Seanad debates

Monday, 9 November 2009

10:00 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am extremely grateful to the Minister for Finance for staying behind to hear the debate on this motion at a late hour.

This is a matter of military provision and also morality. I was able to change my vote on the Lisbon treaty on foot of a clear guarantee I had received from the Minister for Foreign Affairs that we would distance ourselves from the attitudes displayed by the European armaments group, now known as the European Defence Agency. I also changed my vote in the light of the fact that the Minister's brother, the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, had strongly supported ethical investment. This is a question of ethical purchasing. I will not hold the Minister personally responsible because I know he is simply reading a script and imagine his heart would be where mine is on the matter.

The state of Israel now stands at the bar of international public opinion because of the invasion of Gaza, the construction of the wall and so on. The Israelis have flagrantly violated international legal norms and are consequently disbarred by certain countries from particular investments. The Norwegians refuse to buy military equipment from them on an ethical basis. Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen recently stated, "We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international human rights law." However, the Irish Army has continued and extended the policy of purchasing military equipment from a company clearly implicated in the illegal activities of the Israeli Government and army in Gaza and along the wall. I remind the Minister that the wall, coyly described as a fence by the Israelis, has been adjudged by the International Court of Justice to be illegal. It has also been so described by distinguished members of his own family in this House.

I am referring to a Haifa based company, Elbit Systems, which has been given a multi-million euro contract to supply the Irish Defence Forces with equipment to be mounted on a new fleet of RG 32M armoured vehicles being built in South Africa. It consists of surveillance pods and masks for the new fleet. This is a considerable involvement in monetary terms. The Israeli company Rabintex Industries Limited received a similar contract a year ago from the Irish military. The company won a €2.5 million competition to supply 12,000 helmets to the Irish Defence Forces. Israel also supplied Ireland with an artillery fire control system valued at €1.5 million. I understand these matters were raised previously by Senator Doherty.

The involvement of Elbit Systems which is directly concerned in the matter of surveillance of the illegal wall and the appalling confinement of Palestinian people in what amounts to a ghetto makes this matter far worse. I previously raised the involvement of Cement Roadstone Holdings with one of the large cement companies in Israel, as a result of which some of us tried to maintain that it was complicit in the construction of the wall. Here we have a company which is much more clearly involved and complicit in illegal activities. This is very regrettable, especially since the Norwegian Government has already taken a principled stand on the matter. Mr. Halvorsen has said the International Court of Justice has stated that the fence construction breaches the fourth Geneva Convention, that Elbit Systems is clearly aware of exactly where and how the system is intended to be used.

In reply to a question in the other House, interestingly posed by Government backbencher Deputy Chris Andrews, the Minister for Defence said the contract had been awarded on the basis of an open competition and that the code of conduct on defence procurement was observed, that competitions were advertised by the European Defence Agency, including the tender competition in this case. That was an absolutely shameful answer and I anticipate that the Minister for Finance will tonight have the miserable responsibility of reading out such discredited words. I pity him at this late hour of the night, with all the other problems he has so manfully confronted. I am distressed to see such a decent man placed in this embarrassing and invidious position and will not hold him personally responsible for the tripe he is about to read into the record of the House.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Finance; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter this evening. It gives me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, to outline the position to the House. The Minister has asked me to apologise to the House for his unavailability to address it.

The position concerning the acquisition of defensive equipment for the Defence Forces is that, in the main, such equipment is procured from abroad, as it is not possible to procure such equipment internally in Ireland. The Department of Defence maintains an open door policy with its acquisition of defensive equipment.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is the line I quoted already.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Finance; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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The principles of transparency, non-discrimination and equality of treatment are applied to the widest possible extent to companies interested in supplying such equipment to the Defence Forces. Tender competitions are held by the contracts branch in the Department for the acquisition of a wide range of defensive equipment covering standard ammunition, weapons, armoured personnel carriers, light tactical armoured vehicles and a range of equipment for individual soldiers to ensure that they are suitably equipped to carry out their duties at home and overseas. The principal aims of such tender competitions are to achieve value for money for such equipment and to ensure a fair tendering process for all companies.

Earlier this year, as Senator Norris outlined, the Department of Defence initiated a tender competition for the supply of surveillance and target acquisition equipment for four of the fleet of 27 light tactical armoured vehicles that are being supplied by BAE Systems in South Africa. The Department of Defence conducts tender competitions in accordance with EU procurement guidelines.

For procurements of defensive equipment in excess of €l million, the code of conduct on defence procurement is observed and competitions are advertised by the European Defence Agency. The tender competition for the surveillance and target acquisition suite was advertised on the European Defence Agency website, as is the standard practice given the value involved.

Following an initial evaluation of the tender responses by the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces, four tender proposals were deemed to have satisfied the criteria. A detailed evaluation of tenders was completed and the contract for the award of the surveillance and target acquisition equipment, with a value of €2.37 million inclusive of VAT, was awarded to the firm referred to by Senator Norris, Elbit Systems, on 11 September this year. Their tender was considered the most economically advantageous one in line with the award criteria set out for the competition. The key criteria included functional characteristics and performance of the equipment, technical merit and price.

The four surveillance and target acquisition suites ordered for use with four of the armoured vehicles, are required to enhance the capability of the Defence Forces to carry out surveillance and target acquisition for overseas peace support operations. They will be used as an information-gathering asset and will enhance force protection and the safety of Irish troops on such missions. The four surveillance and target acquisition vehicle variants will be delivered in mid-2010.

The principle of competitive tendering for Government contracts is used for the acquisition of defensive equipment for the Defence Forces. Central to those procedures remains the absolute requirement to allow fair competition between suppliers through the submission of tenders, which are assessed on the basis of obtaining best value for money for the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces.

Tender competitions are held in accordance with the EU code of conduct on export controls. The tender competitions are open to companies in individual countries in accordance with the terms of all United Nations, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and European Union arms embargoes or restrictions. I am advised that there is no general embargo or restriction on trade with Israel currently and that neither Elbit Systems Limited nor Israel have had embargoes or restrictions imposed on them. The matter of Ireland applying a general trade embargo to Israel raises implications for foreign policy and is primarily a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I am aware that the Government has consistently opposed proposals for trade, diplomatic, cultural, academic, sporting or other boycotts of Israel. The Minister for Foreign Affairs recently stated in the Dáil that calls for a general EU trade boycott, the suspension of the existing association agreement, or the imposition of an arms embargo on Israel are not practicable as they would not have any prospect of attracting the necessary consensus amongst member states.

The Department of Defence procures equipment that enhances the capability of the Defence Forces on overseas peace support operations and affords the greatest possible force protection to Irish troops whilst on such missions. The procurement of modern defensive equipment has been a priority for the Minister for Defence in recent years. The purchase of such equipment has had a very positive effect on the capabilities of Defence Forces personnel, especially when faced with difficult overseas assignments such as in Chad.

The Department of Defence is obliged to deal impartially with all companies that enter its procurement competitions. It cannot pick and choose whom to deal with in situations where there is no embargo in place. To do so could raise the possibility of a legal challenge to the Department, which would result in the delay of the delivery of essential equipment to the Defence Forces.

The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces must evaluate tenders on the basis of objective criteria set out in the tender documentation. The award of contracts has to be on the basis of the most economically advantageous tender that meets the requirements of the Department and the Defence Forces.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. I ask that the report of this Adjournment matter be transmitted to the Minister for Defence so that he may consider it himself, as I do not hold the Minister for Finance to be responsible. He has made a strong, indirect argument for an embargo. The EuroMed agreement, which has been referred to, has human rights protocols attached to it. There is strong prima facie evidence of massive war crimes and human rights violations there. It is appalling that this EuroMed agreement has not even been examined with a view to being monitored. It is sad that fair competition overrules considerations of human rights and justice for oppressed people. The irony of the language is made clear when we are told that these materials are used for "target acquisition for overseas peace support operations". What exactly is being targeted in the name of peace? One thing I can see being targeted here are the rights of a desperate, oppressed and strangled Palestinian people. I thank the Minister of his courtesy and forbearance.