligned reputational status intact. Neutrality is one of the elements in the combination of factors that contribute to the strength of the soft power that Ireland can wield in international affairs. It is soft power from which our country accrues a level of influence otherwise unattainable to a nation of our size. We owe our election to the UN Security Council to our non-aligned, honest broker status.

I do not believe that neutrality is a passive affair. It is not an abdication of responsibility within the sphere of international relations. It is the licence we possess that offers us the opportunity to make a difference. This Government seeks to continue on a path that would lead to our Defence Forces' submersion within a larger continental force, where we would possess little or no influence and our Defence Forces would be subordinate to the command of foreign leaders in pursuit of geopolitical gains that heretofore were not our concern.

This Government seeks to continue on a path which would lead to our Defence Forces being submerged within a larger continental force, where we would possess little or no influence and our Defence Forces would be subordinate to the command of foreign leaders in pursuit of geopolitical gains that heretofore we did not consider our concern.

The actions of the Government will undermine the standing, credibility and effectiveness of our nation as an honest broker on the international stage. To this end, Sinn Féin believes we must oppose this motion. While it may offer some tactical gains in respect of technical nous in the area of maritime surveillance, it would come at the larger strategic and moral price of our status as a neutral nation state.

5:45 pm

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

At a time when our Naval Service is shockingly understaffed and the working conditions of our service men and women are in dire need of being addressed, we should be seeking to make our Naval Service fit for purpose and to look after those personnel and value them appropriately. The Commission on the Defence Forces is well underway. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chart the course of the Naval Service and our Defence Forces in general.

Instead, we are debating Ireland's participation in yet another joint EU exercise within the framework of the European Defence Union, EDU. This is being cloaked as a means of modernising the Naval Service to compensate for decades of underfunding by giving it access to new software and allowing us to collaborate more closely with our European neighbours. There is some innocuous language around a common maritime picture, whereby we will create a common image or map of vessels in EU waters under the European framework and access to the new MARSUR exchange system, MEX, software.

This all seems very positive and, indeed, some of it would be. Some significant issues and concerns remain, however, regarding the new elements being introduced to MARSUR. First, there would be the option of exchanging classified information within the network following implementation. While we should always desire close co-operation and friendly relations with all our international neighbours, questions remain concerning what types of information can be exchanged and what limitation will be placed on this protocol.

Worryingly, the stated aim of this initiative is to enhance MARSUR's operational use of Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, missions and operations. This could gradually erode Ireland's capacity to act independently in foreign and defence policy. This only makes sense under the presumption that Ireland's interests will always align with the EU bloc in this area. The fact that the majority of EU countries are also members of NATO should give rise to questions about aligning ourselves entirely with EU policy in the field of foreign affairs and defence, which could undermine Ireland's position of neutrality.

What makes this even worse, however, is that the stated policy of CSDP is to allow the EDU to take over certain areas of capability movement and security in respect of terrorism and natural disasters, but which will allow NATO to handle the defence of territorial integrity. In this way, the EU CSDP acts as a support to NATO strategy and policy, where they both act interdependently. Under current arrangements, Ireland is already acting in the Mediterranean with EU forces. While our activity there is absolutely honourable and saves the lives of many migrants every year, the fact is that it is done under Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, arrangements, meaning that NATO troops are freed up to take part in warfare elsewhere. Ireland does not need to be acting in a supporting capacity to any country participating in warfare abroad.

Under MARSUR III, the participating countries will share software in the context of the MEX system. We will have a common EU database, common EU maps and a common operating system. At what point will our services become so interdependent that it will be impossible to pull back? I was deeply concerned to find out at a recent briefing that Belgian military personnel could not remove themselves from international naval and ground force operations if they wanted to for this exact reason.

We should always collaborate with our neighbours. Joint development and procurement of non-deadly weapons and software, while maintaining our independent system, has a lot of merit. Joint actions in helping migrants have their merits, so long as it is not done with the intention of freeing up NATO forces for other actions. Data protection and cybersecurity collaboration, so long as Ireland maintains independent systems, absolutely has its merits. However, we can work with our partners without losing that independence and without losing our stated non-alignment.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Under the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, we are obliged to approve formally any European Defence Agency, EDA, projects and that is why we are debating this motion. I am not a member of the select committee, but I read the report of the debate on Committee Stage. Some of the issues just raised were not raised at that time, certainly not in those terms. My understanding is that we must be very careful in measuring our involvement in any EDA project, and that is why it requires the approval of the Dáil.

As the Minister has indicated, the projects we are involved in include cyber defence training, which is very important, because I think we are very vulnerable to cyberattack and it is something we must take seriously; satellite communications; counter-improvised explosive device, IED, training, which is an area we are expert in and in which we could give training; and military search capacity building to enable us to be involved in sea rescue etc. These are all things which merit deep consideration in respect of co-operation to develop our skills base.

Everybody I have heard in my time in this House defends Irish neutrality. It is a fundamental principle of our constitutional stance and our international role. Neutrality, however, does not mean being neutered. We do not take defence seriously. We talk about neutrality, but we have extraordinarily weak Defence Forces. Concerning the notion that we are going to be subsumed into a greater army, we do not have the capacity to be subsumed into very much right now. The real concerns I want to put to the Minister, which he will probably not have an opportunity to respond to now, so perhaps he will do so in writing, relate to the capacity of our Naval Service to do the various tasks it is assigned. Those tasks have now been extended because of the requirement to do additional fisheries patrols in the absence of Britain from the European Union.

I am deeply worried. I understood that in our own time in government, with virtually no money, we managed to provide four state-of-the-art, new vessels for the Naval Service, but several others now also need replacement. The flagship, the LÉ Eithne, has been scheduled to have been replaced since 2015. I understand that consultants are now to be appointed, or tendering for consultants to be appointed is underway, with a view to designing a ship. A huge amount of thought has already gone into that aspect, so why can we not go ahead and provide that vessel? I also understand that two former Royal New Zealand Navy vessels are being considered for fishery protection. Perhaps that is a good idea and maybe the details of that proposal will be given by the Minister. I state that because we certainly need to increase greatly the number of vessels we have.

There is no point in having new vessels, however, if we do not have the crews to man or person them. Last month, the Irish Examiner reported that the Naval Service had just 862 trained personnel. The agreed manpower level for the Naval Service is 1,094, which is already small, but some 24 more people are seeking to leave. I understand that at least two vessels are now docked for want of trained personnel.

All these wonderful projects are great, obviously if we have co-operation within the very strict confines of Irish neutrality. We debate that, and we should not exaggerate when we do not trespass beyond it. We should be co-operating with other neutral nations which are participating in these projects, like Sweden and Malta, with a view to developing and proudly seeking to promote our view of and approach to international affairs. I think that approach served us well in our campaign for the seat on the UN Security Council.

We are outgoing, we are supportive and we want to have the best training available for our personnel. My real fear, however, concerns the development of the skills needed now in a growingly technological world.

We need to have a new focus on defence because we are very vulnerable to incursions into our airspace and our seas, and we do not have the capacity to identify and resist those incursions without external help. I hope the Minister will begin to set out his plans to begin to rectify that in the immediate term. There is no point in having very elaborate agreements in terms of co-operation, upskilling and training if we do not have the personnel to man the vessels in the first instance and the adequate number of vessels to provide for the various tasks that we give our Naval Service.

5:55 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We had a detailed discussion of this motion at committee. The conversations we had were thorough and well-thought-through. At the time, I felt that the responses from the Minister were quite adequate in terms of why this motion is being brought forward and what we stand to benefit from it.

The contributions I made then have not changed. I will reiterate them here. There is a substantial difference between Irish neutrality and self-isolating for the sake of it. What is on the table here is not a threat to our neutrality. I am adamant in respect of fighting back against that suggestion. That has ramifications beyond this Chamber and I would not like to give the impression that it does.

On the idea of collaboration, we all agree, and it has been asserted both here and at the committee, that the idea of collaborating in respect of our defence and defence in a multitude of forms is massively important. However, we cannot just use rhetoric alone as a form of collaboration and say we would like to collaborate only on the conditions of X, Y, and Z, which will exist, without actually specifying how it will be done. What is being suggested here is quite reasonable, namely, the idea of collaborating on cyber attacks, against satellites, on bomb disposal and military sea rescues. To me, that sounds absolutely fine. I made the point at the committee that it does not go far enough.

When we think about the incursions into our spaces that have occurred over the past 18 months, they have occurred beneath our seas through fibre-optic cables, which represents a genuine threat to Ireland's space as a centre of power in respect of data and infrastructure. We have seen other powerful nations actually focus in on that. My criticism of MARSUR is that it does not go far enough in terms of protecting us against what have been genuine real threats to our space over the past 18 months. I ask the Minister how he intends to come up with a strategy by which we can defend ourselves when this happens, because it is actual threat. I also ask what the expectations of our involvement in MARSUR III will be. We are not paying a huge amount of money in respect of our contribution to being involved. We do not have sonar or massive vessel capability, for example, so what exactly are we offering or will we be expected to offer into the future?

There is also the very real issue of morale and the retention of staff in our Naval Service. We must highlight that issue and bring it to the fore in our concerns. When we table proposals such as MARSUR III, we should always be taking into account that to meet the relevant criteria we will have to improve X, Y and Z when it comes to the retention of staff in our Naval Service. I know the Commission on the Defence Forces has been established. On the issue of the European Defence Agency, EDA, I would also like to ask how we can ensure our vessels are manned, operable and the actual threats we face in respect of our air and sea spaces can be catered for.

I know that MARSUR III is an on-the-surface plan. I genuinely think that we have missed an opportunity here to consider what is going on below the surface, and that we are not yet capable of defending ourselves there. We need to be standing strong on that front, because I imagine that it is something that will represent a greater threat to us in the decades to come. It impacts our position as a centre of communications.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

What is at stake here? At the committee, the Minister said this was about avoidance of duplication and the enhancement of co-operation. More generally, Government supporters of these proposals have argued that they deal with less controversial issues, namely, military searches, bomb disposal, maritime surveillance, etc. The message really is that we should move along and there is nothing to see.

There is a context to this, which relates to the tasks of the European Defence Agency. Part of the discussion must be around defining what the European Defence Agency is, whose interests it represents and what it does. Before I get into that, I would just make the point that if we are saying that it is about secondary or tertiary issues, the Irish State taking on those issues frees up resources for other nations to deploy in the European Defence Agency's more overtly militaristic projects. I choose my words carefully.

What is the European Defence Agency? It was set up in 2004 with the mission to improve European defence capabilities. The total defence spend of the 26 EDA affiliate nations at the start of 2019 was €186 billion, representing an increase of 5% on the 2018 figure. Defence military spending had risen in those combined nations for five consecutive years at that point.

Who benefits from that? The arms industry benefits from that. The great German anti-militarist and socialist leader, Karl Liebknecht, once said: "For capitalism, war and peace are business and nothing but business." That is as true today as when he spoke those words. To be clear, we can talk about this being about maritime surveillance and military searches and so on. However, in reality, the Irish State is proposing to take on some of those tasks, which will free up the other nations in the European Defence Agency to engage in the more overtly militaristic tasks of the EDA.

I see the Minister looking over with interest at the points that I am making. I am not surprised in the slightest that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are supporting the proposal. I take my hat off to both of them. They are consistent in their support for proposals of this kind. However, attention needs to be drawn to and light shone on the fact the Green Party is supporting this proposal. That is not what the Green Party is meant to be about. That is not what many people who have built up the Green Party down through the years are about. It is not what many young people who vote for the Green Party are about. It should reverse its position and oppose this proposal for what it is. If it does not, people should note exactly where the Green Party stands on the issue. The same point applies in relation to the Social Democrats. I listened to the comments of Deputy Gannon when I came into the Chamber. I had - perhaps naively - thought the Social Democrats would be opposing this proposal.

It is a proposal that helps and assists the European Defence Agency, which has a militaristic, pro-arms industry agenda. Neither the Green Party nor the Social Democrats should have any truck with that.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to debate the final stages of this motion on the EU maritime surveillance programme. It is a project that I am very much in favour of. I am in favour of it for three reasons, primarily. First of all, it is very simple. From Ireland's perspective, it consists of just a single computer and a single telephone in the naval base in Cork, which will allow our navy to communicate securely with both voice and data to like-minded navies across the European Union.

It really is that simple. It is modelled on the same carbon copy on which the Garda Síochána's interaction with Europol is based. If the Garda Síochána can discuss matters from a security perspective with like-minded colleagues throughout the EU, I see no reason that the Naval Service cannot do the same on constabulary matters relating to the high seas. A cost of €50,000 a year is peanuts when one considers what we are getting in return.

The second reason I am in favour of this motion is that, as an island nation, it is absolutely in our interest to maintain law and order on the high seas, particularly in our territorial waters. The programme will assist the Naval Service to deter, detect and intercept rogue vessels beyond the horizon, before they make landfall in this country. It will interdict the smuggling of drugs, people and weapons. All Deputies know that every town and village in rural, regional and coastal Ireland has a drugs problem. The product is coming across the Atlantic in large shipments, at which point they are easier to detect. Once the shipments make landfall, they are broken into smaller consignments that are much harder for the Garda Síochána to detect. We must intercept these vessels beyond the horizon, before they make landfall to save the public from the scourge of drugs.

The third reason I support this motion is that, as a result of Brexit, our maritime security has never been more important. We now have a third country on our doorstep with a massive sea border. The land bridge is gone and we are much more reliant on our sea lanes of communication. We also have massively more responsibilities from a sea-fisheries protection perspective.

Those are the three reasons I support the motion. I am pleasantly surprised by the enlightened comments of Deputies Howlin and Gannon on the motion. They gave an accurate assessment and appraisal of the situation. I suspect their comments have not gone unnoticed in military communities and constituencies up and down the country. They are hugely appreciated.

The one concern I have about the MARSUR project is not the project itself but our ability to contribute to it. It goes back to the crewing of our vessels, as Deputy Howlin rightly pointed out. I fully appreciate that the Minister is working very hard on this issue but we have yet to see tangible improvements. As he is an accomplished mariner in his own right, he knows that a ship is only as good as its crew. We have a problem in the Naval Service from a crewing perspective. How is it that if we need an additional 600 customs officials for Brexit, an additional 400 Covid contact tracers or an additional 600 vaccinators, we can recruit and retain them, we cannot seem to recruit and retain sufficient sailors? I fully accept there is a multitude of reasons, but the dominant factor is that they are not being paid enough for the job they are expected to do. There is no point in tinkering with the peripheries on this issue. The elephant in the room is pay and it is an issue that must be resolved.

The reason this problem exists in the first place is that our sailors have no access to the Workplace Relations Commission or the Labour Court. They have no access even to pay talks to negotiate and barter a better deal. They cannot engage in any industrial action whatsoever and, as a consequence, they have absolutely no bargaining power. They are relying on this House and the politicians in it to defend them. The navy is in a very unusual spot in this regard. It is very capable of defending everybody else but it is incapable of defending itself from an industrial relations point of view. That is where we step in.

The Commission on the Defence Forces offers an essential opportunity to solve this problem. I am a little concerned, however, that the chairperson of the commission, when he was before the defence committee earlier this week, was very circumspect, which I understand, about solving the pay issue in the Defence Forces. It is very clear from the terms of reference of the commission that pay structures and pay systems can be recommended or advised against by it. I encourage the Minister, if there is any clarification required from a terms of reference point of view, that such clarification be given to ensure the commission has the appropriate powers, independence and autonomy to solve this problem once and for all.

6:05 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath. Ireland's involvement in European Defence Agency projects is underpinned by the Defence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. It is important to note that the legislation states that any participation in such projects can be only for the purposes of enhancing capabilities for UN missions. In addition, our participation is contingent on those UN missions having the stated aim of peacekeeping, crisis management and conflict prevention.

The Government has consistently advanced motions such as this one through the Oireachtas while, at the same time, not showing a similar level of urgency in dealing with the concerns of the Defence Forces. It is deeply disappointing that the issue of pay and conditions, which we have often discussed in the House, does not receive the same level of attention. There have been many promises by this Government and the previous one on this issue, but there has been little progress. Will the Minister outline to the House the situation regarding pay and conditions and the core issues around defence-related expenditure?

These issues must be addressed. The time for rhetoric and empty promises has long passed. Our Defence Forces have a proud history of peacekeeping, yet they are being let down by the Government, with levels of remuneration well below the minimum wage. It is vital that the men and women of our Defence Forces have access to the very best training, expertise and modern technologies in order that they are properly equipped in their peacekeeping duties. Our Defence Force members have world-class skills and abilities in the area of peacekeeping.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak to this motion on the European Defence Agency. The Government is good at bringing these motions forward and having them passed in the House. Like other Deputies, I have the utmost respect for our Army and navy. We need to support, respect and pay their members. We are doing none of that other than paying lip service to it. We have seen during the Covid pandemic how important the Army has been to us in helping with quarantine arrangements and God knows what else. The Army is always there, its members out on the roads and everything else, getting a fraction of the subsistence payments members of the Garda Síochána receive. It is downright insulting.

The Commission on the Defence Forces is looking at pay and conditions. Action must be taken on these issues. We have seen a flight of very experienced personnel. I suspect there might be much more of that when the airlines reopen and some pilots have gone on to different careers. Our Defence Forces personnel are highly trained and skilled and have spent decades of their lives in service. They simply cannot afford to stay in situ. That is a fact, not a political point. We are good at supporting the types of projects we are discussing and linking up with our European colleagues, but we are not so good at supporting our own. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Where is that attitude when it comes to our Defence Forces?

I have a further concern for this neutral country of De Valera, God rest him. I am worried by the things that are going on in Europe and have been going on for a long time. If we have European vaccine passports, this surveillance system will be used to spy on our own people, who must have vaccine passports to travel. Where will our freedom be gone? It was dearly fought for by the men of 1916, 1921, 1922 and 1923. We have talked about vaccine passports during the Covid debates in this House. However, in 2018 and 2019, committees of the EU were looking at vaccine passports, before we ever had a pandemic or so-called pandemic. The issue was being discussed at that time and the minutes of the meetings are on the record. It is known that the EU was discussing those proposals and how to roll them out. I have a deep suspicion now of the EU and of our participation in what is going on. Are we serving the people? I do not think so. We are serving greater masters, greater powers and greater countries. We also have Brexit and all the troubles associated with it. Is it any wonder we have it? The UK was not going to put up with that nonsense. It is a proud nation and we had many difficulties with it over the centuries.

We have to re-examine the situation fully. Just passing motions like this one without having a full understanding of what they are is not good enough. We certainly do not have that full understanding of this motion, although the defence committee looked at it and talked about it. Everything in here is gone very strange lately. To think that the Green Party is supporting this motion is amazing. I suppose it is a quid pro quofor Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being forced to support unpalatable measures in the climate action Bill. We are getting a Dolly Mixture or a Christmas cake. It is a damn bad mixture and I would say it will be a long time before the dough rises up to suitable proportions for the eating of a nice cake. It is not a very pretty cake. I say we should make haste slowly on this matter and ensure we have a greater understanding of what are the real issues behind it.

6:15 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate.

On 19 February 2019, in the previous Dáil, we debated a motion on the European Defence Agency. The now Government Chief Whip and Minister of State and then front bench spokesperson for defence, communications, climate action and environment, Deputy Jack Chambers, took part in that debate from the Opposition benches. He said at the time:

I note the breath-taking speed with which the Government and the Minister of State have advanced this business through the House. It is disappointing the defence matters of pay and conditions that we often discuss do not receive the same level of attention. We have had many promises about deadlines around quarter 1 and quarter 2 and we have had continuous delays, yet this proposal is being advanced within a two-week window. Perhaps the Minister of State could address pay and conditions and the core issues regarding defence-related expenditure in this House with the same degree of urgency and at a similar pace.

I wonder what progress has been made on pay and conditions for our Defence Forces since Deputy Chambers's party got into Government?

I also spoke during that debate more than two years ago. I spoke against the motion and at the time said "militarisation, EU defence integration and the overall global militarisation agenda is being pushed and shaped by private sector interests". That statement remains true today. The contribution of another Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan,also makes for interesting reading. I wonder what happens when people enter Government? Is there a cloakroom to hang some principles and policies and they get left behind as people move into fancy offices, surrounded by admiring advisors? Is it the cloakroom of electoral promises and morals?

The Twitter biography for the EDA states "The European Defence Agency (EDA) is the hub forco-operation". The word "hub" makes it sound like a cosy little get-together, planning military moves over tea and biscuits. On Tuesday this week, the EDA held a large conference entitled "Impact of Disruptive Technologies on Defence". It had 15 speakers lined up for panels on disruptive technologies, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. The robots are coming so everyone be sure to be nice to your Alexa.

I have linked with some colleagues and activists on this motion and was informed that things have been very quiet recently. There is an aura of opaqueness around this area that is not acceptable and does nothing to build trust. Artificial intelligence gets a mention as well. One take on the matter is that the EU must be ambitious if it wants to match the Chinese military. The chairman of the EU military committee, General Claudio Graziano, stated "the prospect of slashed defence budgets and cancelled training missions has weakened the EU’s ability to defend itself.” The four-star general told the Financial Timesthat the 2017 launch of a multibillion euro fund for military equipment and tech research was a step in the right direction, “even if not as fast as I would like”, while calling for a greater focus on technology and expanding international maritime co-operation, the latter being one of the PESCO tasks the Government has signed up to.

General Graziano’s remarks come as many EU nations ponder how to pay for the vast debts run up as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Military budgets across the EU are likely to be slashed to help cover the costs of the health crisis. There may be some benefit to this crisis if that is the case. According to the defence publication Janes, there is a forecast of a "noticeable slowdown" in military spending this year. Budgets across the EU continued to increase in 2020, up almost 5.6% on the previous year but they are likely to weaken in 2021, according to the magazine. Global defence spending increased 1.9% to $1.9 trillion in 2020.

General Graziano suggested the EU must continue to be ambitious if it wants to keep up with Chinese military reforms, stressing that the EU should focus on technological research and development in response to the potential threats posed by cyber and hybrid warfare, which involves political and economic aggression. He also warned of the future use of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, which is all grist to the mill of the European Defence Fund and its military-industrial cheerleaders. He noted that the EU would have to bolster its maritime security powers to help counter China’s claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. General Graziano stated the EU needs to play a greater role in the area with a "more systematic presence". So, can we look forward to the Irish Navy, when it gets crews ready, heading to the Taiwan Strait to protect "our" interests?

Other news reported that the European Union has approved its first defence research budget. The 2021 to 2027 budget is estimated at over €7 billion and has been "designed to foster an innovative and competitive industrial base to increase Europe’s military autonomy". First there was a pilot programme, designed by Brussels, called the Preparatory Action on Defence Research, which was "to test the ability of European companies to undertake defence research projects". A Spanish research institute, AITEX, based in Alicante, has been awarded the contract.

What exactly is our role in all of this? Do we participate at EU defence meetings? What is our contribution to the EU defence budget? How does our Government protect our neutrality in this? Perhaps the Minister and Government can explain that as well. So much money. What a waste.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank everybody who took the time to participate in the debate. I do not agree with all the views but it is certainly appropriate that with any of these projects, we have a debate and make an informed decision on the back of that.

We had the opportunity to discuss many of these matters and I thought, naively, that the conversation, including questions and answers, in committee had addressed some of the genuine concerns that Members expressed. For some Members it was as if we did not have that discussion at all. The same matters raised then were raised again today as if somebody else has written the script. Of course, everybody is entitled to make their views known but it is important for us to try to deal with the facts. What we are asking today has no bearing on Irish neutrality. Today we are supporting what the Defence Forces would like to see us do, which is to give them the advantage and opportunity to be able to share information via a secure piece of infrastructure that would allow them do their job more effectively.

Some Deputies seem to be suggesting that Irish neutrality equates to Irish isolation from all co-operation with neighbours, friendly states and member states that share the EU with us. A number of other neutral countries are part of this project, including Sweden, Malta and Finland. I presume their ministers are being asked the same questions before they opt into projects like this. It is what we are doing. Nobody is forcing Ireland into this space. We are choosing to want to be part of this along with many other countries because we think it makes sense.

Deputy Berry outlined three reasons for supporting this and they sum up the matter. This is essentially a secure database and communications system that allows countries to co-operate and give each other a heads-up because we share waters. As vessels cross boundaries at sea, we can share information about what is coming and going. That does not undermine our neutrality or lead to a European army or more investment in military activity by other countries. It does not happen because we are co-operating in sharing data and efficiencies, becoming better at stopping drugs coming into the country or giving us better search and rescue capacity. It is about giving us the capacity to choose to go to the Mediterranean to opt into a mission that saves lives. That is what it is about.

Of course there is a political debate around European security and defence policies and it is legitimate to have it. My position is and will continue to be that Ireland can be of most use globally and to itself by remaining a neutral state and not aligning ourselves militarily with any alliances.

Deputy John Brady raised the example of Denmark and suggested we should do what it does. Denmark is a very active member of NATO and totally unapologetic about it. It does training exercises with NATO. What is the Deputy talking about? This is not about compromising our independence or neutrality.

It is about co-operating in areas where we choose to co-operate because it means a safer environment for our Defence Forces. Let us consider the idea that we would not co-operate with other friendly member states that we co-operate with on so many other issues, that we share the Single Market, a customs union and a political union with, and that we would not co-operate with them on cybersecurity threats, on understanding what is at sea and potentially coming into Irish waters and on search and rescue capacity. Let us have a real discussion about what I am seeking the Dáil's approval for today, as opposed to having a debate on what is not being asked of the Dáil today. That is what I ask. I thought we had got to that point in the committee, where we addressed the issues of genuine concern. I believe there were genuine concerns about neutrality issues and whether there were compromises in this project of which we are seeking to be a part.

I take the points made. Believe me, I am in the middle of this in terms of the capacity issues in the Defence Forces, and particularly the Naval Service, in respect of human resources, recruitment and retention. We are taking that issue extremely seriously. It is a major priority for me. The commission is examining that as well. We are working with the commission and certainly not waiting for the commission to report to continue to work on the recruitment and retention issue. However, for the purposes of today's debate, I ask for approval from the Dáil to co-operate with other member states, some of which are neutral and some of which are not. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put.

6:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the next weekly division time.