Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

A multi-role vessel for carrying vehicles.

I know some people such as the Tory islanders who got the Queen of Aran, a very old ship, that I travelled on as a teenager, were concerned at the expenditure on items such as military ships when our ferries are so poorly resourced. That points to the general need for assurance because we have seen the Minister of State's party calling for 2% of the budget to be spent on defence at European level. That is also present as a goal in the Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, moving to a very high level of defence expenditure. That is a real concern for many. There have been indications of European social and structural funds being routed into military expenditure. Perhaps the Minister of State could address that. Can he assure us that Ireland's aid and overseas development funding is not being used in any way for military activity or infrastructure? That is important because people take great pride in our aid and development funding.

While on one level reviews are a positive thing, when I look at the regular White Paper reviews I am concerned that they will be used to increase military spending every time one rolls around. Can the Minister of State assure us that Ireland's neutrality will be firmly represented in these reviews and the rolling set of White Papers? I absolutely disagree with others who have spoken. Ireland is a neutral nation. Its neutrality is well documented and has been spoken about at the highest level, including at the UN Security Council. Ireland has both sought and gained recognition, opportunities, derogations based on its neutral status and there are infinite statements over many years about our status. I believe there have been compromises in certain ways by the use of Shannon Airport and by signing up to PESCO but neutrality is something deeply important to the Irish people. We know that surveys show that 80% of the Irish public support it. Given the apparent confusion on the part of some Members of the House I would like the Minister of State to assure us that all his Department's documents will reflect that neutrality. We can expect it to be very visible, not only in the reservations attached to the status of forces agreements, SOFA, which the Minister of State mentioned. He might elaborate on those reservations and how they mention neutrality but also on the White Papers on a rolling basis. Neutrality needs to be cemented. Can the Minister of State assure us that the Government will be strongly asserting our position as a neutral nation over the course of the next year? We know that if the United Kingdom were to withdraw there are many in Europe who would like to see a European army. Many senior Commissioners have openly stated this. Will Ireland make it very clear to our European friends and allies, who we value so much, that we believe our contribution to Europe is made as a neutral nation? Ireland was able, for example, to send Eamon Gilmore, as someone from a neutral nation, to Colombia to help secure peace there. This is the service Ireland's neutrality has done for Europe and the world.

Another border of concern is the one manned by the European Border and Coastguard Agency, Frontex. Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he plans to have 10,000 additional border guards on the borders of Europe. Will Irish military and security personnel be involved in that? Will Ireland be funding that? What is the Minister of State's perspective on that? The militarisation of Europe's borders has deeply undermined our collective human rights reputation.

In 2017 we debated Operation Sophia. The Minister of State said then that transferring to Operation Sophia will result in the redeployment of Irish Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue to primarily security and interception. Many people spoke about the pride we all felt when we saw Irish ships saving lives. I pointed out at the time that vote meant we were moving away from saving lives. Sadly, that has proved true. There is no longer meaningful search and rescue happening in the Mediterranean. Instead, we are supporting the Libyan coastguard and outrageous situations in Libya as highlighted by Médecins sans Frontières, Amnesty International and Irish journalists who have travelled there. More than 721 deaths at sea were registered in June and July 2018. Those lives might have been saved previously by Irish ships and humanitarian work. This is a really serious concern. How does the Minister of State view the future of Operation Sophia? How does he stand over Ireland's failure in this humanitarian work? How can we justify funding inhumane conditions?

Have any operations taken place outside the UN Security Council resolutions in respect of Operation Sophia? There has been a pull away from the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty. Can the Minister of State comment on Ireland's role in disarmament and how he plans to address the recent concerns of countries pulling away from our international disarmament infrastructure? Could he also comment on India and Pakistan in that regard?


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