Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Defence Forces

11:40 am

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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10. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when he will bring forward a plan to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23503/22]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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12. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the efforts that are currently being made to implement the recommendations of the recent review of the Defence Forces; the way that this is likely to manifest itself in early initiatives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23753/22]

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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27. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the timeline for the actions that the Government is expected to take following publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23835/22]

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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41. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence when recommendations will be brought to Government following the publication of the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22658/22]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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48. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the extent to which the review of the Defence Forces is being implemented at present; the steps already taken and that remain to be carried out in this regard; if a degree of urgency will be applied to the work in hand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23752/22]

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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The report produced by the Commission on the Defence Forces received a very positive response from the public when it was published some three months ago. The Minister has read it, is very supportive of it and will not let it gather dust on a shelf. When will he bring proposals to Government in respect of the implementation of the recommendations in that report?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 12, 27, 41 and 48 together.

The answer to that is next month. The initial commitment was to do so before the summer recess. I then said we would like to do it in June so there will be an opportunity to debate it before we break up for the summer recess. This is arguably the most important reform and change to the Defence Forces since the establishment of the State. It is that important. We do not yet have consensus and agreement in the Government on the ambition levels we will have financially to respond to in this report. It is my job to go through the process of getting there, which is not straightforward because there are so many competing demands on the Exchequer at present. This is something fundamental to a sovereign state, especially in the context of the instability we see globally right now. Let us not forget the recommendations and work of this report were concluded before Russia invaded Ukraine. The new context in which the evidence base we now look at, which is highly credible in this report, is even more stark and more relevant in terms of the need for action.

It will not be easy to agree on this but there is a sense in Government of the need to do something of real significance and substance in this space. I hope that will be supported by Opposition parties too. It is my job to make sure that what we commit to do is credible in respect of timeline and budget, and that we do not overpromise and under-deliver. What we are asking of the Defence Forces in this report is very significant in terms of reform and change and we also have to make sure we deliver, as a Government, our side of the bargain, which are the resources needed to go with that change. This is about upsizing, modernising and growing capacity, strength and numbers over a sustained period. This simply cannot be done except over a five- to ten-year period to get to where we need to be. That is in process at present.

I hope those Deputies who are interested in defence issues will be vocal during that process because this is something about which we need to speak honestly to the public. I do not believe we have had an honest discussion with the public on defence issues for many decades in Ireland. This report gives us a real focus for discussion. What we are living through on the Continent of Europe at present gives us a context that cannot be ignored either.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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It is important to emphasise, as the Minister has done, the world has changed considerably and dramatically since this report was produced. I suspect the world will change even further by next month when we stand in the Chamber again for questions on defence. If we look at the fact that Finland and Sweden have indicated they will join NATO, the map of Europe will change significantly. The only EU members who will not be in NATO will be us, Austria, Cyprus and Malta. I am not advocating that we join NATO. Irish neutrality has served this country well, but we need to recognise it will be us, Malta and Cyprus, all island states to a certain extent, that will be seen as the sections within Europe that do not have the perceived protection of NATO.

I am happy to stay out of NATO and promote Irish neutrality. If we are going to do that we need to increase spending and have a coherent and proper defence strategy so I welcome what the Minister has said.

11:50 am

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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As I have said here before, I strongly support the recommendations of the review. It should have taken place many years ago. I welcome the Minister's response. I support my colleague. Things are happening quickly now. It is much more quickly than in the past. They are likely to happen equally quickly in the future. One thing we need to do now is to recognise the pivotal role that will likely be played by our Defence Forces in the medium- and medium-to-long-term and the necessity to protect the State and its interests and to be able to do that in a meaningful way notwithstanding all the other exigencies within which we must operate including the compelling demands on finance. This is also a compelling demand. It requires a rapid response now.

At every question time on Defence in my time in the House I have raised the need to equip the Defence Forces that they be ready, capable and able and to be properly and effectively run at every stage. I ask the Minister to convey to the Government the urgency of this situation as it unfolds before us.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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It is important that we set aside the debate that has arisen as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the context of the commission on the Defence Forces report and the course of action that the Minister and the Cabinet takes and that this House will then endorse by way of majority, which I assume it will. That is primarily because the conversation about neutrality is completely different from the conversation about ensuring that we have a Defence Force that is capable of meeting the responsibilities that we set out for it in terms of the defence of the nation.

There are various issues that have been highlighted in the commission's report around force strength. The Minister went into that in great detail. There is also structure, capacity, primary capabilities and the matter of personnel, their treatment and the practices within it. These are all of crucial importance. If we have a conversation, as I am sure we will, in the next six weeks about the ability of the Defence Forces to meet the demands that we set for it the minimum of option 2 which the Minister outlined is what we should pursue. I ask that he urge the Cabinet to support his own position on that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputies for their very informed comments on this. One reason why I wanted to be back in the Defence brief was because we had committed to a commission that I expected would make some very telling interventions on the considerations around defence that are necessary and can not be avoided any longer. We have fantastic Defence Forces. They do a brilliant job as peacekeepers and in the roles that we ask of them within the confines of the resources that they have available to them. But it is not enough in today's world to have the level of defence infrastructure that we have available to us when we know that more is needed. This is not about the militarisation of Ireland or anything like that. If we move to level of ambition 2 we will simply move from spending about one third of what other countries our size in Europe spend on defence to spending about half of what they spend on defence.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Minister please.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Therefore we will still be an outlier but at least we will be in a more credible position.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Durkan.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Do I not get longer when I have three people asking me questions?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am only reading the clock.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Yes but it is a bit strange when I am replying to, I think, four questions here.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is the Minister's Department that grouped them.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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It is five questions that I am answering.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I have two questions in the group. We cannot overemphasise the urgency and necessity to implement the commission's recommendations. I know that when the time comes at Cabinet everything gets pushed to one side. The Ceann Comhairle will know about this because we have seen it in our respective constituencies in the past. I ask the Minister to become really aggressive at the Cabinet table in dealing with the needs of the Defence Forces to ensure that they are adequately equipped, in personnel and equipment, to carry out their duties. There should never be a situation when we do not have enough ships to go to sea at any time or enough staff on board to be able to do the job.

The world has changed. That is true across Europe and we had better change with it. If we think our neutrality will defend us in the event of attack we have another thing coming to us.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy O'Callaghan.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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It is okay. I have made my contribution.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I firmly echo Deputy Durkan's remarks. After the Cabinet comes to its decision on the course of action to take implementation will be crucial. Our ability to detect and dissuade are two of the most important aspects of the commission's report outside of the personnel, force strength etc. On that I re-emphasise a point I have made in this House on a number of occasions around primary radar and our ability to detect aircraft which may or may not have their transponder operational. From a civilian perspective, never mind a military one, that is important. It is in the commission's report and it is important that the Minister would outline his commitment on that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The commission went into quite a lot of detail about what moving to level of ambition No. 2 means. It also goes into a lot of detail about what it would cost. That gives us a good basis for putting an action plan in place. But this is not a question about me being aggressive at the Cabinet table but about working with colleagues. I have already spoken to the three party leaders about this and I will meet them again. I think there is a recognition in the Government that we need to act in this area. There is not a country anywhere in Europe that is not currently reviewing its defence and security arrangements on the back of what it happening in Ukraine. Therefore, as Deputy Farrell said, this is not a debate around neutrality at all but about capacity and resourcing and the ability of the Defence Forces to be able to deliver the tasks that we ask of them in a safe manner with the resources they need to do it, both at home and abroad and whether in the air, at sea or on land. I do not think that we have ever had a report that goes into the detail that this one does in terms of outlining where the capacity gaps are and where they need to be filled. Deputy Farrell mentioned primary radar capacity but there are other examples of areas where there is clearly a capacity problem that needs to be addressed. It does not happen by itself. The Government needs to make a decision to commit to that and put the resourcing in place to make it happen. The Defence Forces need to adapt to those new realities. All of that can and will happen under the guidance of the Government.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Richmond should just have time. He does not even want to introduce his question.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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It is too late.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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All right. Well that is the end of questions to the Minister for Defence then.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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If I may, I wish to be as constructive if I can. I appreciate that the Ceann Comhairle has little to do with this but the groupings this morning on the Defence questions were most peculiar. A number of questions were totally separate to the commission on the Defence Forces but the vast majority of the questions that were inter-related were not grouped. Some were grouped and some were not. It was a most peculiar set up. I have been watching and present since 10.30 a.m.

I ask the Department of Defence public servants who are grouping these questions to take a more favourable view of them. I do not know if questions on defence will be taken again before the Government will make a decision on the commission's report but it is important to put that on the record.

12:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The fact that the Minister did not feel he had enough time to deal with his questions which had been grouped by his Department is indicative of a problem. I am sure the Minister will communicate that to his officials.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We had the unusual situation today where a lot of the questions revolved around the one issue. We probably could have grouped 20 questions on the commission report and had a discussion on nothing else. That is because of the scale of the recommendations in it and how relevant they are at the moment. By the time we have the next round of questions, I suspect that questions will be put on the commission report as well, but it will be more focused on the Government’s action plan on the back of the report if, as I hope, we can get that agreed in June.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie. Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.